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April 13, 2007

Review: 2007 Nissan Murano

When Carlos Ghosn announced the Nissan Revival Plan in 1999, rarely did he mention about making exciting cars.  All he stressed were improved efficiency and increased cost cuts all in the name of reducing the Japanese company’s debt to zero.  So why does the Nissan Murano exist?  Having a well-balanced knowledge in costing and engineering, Ghosn knew that in order for his plan to succeed, he must change the way people look at Nissan.  After all, it’s extremely difficult to sell a toaster for half a million pesos.  And so, hot after the heels of the highly successful (and profitable) 350Z, it was time for Nissan to concentrate on a more voluminous market: the sport utility vehicle.  In return, they got more than what they bargained for: it forever changed the way people looked at the Nissan brand.

Knowing Ghosn, he probably gave the Murano design team a two word brief to describe what this new SUV should stand for: “not boring”.  In the end, that’s exactly what came out.  Looking more like Luke Skywalker’s personal space shuttle than a sport ute, the Murano is extremely curvaceous.  And like Scarlet Johansson, it oozes sex appeal even if the rump’s a bit too big.  That said, some may argue that the Murano looks more Renault than Nissan.  Personally, I don’t really care.  Renaults are made by the French; and surely nothing’s sexier than the French.  C’est magnifique!

Inside though, the Murano turns a complete 180-degree turn and turns Japanese with its zen-like control layout and “floating” instrumentation.  It’s a safe haven for Nissan stylists who’ve stayed true to their formula of coming up with a logical and well-thought of interior.  Overall, you can’t fault the Murano’s cabin, but at the back of your mind, at P 2.65 million, you’d wish for a little bit more oomph in the visual impact department.  Well, at least designers remembered to check out the beige leather and fake wood and opted for racy black leather and metallic trim instead.  It bodes very well with the spattering of 350Z styling cues present.  Generally, the materials used are of good quality, but there are still some cheap bits such as the calculator-like display for the trip computer, again questioning the Murano’s retail price.

As its sporty styling suggests, the Murano is more car than truck.  Despite it being taller than its corporate sibling, the X-TRAIL, the seating position is no higher.  This results in a connected feel with the road.  Most major controls are well placed and logically marked, perhaps the only exception being the steering wheel which I found too close (there’s no telescopic function).  The secondary controls though leave a lot to be desired.  Uncharacteristic for Nissan, items such as the side mirror adjustment aren’t easily found (they’re partially hidden above the shift lever), and the clock/trip computer may look nice, but is hard to operate by tactile feel alone.  And that’s a shame really since the Murano really excels as a driving machine.  It feels sure-footed and nicely balanced through the corners as a mid-sized sedan.  Tire squeal is kept in check by its stability control system dubbed VDC.  Despite its larger than life 18-inch alloys, it actually rides pretty well, albeit more on the firm side.  That said, suspension travel is well enough to make it cope with all sort of Manila road obstacles.

Aiding the Murano’s stellar chassis is its equally commendable partner-in-crime: the 3.5-liter VQ V6 engine.  If it seems a bit too déjà vu for you, it should since this engine powers almost every Nissan from the Teana to the 350Z.  It’s also one of the world’s most award powerplants, garnering a spot in Ward’s Ten Best Engine Awards for 13 straight years.  Those unfamiliar with the VQ’s accolades need not scratch their heads with horsepower and torque figures; you only need to fire the engine to life to enjoy its creamy smoothness and unparalleled   quietness.  It’s rarely vocal; it whispers its way to a 6,000 rpm redline.  The dual exhaust pipes bellow out a sporty rhapsody at full throttle.  A word of caution though: the Murano’s diet consists of 95 octane unleaded.  Any less will result in a less-than enthusiastic coarseness at the engine’s top end.

Quiet and refined as the engine is, the Murano feels a bit weak on long journeys because of its CVT transmission.  Although the technology seems to benefit small displacement and hybrid cars, for a vehicle like the Murano, the result is less than exemplary.  The most noticeable problem is the lack of a kick in a straight line.  Sure, the Murano accelerates but it struggles to push its hefty 1,825 kilogram weight even past 60 km/h.  Another, and quite possibly the most irritating defect of CVT is the transmission drone.  It makes itself known at high speeds, interfering with the otherwise cathedral quiet cabin.

Despite its shortcomings, the Nissan Murano should be treated as a personal victory for the Nissan brand.  As a company on the brink of bankruptcy a few years back, it is consumer-oriented products like the Murano that really steered it back to the right direction.  At P 2.650 million, this isn’t a bargain Nissan and that’s despite all the luxury items thrown in for good measure.  What’s most important is that the Murano changed the way perceived Nissan.  With the Murano’s critical and commercial success, there’s little doubt that its combination of bold styling and good dynamics will one day trickle to Nissan’s bread-and-butter cars like the Sentra; and that is something worth waiting for.

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