Nissan has been in the business of producing SUVs for more than a decade now. The company's venerable Pathfinder is a staple in the automotive marketplace and has enjoyed a great amount of success. For the 2000 model year, Nissan introduced the Xterra, a new breed of SUV with a younger buyer focus. The Xterra continues to be an alternative to the Pathfinder for Nissan SUV buyers, but really not that far removed from the roots of the Pathfinder.

Enter the Murano -- sleek, low-slung, sporty, innovative. If Nissan took a radical step with the Xterra four years ago, the Murano is a leap. Its body style and substance screams cutting-edge, and this crossover SUV looks more like a concept sport utility from a major auto show than a current production vehicle. Its radical design may take some getting used to, but, in essence, this may be what is in store for the future of sport utilities.

The Murano, named after the elegantly sculpted glass art that comes from the islands near Venice, was created by Nissan with a definite objective in mind. According to Bill Kirrane, Nissan's vice president and general manager, "As Nissan's first entry into the crossover SUV segment, our objective was to develop a vehicle that truly stands out in the class in terms of styling, performance, comfort convenience, and technology, offering unmatched levels of both fun and functionality." Has Nissan met that goal with the Murano? After thoroughly testing the vehicle, our answer is -- it has come very close.

The first thing that strikes you about the Murano is its exterior styling. The vehicle's all-new exterior is a definite contemporary design, guided by what Nissan calls a "sculpture in motion" theme. The wraparound surface construction features an architectural-looking front grille, upswept D-pillars, a sloping hoodline, and steeply raked windshield. Additional styling cues include a lightweight rear cargo door for easier opening and closing and vertically-stacked Xenon headlights. And, the swoopy rear taillights put an exclamation point on the entire Murano exterior styling theme.

The Murano is powered by a 3.5L DOHC V-6, putting out 245 hp. This engine is derived from Nissan's VQ engine series, and is the same powerplant currently found in the Pathfinder. There's also an all-new Xtronic CVT (Continuously Variable Transmission). This transmission operates as essentially one gear, through the use of a belt and two pulleys. Basically, the transmission eliminates the steps between gears, resulting in a smoother, more efficient operation by keeping the engine in its optimum power range under a variety of driving and load conditions. An available system Nissan calls Vehicle Dynamic Control (VDC) improves vehicle stability by controlling brake pressure and engine torque, and a Traction Control System (TCS) is also available. An all-new AWD system is on call for enhanced all-weather performance and off-road situations, and a front-wheel-drive model is also available.

The Murano's suspension setup consists of a four-wheel independent suspension setup with multilink rear suspension, cradle-type front subframe, and high-stiffness stabilizer bars. The Murano sits on standard 18-inch rolling stock, featuring stylish aluminum-alloy wheels. Braking is provided by four-wheel vented disc brakes with Brake Assist and Electronic Brake force Distribution (EBD).

The interior of the Murano is nearly as fresh and innovative as the exterior, and features a fairly spacious cabin with a fold-flat rear seat and a wide cargo area. There's seating for five people, with ample flexible luggage space, and a variety of storage systems, including a two-tier lockable center console storage box. An innovative instrument panel is also included in the interior design, and there is aluminum trim throughout the interior. The Murano has sculpted front and rear seats, and the rear seats recline with a remote flip-down function, resulting in a large flat luggage area. There are available adjustable throttle and brake pedals, with a 3-inch range of adjustability.

The Murano is available in SL and SE models, both in AWD or 2WD front-drive versions. The premium SL trim adds a number of items to the base SE package, including roof rails, adjustable pedals, Bose audio system, cargo cover and net, a leather package, HID headlights, driver-seat memory, and four-way adjustable power passenger's seat.

On the Road
During a weeklong testdrive of the Murano, we found one thing to be readily apparent -- this vehicle definitely draws attention. When the Murano arrived at our offices, we had just finished a testdrive of a Hummer H2 and felt somewhat relieved that we would be getting into a less conspicuous vehicle (we were continuously stared at everywhere we traveled in the H2). We were wrong. The Murano received almost as much attention as the H2, although we suspected it came from a different crowd of enthusiasts. The Murano's outside styling cues are different from anything on the road, and like it or hate it, the vehicle certainly attracts attention.

Crossover SUVs are particularly hot at the moment, and it's easy to see why. These vehicles provide a sporty ride and ease of maneuverability, but with nearly all the features and capabilities of traditional SUVs. Weighing in at approximately 3,900 pounds, the Murano's power-to-weight ratio is fairly impressive, considering its 245hp powerplant. Add in its sportscar-like suspension and you have a quick and nimble vehicle that's certainly a joy to drive. Fuel mileage was also impressive, and we achieved nearly 19 mpg during our testing period.

Our SL AWD test mule offered comfortable and stylish leather seating, and the high-tech look of aluminum trim pieces, a progressively-styled dash and gauge cluster, and numerous interior amenities definitely impressed the senses. We particularly liked the fold-down feature on the second row of seats. By pulling two levers in the luggage area, the seats easily flipped forward on their own accord, providing a large flat luggage area -- one of the easiest conversions we have seen in an SUV.

The Murano is definitely not your standard breed of SUV, and why should it be? Progressive crossover vehicles are currently making a big move into the SUV market mainstream, and vehicles such as the Murano are sure to get the tide moving in the right direction.