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2003 Nissan Murano Photo
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How’s this as prescription for success? You design a new crossover sport-utility vehicle and show it to some potential customers. “One-third of them said, ‘Where do I buy it,’” says Nissan’s Darrell Ida. “Another third said `it’s okay.’ And the final third said they hated it…’it’s too futuristic.’”

Ida’s telling of the experience makes it clear those responses to Nissan’s new Murano didn’t concern him a bit. “If it were plain vanilla, everybody would like it.”

Murano is definitely not vanilla. The images on this page should convince you of that, whatever third you fall into.

The basics

The Murano is based on Nissan’s FF-L (front-engine, front-drive) platform, also the basis for the new-for-’02 Altima and next-generation (’04) Maxima due in February ’03. The Maxima was the target Nissan chose for the Murano’s performance as well, so it shares a version of the Maxima’s DOHC 3.5-liter VQ35 V-6 engine. In the Murano it produces 245 horsepower and 246 pound-feet of torque. It’s the Murano’s sole engine and it’s mated to only a continuously variable transmission (CVT) Nissan calls Xtronic.

While it’s their first North American application, Nissan has sold over a million CVT-equipped cars since 1992 in Europe and Asia. A seven-speed manual was originally in the plans for upmarket Muranos, but during testing it was dropped in favor of an all-CVT lineup. The Murano’s torque is the highest power delivered by any CVT sold in the U.S., and the Xtronic’s spread of ratios nets it EPA gas mileage estimates of 20 city/25 highway (front-wheel drive) and 20/24 (all-wheel drive) for vehicles weighing between 3801 and 3960 pounds.

You have a choice of four Murano models: SL and SE trim can each be ordered in front-wheel or all-wheel drive, the latter described as “a new small smart system” that’s normally front-wheel drive but can send as much as 50 percent of available torque to the rear wheels. Consistent with its “urban SUV” billing and sedan-based platform, the Murano gets four-wheel independent suspension, struts with a cradle-type subframe and a stabilizer bar up front, and a multi-link setup plus a stabilizer bar at the rear. Standard braking is outstanding thanks to four-wheel, 12-inch vented discs with four-channel anti-lock (ABS), Brake Assist (BA) and Electronic Brake force Distribution (EBD). All that hardware is connected to a variety of 18-inch aluminum alloy wheels wearing 235/65 tires.

Cool out

2003 Nissan Murano

2003 Nissan Murano

Enlarge Photo
Enough of the gearhead jargon — let’s get to the cool stuff. The Murano, named for “elegantly sculpted glass art that comes the islands near Venice,” isn’t going to be mistaken for anything else on the road. This vehicle is about style, inside and out, and I’m among the third that thinks it really works. Nissan says the exterior was guided by a “sculpture in motion” theme that’s a fusion of SUV and sports sedan. That’s as good a description as any. There haven’t been appliances this stylish since Raymond Loewy stopped designing toasters. The plot thickens when we’re told that its primary competitors are the Toyota Highlander and Honda Pilot -- neither likely to win any design awards -- but its image competitors are the Lexus RX 300, Acura MDX and BMW X5, all more aerodynamic, not to mention expensive, than the Pilot or Highlander.

Of all the notice-me exterior shapes, the upward sweeping, 45-degree D-pillar probably stands out the most. It might not work by itself, but combined with the rounded rear hatch and huge, flush-mounted taillamps, it does and helps tighten up the rear styling. To save weight the cargo door is constructed from a steel reinforced plastic compound. Nissan opted not to add a third-row seat, they say, because it would have affected the styling.

Though it’s a five-passenger vehicle on paper, Nissan offers that the Murano’s interior was designed “to provide first class seating for two couples.” The resulting interior grabs you. Its design and colors are the perfect accompaniment to the cutting edge exterior. Cloth seats are standard, but Nissan expects 65 percent of Murano buyers to opt for leather. Both fabrics are available in three colors: charcoal, café latte and cabernet.

Stepping in, steeping out

As befits a crossover SUV, the Murano has a low step-in height, fancy covered side sills that also keep water out, and a raised seating position. The front buckets are comfortable and separated by huge removable console that provides bi-level storage for laptops, purses, large tissue boxes or whatever. Facing the driver are three circular gauge pods surrounded by some of the real aluminum trim that highlights the switchgear, center console, steering wheel and shift lever. Hanging just above that shifter, seemingly suspended from center dash, sits a large panel containing all HVAC and audio system controls. Above and recessed behind it is a 6.5-inch LCD monitor that displays information from trip computer readouts to maintenance alerts. If you opt for the $1999 navigation system, you get a seven-inch screen.

Speaking of prices, the base SL (front-wheel drive) lists for $28,739, all-wheel drive adds $1600. The SE version is another $800, which buys you a sport-tuned suspension, six-spoke alloy wheels, HID headlamps, and dark silver lower bumpers. Besides the nav system, the only stand-alone options are a $999 sunroof, and later on, chrome wheels, not yet priced. Everything else comes via option packages. Nissan expects the most popular Murano to be the SL with $1499 Premium Package (roof rails, adjustable pedals, 225-watt Bose premium audio system/six-CD in-dash, speed-sensing auto volume control, cargo net & cover), $1299 Leather Package, and sunroof. That adds up to $32,536 as a front-driver and $34,136 with all-wheel drive.

Compared with the MDX, RX 300 and X5 those prices are more than competitive. To these eyes surveying the automotive scene right now, the Murano is about the most modern-looking vehicle on the road. The great mechanicals and other features are a merely great bonus. But then, I’m in that first third. Still, I’m willing to bet Nissan will have no trouble finding 50,000 others in the same category.

2003 Nissan Murano
Base prices:$28,739 (FWD); $30,339 (AWD)
Engine: 3.5-liter DOHC V-6, 245 hp/246 lb-ft torque
Drivetrain: Xtronic CVT (Continuously Variable Transmission) front-wheel or all-wheel drive
Length x width x height (inches): 187.6 x 74.0 x 66.5
Wheelbase: 111.2 in
Curb weight: 3801/3806 lb (SL/SE front-wheel drive); 3955/3960 lb (SL/SE all-wheel drive)
EPA City/Hwy:20/25 mpg (FWD); 20/24 mpg (AWD) 
Safety equipment: Driver & passenger front airbags; front seat side-impact airbags and side curtain for front and rear seat occupants; anti-lock brakes with electronic brake force distribution and brake assist; Vehicle Dynamic Control with Traction Control and tire pressure monitoring system (optional). 
Major standard equipment: Dual-zone automatic climate control; 100-watt AM/FM/CD/cassette, six speaker sound system; power windows, seats, door locks and mirrors; 6.5-inch LCD display monitor; cruise control; 18-inch aluminum alloy wheels
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles

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