Compared: 2010 Lexus RX 350 vs 2010 Nissan Murano LE

October 23, 2009

TheCarConnection.com has just updated our full review of the Murano for 2010 and thought it would be the perfect time for a little match-up...against the 2010 Lexus RX 350.

When the Nissan Murano was first redesigned for 2009, we wrote, "The 2009 Murano is just as smooth as the RX, definitely sharper in profile, and very nearly the Lexus' equal in interior refinement."

Then came an all-new 2010 Lexus RX 350, nearly a year later, and the rivalry was back on. Although the redesign the Lexus received kept its profile so intact that it might not even be perceived as a new vehicle, even a passing glance inside revealed a much richer cabin and more stylish instrument panel.

New with the Nissan's redesign was a Murano LE model, which was loaded with luxury features; today the LE costs just about as much as the base RX 350.

As it stands, both of these models have exterior designs that are the subject of more than a little criticism (the Murano's grille and exterior details have been panned by some), yet they're much more appreciated inside as stylish, luxurious conveyances, with some visual excitement and plush materials to satisfy occupants, even if there's not a lot of driving satisfaction for the driver.

We've had plenty of good seat time in both of these vehicles, so here's our comparison—both by the numbers, with some subjectivity thrown in to break an almost-tie:

2010 Lexus RX 350

2010 Lexus RX 350

2010 Lexus RX 350 AWD

The basics: 275-hp, 3.5-liter V-6, six-speed automatic transmission with sport shift mode, all-wheel drive. Seating for five.
Safety: Five stars, all frontal and side NHTSA tests; 'Good,' frontal, side, and rear IIHS tests; Top Safety Pick
Price: $38,200
Fuel economy: 18/24 mpg
Rating: 8.4 out of 10

The 2010 Lexus RX 350 driving experience is quite numb overall, but that conforms to expectations to some degree; the RX has found a strong, loyal following from luxury buyers—especially empty-nesters—because it's such a dependable, luxurious isolation chamber that performs responsively though not lively. Even with the optional Sport Package, you probably won't be inspired to hotfoot into corners.

The RX 350's adaptive torque split all-wheel drive system sends all torque to the front wheels except when needed at the back for traction, such as in a quick start. The RX 350 isn't meant for off-roading, but it does have a diff lock mode that might be useful for deep snow or sand.

The interior is extremely refined and quiet, but the cabin of the 2010 Lexus RX 350 isn't nearly as roomy as some shoppers might hope, in a mid-size crossover that doesn't try to cram a third-row seat in back. Front-seat headroom is a bit restricted, and there's not a lot of cargo space behind the second row. There are lots of great details, though, and TheCarConnection.com found the new Remote Touch controller that's used in the RX 350 less distracting than rival controllers from BMW and Mercedes-Benz.

With top crash-test scores from both agencies, along with ten airbags in all, plus hill-holder and optional dynamic handling and Pre-Collision Systems, the 2010 RX is about the best it gets for safety-conscious luxury shoppers.

The base Lexus RX 350 comes with all the trappings of a luxury vehicle, but you'll be tempted by the long list of extras. They include bi-xenon headlamps, adaptive front lighting, a moonroof, heated and ventilated seats, rain-sensing wipers, power heated mirrors, a premium sound system, a heads-up system, and a nav system with XM NavTraffic and NavWeather.

Bottom Line: The 2010 Lexus RX 350 leaves few owners wanting more luxury or practicality, but the "passionate pursuit of perfection" could use a little more passion.

2010 Nissan Murano

2010 Nissan Murano

2010 Nissan Murano LE AWD

The basics: 265-hp, 3.5-liter V-6, CVT, all-wheel drive. Seating for five.
Safety: Four stars frontal, five stars side impact, NHTSA; 'Good,' frontal, side, and rear tests; Top Safety Pick
Price: $38,180
Fuel economy: 18/23 mpg
Rating: 8.2 out of 10

When the Nissan Murano was completely redesigned for 2009, Nissan improved the 'shift logic' that governs the CVT's behavior, making it much better at anticipating when you expect to quickly access power (out of a tight corner, for instance). But we still wish for a manual mode, like that on the Nissan Maxima for curvy back roads.

It's a shame, as the Murano does handle quite well, with better body control than most mid-size crossovers and a crisp turn-in. The Murano's all-wheel drive system splits power 50/50 between the front and rear wheels, but sends more to the front or rear wheels as needed.

Even though the LE is loaded to the gills, it doesn't always feel like a luxury vehicle. For instance, the V-6 is a bit too load when passing at full throttle, and there's more road noise than you might expect. The seats are comfortable, but overall passenger space isn't that impressive, and the steep roofline takes its toll on cargo space.

With nearly perfect crash-test scores, scarred only by four-star federal frontal scores, the Murano is a very safe pick. The IIHS even went so far as to vote it the safest midsize SUV last year. Equipment-wise, the Murano doesn't have the high-tech features that you might find on a Lexus though—or Nissan's Infiniti brand for that matter.

Overall, the top-of-the-line Murano LE comes with a few more standard features than the base-model Lexus RX 350. Items like a power tailgate release, heated front seats, a backup camera, and rain-sensing wipers—all optional on the RX—are included on the LE. So are HID headlamps and the larger 20-inch wheels that really fill out the wheel wells and just make the Murano look sportier and more serious from a distance.

Bottom Line: The 2010 Nissan Murano appeals to those who value style and refinement above absolute practicality.

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2008 Los Angeles auto show

2008 Los Angeles auto show

The Winner: Lexus RX 350

If we had to choose between these two on a backroad of our choice, we'd rather be behind the wheel of the 2010 Nissan Murano, but then again buyers wanting driving fun in a crossover should be looking elsewhere—to the Infiniti FX35 or Audi Q5, among premium offerings, or the 2010 Mazda CX-7 for those on more of a budget.

Bust the badges off, and the Murano and RX are almost even. The 2010 RX 350 feels more refined and isolated, while the Murano is just a little more responsive, less calming. To option the RX up to the features found in the Murano LE could cost thousands. Yet for a little more money the Lexus can be appointed with some truly impressive tech features that aren't offered on the Murano.

Finally, perhaps most important is the brand experience. When you go back to service the Murano you'll be lumped in with Versa owners, while the Lexus dealership experience is second to none.

Simply put, in the real world where badges do matter, the Lexus RX 350 is the $40k price of entry into a luxury experience, while the Nissan Murano is a $40k vehicle that might be taken even when new for a $30k vehicle.

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Not enough? Check out TheCarConnection.com's Car Compare feature, and this comparison of the 2010 Lexus RX 350 vs 2010 Nissan Murano.

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