The second-generation '09 Nissan Murano is a nicely updated cross/utility vehicle that balances sport and refinement with a softer but lively ride, tight steering offering plenty of feedback and a higher quality interior than its predecessor.

The vehicle has been a top performer for Nissan since its introduction in 2002 as an '03 model, with 72,159 units moved through November, Ward's data shows, making the Murano Nissan's best-selling light truck in the U.S.

The Murano also helped spark the CUV craze in the U.S., boasting many imitators. For this reason, Nissan cautiously approached the Murano's revision, focusing on sharpening but not radically changing the exterior styling and retaining the vehicle's “Murano-ness,” a blend of style and sporty handling that has become a brand characteristic for Nissan.

Many of the Murano's mechanical changes mimic those applied last year to the new Altima midsize sedan, including the updated 3.5L VQ V-6, making 265 hp in the Murano, up from 240 hp in the '07 model (Nissan skipped the '08 model year).

Like the Altima, the Murano moves from the old “FF” front-wheel-drive platform to Nissan's new “D” architecture.

With multiple reinforcements to its body structure, the Murano now is one-and-a-half times more rigid than the outgoing model, as first-generation owners complained about noise and vibration.

As with the Altima, the Murano is solidly planted in hairpin turns on Arizona's winding mountain roads, absorbing bumps better than its sportier linemate, while providing a more refined ride.

Nissan has replaced the first Murano's SE sport grade with a new luxury LE trim, which includes softer suspension tuning.

On the road, the Murano is nimble, but its powertrain is challenged by the steep ranges in the Phoenix area, faltering before the needed torque arrives.

An overdrive button on the shifter lessens the hesitation slightly but elicits a hearty growl from the VQ. The “sophistication seekers” Nissan is targeting likely will not appreciate the racket in exchange for minimally better torque.

Fuel economy during the 3-hour jaunt to Sedona averaged in the low-to-mid 20-mpg (11.8 L/100-km) range.

Both FWD and AWD Muranos are rated at 18 mpg (13.1 L/100 km) city and 23 mpg (10.2 L/100 km) highway, based on the new '08 Environmental Protection Agency methodology.

The interior was a major focus in developing the second-generation Murano, as Nissan tries to overcome a reputation for having the cheapest looking interiors of the Japanese Big Three.

It is successful in its mission, as soft-touch materials in lieu of hard plastics abound, most notably on the upper door panels, which also have an attractive gathered-leather option.

High-end features include an available power hatch and power-folding rear seats, as well as the excellent touch-screen navigation system borrowed from Infiniti.

The '09 Murano goes on sale Jan. 4. The auto maker says it anticipates sales in the range of 70,000 to 80,000 units.

The softer-but-still-sporty ride and handling coupled with the luxury quotient means the Murano should continue to be a top performer for Nissan.

[+] PROS/CONS [+]
High-class interior Front grille is scary
Plenty of hp from VQ Torque-challenged
Combines sport & lux May hurt Infiniti FX

'09 Nissan Murano SL

Vehicle type: Front-engine, all-wheel drive 4-door cross/utility vehicle

Engine: 3.5L DOHC V-6 with aluminum block, head

Power (SAE net): 265 hp @ 6,000 rpm

Torque: 248 lb.-ft. (336 Nm) @ 4,000 rpm

Transmission: Continuously variable

Wheelbase: 111.2 ins. (282 cm)

Overall length: 188.5 ins. (479 cm)

Overall width: 74.1 ins. (188 cm)

Overall height: 68.1 ins. (173 cm) w/roof rack

Fuel economy (mpg): 18/23 (13.1/10.2 L/100 km)

Competition: Toyota Highlander, Ford Edge, Saturn Vue, Mazda CX-7