PHOENIX – The second-generation ’09 Nissan Murano is a nicely updated cross/utility vehicle that balances sport and refinement with a softer but still 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. and its fourth best-selling model this year.

The Murano also helped spark the CUV craze of recent years in the U.S., boasting many imitators that have borrowed its sinuous, shapely profile.

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 the winding mountain roads here heading to Sedona, absorbing bumps better than its sportier linemate, while providing a more refined ride, particularly on rough pavement.

Nissan has replaced the first Murano’s SE sport grade with a new luxury LE trim (which includes softer suspension tuning), finding the CUV’s buyers are not interested in feeling every imperfection in the road.

Also new is the transmission integration. The new shifter’s path is straight, rather than gated as on the old Murano. Owners complained in the influential J.D. Power Initial Quality Study that the Z-pattern gate was too complex.

Nissan should have left well enough alone because the new design makes it easier to accidentally select an unintended gear, as the buttery lever slips too easily between settings.

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.

It’s possible the extra weight of the all-wheel-drive system is to blame. No FWD versions were available for testing.

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

Nissan says 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, according to the new ’08 Environmental Protection Agency methodology.

The ’07 FWD Murano achieved the same numbers when calculated according to the new standards, while the AWD version achieved 1 mpg (0.42 km/L) less in city driving.

’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
Compression ratio 10.3:1
Bore x stroke (mm) 95.5 x 81.4
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
EPA fuel economy city/hwy (mpg) 18/23 (13.1/10.2 L/100 km)
Market competition Toyota Highlander, Ford Edge, Saturn Vue, Mazda CX-7
Pros Cons
High-class interior Front grille is scary
Plenty of hp from VQ Torque-challenged on hills
Best at combining sport & lux Could harm Infiniti FX

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.

A notable strike against the cockpit is the high-gloss upper dash in models with a black interior.

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

When the first Murano arrived in the U.S. five years ago, its edgy styling set it apart from more pedestrian CUVs.

With the second iteration, the profile remains intact, but wheel arches and character line are more exaggerated.

The chrome grille appears even more sinister now. The toothy look remains but is augmented by long horizontal headlights that wrap underneath, resembling angry, squinted eyes.

In the rear, Nissan has replaced the first-generation’s distinctive large, vertical taillamps with small, horizontal and more conventional units.

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

While there are certainly more models to choose from in the midsize CUV segment today than six years ago when it debuted, the softer-but-still-sporty ride and handling coupled with the luxury quotient for the Murano means it should continue to be a top performer for Nissan, as long as prices remain in the upper $20,000 to low-$30,000 range.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com