It's a balancing act that would test a Cirque du Soleil performer: the task of redesigning a popular vehicle without diluting its appeal by making it too different. Such was the challenge Nissan faced when it decided to revamp its popular Murano midsize crossover SUV as an early 2009 model year release.
The first-generation Murano (it debuted back in 2004) was known for its sporty styling and sharp handling. For that first quality, not much changed for the new 2009 Nissan Murano. At a glance, especially in profile, one might have trouble discerning the new model from its predecessor. The same kicked-up beltline and triangular rearmost side windows remain, as does the general silhouette. The face is more aggressive, however, with its rather strange grille that incorporates squinty headlights. The tail retains the unique back window design (that's thankfully a bit bigger) but takes on new, more horizontal taillights.
It's also more of the same in regards to handling ability. Part of the old Murano's handling credentials came about as it shared some lineage with Nissan's athletic Altima sedan. The 2009 Murano continues that trend, though it's now related to the latest-generation Altima that recently debuted. Meanwhile, the peppy 3.5-liter "VQ Series" V6, already highly regarded, gains 25 horsepower for a total of 265, while the continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) -- one of the old model's more disappointing qualities -- has been tweaked for sharper response.
What we notice the most on the 2009 Nissan Murano is the much nicer cabin. Inside, higher-quality materials and an upscale ambience replace the mediocre quality and avant-garde look of the previous interior. New features like a hard-drive-based navigation system and a dedicated iPod interface are also part of the redesign. One thing that didn't change, however, is the lack of a third-row seat. No doubt, Nissan's designers felt pressure to add one, as it's offered on most other competing models. But in a (logical) show of defiance, Nissan felt a third row would be rather small and take up valuable cargo space, especially considering that the Murano is on the smaller side of the midsize crossover segment to begin with.
If you're interested in this type of vehicle, you'll find that there are more choices than ever this year. There are larger models to think about, such as the Mazda CX-9 and Toyota Highlander. But the most direct rival to this Nissan is Mazda's CX-7, as its fun-to-drive factor rates even higher than the Murano's. However, the CX-7 does give up some practicality due to its relatively meager maximum cargo space, and some may find its turbocharged four-cylinder a little too head-snapping for comfort. Other similar choices include the Ford Edge, the Mitsubishi Outlander V6, the Pontiac Torrent GXP and the Toyota RAV4 V6. These models typically offer more cargo space or passenger capacity, but they don't offer the same level of athleticism, interior refinement or flair that Nissan's star performer does.
Not surprisingly, this was pretty much what the first Murano was all about, too. But with a nicer interior and an overall increase in refinement and ability, it seems that Nissan did indeed find a balance that would please even the crew from Cirque du Soleil.
The 2009 Nissan Murano is a five-passenger, midsize crossover SUV that comes in three trim levels: S, SL and LE. Buyers have a choice of front- or all-wheel drive.
The S comes with 18-inch alloy wheels, full power accessories, dual-zone automatic climate control, tilt/telescoping steering wheel, split/folding rear seat, a trip computer and a six-speaker sound system with a six-CD changer and auxiliary audio jack. The SL adds privacy glass, a power driver seat, a power return feature for the rear seats (if lowered, they return to their upright position at the touch of a button) and a leather-wrapped steering wheel with auxiliary audio controls. The top-shelf LE has 20-inch alloy wheels, a power liftgate, rain-sensing wipers, heated side mirrors, roof rails, automatic xenon headlights, leather upholstery, heated seats (front and rear), a power passenger seat and a pop-up cargo area organizer. An upgraded Bose audio system, iPod integration, satellite radio, keyless ignition/entry, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, a rearview camera and Bluetooth connectivity are also standard for the LE.
Many of the LE's luxury features are optional for the SL trim via various packages. Other options include a dual-panel sunroof, a hard-drive-based navigation system with digital music capability, and a rear-seat entertainment system.
The difference between the 2009 Murano's cabin and its predecessor is like night and day. High-quality materials and excellent fit and finish make it easy to confuse this Nissan for an Infiniti. Although a third-row seat is not available, passengers in the second row will enjoy an abundance of leg- and headroom. Prepped for cargo, the Murano has 64 cubic feet available, a small figure for a midsize crossover SUV.
All the state-of-the-art electronics gizmos one could want are available, including a genuine iPod interface (which is one of the best we've used), a rear-seat DVD system (with a generous 9-inch screen) and a hard-drive-based navigation system with real-time traffic plus 9.3GB of memory allotted for music storage.
All Muranos are powered by a 3.5-liter V6 that makes 265 hp and 248 pound-feet of torque. A continuously variable transmission sends the power to either the front or all four wheels. The S and SL are available as either front-wheel or all-wheel drive while the LE is AWD only. In our testing of an LE, the Murano scampered to 60 mph in 8 seconds flat. Fuel economy estimates for the 2009 Murano with AWD stand at 18 mpg city and 23 mpg highway.
A re-engineered suspension with lightweight aluminum pieces and a new steering system make the 2009 Nissan Murano a willing and surprisingly communicative partner in daily driving. No doubt the combination of these chassis upgrades and a new predictive (not reactive) all-wheel-drive system (first introduced by the Nissan Rogue) contribute to the Murano's genuine agility and overall feel of predictability. And, contrary to what some might expect, the 20-inch wheels and tires standard on the LE trim don't degrade the ride either.
The 3.5-liter V6 provides plenty of power for almost all situations. Of special note is the revised CVT, which incorporates adaptive shift control software and boasts ratio changes 30 percent faster than before. As a result, the reactions of the CVT are so good that Nissan decided that it's unnecessary to offer a manual-shift mode with this CVT -- and we totally agree.
Antilock disc brakes with brake assist, stability control, active front head restraints, side- and side curtain airbags are standard across the board.
After a model-year hiatus, the 2009 Nissan Murano returns fully redesigned. Given its popularity, styling changes are kept evolutionary, while an upgraded cabin and key mechanical refinements further its appeal.