Nissan Murano, 2011: No beauty queen, but makeover works

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Those who want a sporty crossover vehicle with SUV utility should check out the 2011 Nissan Murano. The second-generation Murano — one of the original “crossover” vehicles — benefits from improved styling and a solid reputation for comfort, performance and utility.

The technically advanced Murano was introduced seven years ago and was overhauled for 2009. While no beauty queen despite a sculptured exterior, the latest Murano looks better, thanks to a revised grille and front bumper and freshened taillights. There are redesigned standard 18-inch aluminum wheels and 20-inch alloy wheels for the top-line LE trim level.

All 2011 Muranos also have interior and content additions, and there’s a new mid-range   SV model.

Front seats for all Muranos have been designed for enhanced support, which is particularly appreciated when snaking through curves.

The hardtop Murano comes in four trim levels: S, SV, SL and LE. List prices for the hardtop models range from $29,290 to $39,900.

Options include an $1,850 navigation system for the higher-line SL and LE trim levels.Nissan Murano, 2011: No beauty queen, but makeover works 7

They’re all offered with front-wheel drive or an advanced all-wheel drive (AWD) system and have standard stability/traction control. There also are anti-lock disc brakes with brake assist and electronic brake distribution. Other safety items include a bunch of regular air bags and side-curtain impact bags.

Also new for 2011 is the $46,390 Murano CrossCabriolet all-wheel-drive convertible — the world’s first such vehicle. It’s offbeat and has a stiff price (for a Murano) but shows Nissan isn’t afraid to take chances. Its price may put off some potential Murano buyers. After all, the Murano long has been a hardtop priced under $40,000.

I haven’t yet driven the CrossCabriolet. Rather, I tested the new SV with all-wheel drive (AWD). It lists at $34,460 and has such items as a dual-panel power moonroof, rearview monitor and Bluetooh hands-free phone system.

However, even the base S front-drive model has a good amount of comfort and convenience equipment, including a push-button engine start/stop feature.Nissan Murano, 2011: No beauty queen, but makeover works 8

Like all Muranos, the 2011 model has sports-sedan handling, rapid acceleration and a roomy, sumptuous interior. It’s for those who want the practicality of a conventional crossover/SUV but also a sporty image and strong performance.

A 3.5-liter, dual-overhead-camshaft 260-horsepower with 240 pound-feet of torque smoothly powers the 3,877-4,178-pound Murano hardtop. The engine works with a responsive continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) that seamlessly transfers power and has an easily used adaptive shift control.

A 65-75 mph passing test found the Murano quickly hitting 80 mph (when I thought it would reach 65 mph) and was still pulling hard when I backed off.

Estimated fuel economy is 18 mpg in the city and 23 on highways for both front- and all-wheel-drive versions. Only regular-grade gasoline is needed.

The speed-sensitive steering is accurate, but several quick right-hand and left-hand turns of the thick steering wheel called for a tad more wheel movement than I expected. The ride of the 111.2-inch wheelbase Murano is rather firm but comfortable. And handling is remarkably good — especially for a 67-inch-high vehicle. The brakes are always on your side, controlled by a pedal with a linear action.

Large door handles ease entry to the 189.9-inch-long Murano, and there’s good room up front in the quiet uptown interior. The field of vision is nicely elevated to the front and sides, and large mirrors help during lane changes. Six windshield washer jets will be appreciated during lousy weather.Nissan Murano, 2011: No beauty queen, but makeover works 9

Backlit gauges can be read at a glance during most lighting conditions. My SV test model had easily used cruise, climate and sound system controls. However, the foot-operated emergency brake seemed old-fashioned. Cupholders are within handy reach, and there’s a good number of cockpit storage areas, although rear door pockets don’t hold much.

The rear seat is room and comfortable, but for only two because the center of the back seat is too stiff for comfort.

The trunk is large, but has a rather high opening, and the rakish roofline cuts into cargo volume with the rear seatbacks up. Those seatbacks easily flip forward and sit flat to significantly enlarge the cargo area. The SL and LE have power rear seatbacks that return to an upright position at the touch of a button — and also a power hatch.

The hood’s interior lining helps keep the cabin quiet, and fluid filler areas are easily reached.

The Murano is a smooth operator that should be added to any crossover/SUV shopping list.

Dan Jedlicka has been an automotive journalist for more than 40 years. To read his new and vintage car reviews, visit his website, www.danjedlicka.com.

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