First Drive: The 2015 Nissan Murano Quietly Advances the Art of the Crossover

Dec 08, 2014 09:05 AM EST | Jeff Jablansky

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It's early December in California's hedonistic Napa Valley, and it's raining. Hard. But the incessant showers of historic proportions—for California, anyway—are hardly curtailing our first drive of the 2015 Nissan Murano crossover, the Japanese automaker's push deep into near-luxury territory. In fact, we barely notice them.

That's because everything about the experience of driving the totally redone 2015 Murano is focused on calmness and relaxation, from the whisper-quiet cabin to hushed engine and transmission. And much like Napa Valley itself, known for being a retreat from San Francisco's bustle, Nissan is positioning the Murano as an upgrade to the luxury segment without paying the price. But can that strategy work?

What is it?

Now in its third generation, the 2015 Murano is Nissan's original crossover sport-utility vehicle that was designed with sculpted surfaces in mind. It's a five-passenger, two-row SUV with roots to the Nissan Pathfinder and the automaker's sedan platforms, and from the first time you see it, you don't forget its striking design. (We're particularly fond of the BMW-like kink in the rear quarter view, although the jury is out on the headlight design.)

It complements the Pathfinder in a niche that Nissan believes has potential: empty nesters with disposable income. In theory, think of it as the Venza to Toyota's Highlander, or the Edge to Ford's Explorer. In practice, as a two-row-only crossover it's closer to the Honda Crosstour, although Nissan seeks a higher-end customer. We instantly liked its well designed interior, which uses interesting accent materials to distinguish itself from mass-market textures, and the comfortable front seats.

This iteration of Murano is significant also for its place of assembly, Canton, Miss., where the entirety of global Murano production will occur.

How does it drive?

Impressively. The third-generation Murano retains the previous model's engine, although a bump of 20 horsepower brings the count to 260 for 2015. A continuously variable automatic transmission is standard across the board, and it has no small task of minimizing engine strain and groan. That said, the feeling of driving the Murano is not on the exhilirating side, and rightly so.

We were most impressed by the Murano's unexpectedly heavy steering weight—a treat, given the overboosted electronic steering of most crossovers and front-wheel-drive-biased SUVs—and its ability to eat up miles. This is not one of those times that an SUV drives like a smaller vehicle; you feel the sheer size of the Murano in all of its movements. Riding in the back is no pain, either; plenty of rear-seat legroom and headroom make it quite comfortable.

A Lexus RX350 at the event served as a handy reminder that many consumers now expect a non-luxury vehicle to behave like one, and we admit with no hesitation that the Murano outclasses Lexus' aging SUV.

What's its specialty?

Compared to its Pathfinder stablemate, which seems to cater to all buyers, Nissan is zeroing in on moneyed empty nesters and pairs of couples with the Murano. That means no third row option (too family-oriented) and no off-road cred (too rugged and unneccessary) but plenty of soft-touch materials inside.

Beyond the obvious styling details and the Murano's refined demeanor, however, there isn't much to separate it from the pack. From the driver's seat, where the unique exterior shapes of design leader Ken Lee are not visible, the experience is not unlike that of driving a Pathfinder. If you prefer relaxation without moving the performance needle very much, this may be your car.

Fortunately (unfortunately?) for enthusiasts, there will be no follow-up to the curiously received Murano CrossCabriolet of the prior generation, which created a niche within a niche that buyers seemed to ignore.

How's the competition?

Strong. The Murano needs every edge it can muster to keep up with the Chevrolet Equinox, Ford Edge (pun unavoidable), Honda Pilot, Hyundai Santa Fe Sport, Jeep Grand Cherokee, and Toyota Venza—to name a few key competitors in the near-luxury space. Nissan hopes that the heavy level of standard and optional equipment, particularly the techier and more luxurious pieces, will project a sumptuous halo behind the Murano. Expectations for success are high, as the production facility in Mississippi has the capacity to produce just shy of 100,000 units per year for global markets.

At 30 grand, the Murano is an attractive proposition in a field of uninspired crossovers, loaded with equipment and with optional all-wheel drive. Closer to its high pricing end, just under $45,000, a true luxury SUV with a dedicated luxury owner's experience, would make more sense.

Overall

The 2015 Murano straddles the line between luxury and what's now expected of a midsize crossover, and it does so more assertively—and quietly—than before. Light rain shouldn't dampen this crossover's chances.

Highs

Brave styling and aggressive bodywork give the Murano an edge over more subtly styled competitors, and its steering and chassis tuning make it a pleasurable road trip companion.

Lows

Behind the wheel, the uniqueness of purpose dulls; some trim pieces look luxurious but feel and sound less than elegant to the touch.

The ideal setup

Murano SV AWD ($34,220): Cloth seats, a stellar navigation system as standard, and all-wheel drive with no penalty to fuel economy.

By the numbers: 2015 Nissan Murano

MSRP: $30,445 (includes $885 destination charge)

Power / drive wheels: 3.5-liter, 260-hp V-6 engine / front- or all-wheel drive

Transmission: Continuously variable automatic transmission

EPA fuel economy: 21 city / 28 highway mpg (all models)

In showrooms: Now

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