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2003 Nissan Murano New Car Review
Sculpture in Motion

by Bob Plunkett

2003 Nissan MuranoFor centuries the artisans on Murano, a tiny island set in shallow lagoons surrounding Italy's canal city of Venice, have been blowing, bending and sculpting colorful globs of silicates into what has become known and prized around the world as Venetian Glass.

The island's name, pronounced — moo-RAH-no — has been applied by Nissan to a new crossover sport-utility vehicle that looks as wildly sculpted and colorful as Venetian Glass.

Murano the SUV, stretching long and wide and decorated with a raked face flashing stacked headlamps plus curvaceous fender blisters bulging over huge alloy wheels, stands apart from any other vehicle on a crowded parking lot.

And that, according to stylists at Nissan's California design studio in La Jolla, is clearly the point behind this fanciful scheme.

Nissan calls the 2003 Murano a "sculpture in motion" that fuses the best traits of a high-rider sport-utility wagon and a pavement-hugging sports sedan.

Murano gets a wagon's format with five seats and four doors for passengers and a liftgate in back for access to the cargo bay.

Boxy parameters of a wagon have been disguised by the fluidly sculptured body panels plus the raked face and a forward-tilting tail that collectively diffuse all rectangular hard corners.

But like a sports sedan, Murano rides on the front-wheel-drive chassis of a car. The platform, which also underpins Nissan's Altima and Maxima sedans, supports the 111-inch wheelbase and a wide track of 64.2 inches up front and 64.0 in back.

Pushing wheels to edges of the chassis brings stability to the stance and enhances Murano's agility when cornering.

Murano carries an independent suspension system mounted on subframes, with struts in front and a multi-link arrangement in back plus stabilizer bars fore and aft to check excessive lateral roll of the body when running down a wiggly course.

Steering, through a quick-to-respond rack and pinion mechanism, feels firm despite a power boost.

A vented disc brake stands at every wheel and all tie by computerized links to a sophisticated anti-lock brake system with brake assist and electronic brake force distribution.

For locomotion Nissan pulls out the Altima's juicy dual-cam 3.5-liter V6. Output reaches to 245 hp at 5800 rpm, with torque running up to 246 lb-ft at 4400 rpm. The engine links to a continuously variable transmission that Nissan calls Xtronic. It never shifts from one gear to another because the CVT eliminates step-ratio gears of a conventional automatic transmission and the resultant shift shock. Instead, two variable diameter pulleys and a strong steel belt work to match the engine's output with the vehicle's speed, ultimately producing seamless acceleration.

Murano also offers high-tech hardware such as vehicle dynamic control with a traction control system and Nissan's new all-wheel-drive equipment for dependable grip on slippery pavement.

The AWD system normally operates in FWD mode, although if front treads begin to slip, this smart rig can divert as much as half of the engine's muscle to run the wheels in back. Big 18-inch aluminum wheels are standard with T-rated 235/65 tires.

All of these mechanical components combine to provide precise linear control of what becomes a fun-to-drive vehicle that looks like a SUV but behaves more like an enthusiastic sports car.

Point the Murano down a curvy road — like Route 39, the Virginia Byway, cut across high ridges and low vales of the Appalachian Mountains— and you'll enjoy the romp as tires paw the pavement and the car's body, feeling rigid and tuned, plays it hard and fast on the fun side of four-wheeling performance.

Murano's long and broad structure whittles out a rather spacious cabin and a utilitarian cargo bay.

Door sills are set low so you can slip aboard easily.

Seats are tall so you sit up for good visibility.

The cabin layout pitches a pair of bolstered buckets in front flanking a large console with covered recesses to stow gear as large as a purse or laptop computer.

On the second row a bench is designed to seat two comfortably but hold three riders if necessary. The seatback splits and reclines or folds down to expand the cargo area.

2003 Murano interiorInstruments are grouped in three circular pods rimmed with aluminum that also trims the steering wheel, console and shifter stick.

Ahead of the console a panel seems to float against the dashboard clustering controls for audio and climate systems, while just above this panel a large LCD screen displays digital data about the vehicle's operation.

Safety gear ranges from dual-stage front air bags to side-impact air bags and active head restraints for front seats plus curtain-style side air bags secreted above front and rear side windows.

The seat belts carry pretensioners plus load limiters, and there are LATCH (Lower Anchor and Tethers for Children) connections for mounting compatible child safety seats. Murano appears in the two trim designations of SL and SE, each available with either FWD or AWD traction mode.

All stock twin-zone climate controls, power windows, keyless remote entry and an audio system with CD player.

The SE trim goes further with sporty suspension tuning and xenon high intensity discharge (HID) headlamps.

Nissan MuranoOptional equipment grouped in packages includes premium gear with adjustable pedals and Bose audio; a leather kit with memory settings for the driver's seat, pedals and exterior mirrors; popular accessories such as a sunroof and leather seats; the cold-weather kit with heated seats, and a dynamic control package with VDC and TCS plus a tire pressure monitor.

Nissan sets the base price for Murano SL at $28,199. For $800 more you can move up to SE trim, or add $1,600 for AWD traction on either SL or SE model.

Click here for more information on the Nissan Murano.