As a motoring journalist, there aren't a lot of surprises testing vehicles. You drive a Porsche, you expect great handling. You drive a Hummer, you expect to be able to drive over something. Rarely does a car really manage to raise your eyebrows. And then I picked up the Nissan Murano LE, and I was surprised. I had always admired the looks of Nissan's urban crossover vehicle, and the latest update looks even better. The sleek body and muscular stance are accentuated by a bold, new, multi-tooth chrome grille.
But this is a Nissan, after all - I expected a decent drive with some cupholders and comfy seats, maybe even a satnav system on the higher trim level. But the Japanese car maker must be pining for better company, because it poured in almost every luxury trick it has into the five-seater. From the first time I sat in the seat, I was shocked to find the level of kit and the high quality inside. What was more shocking was the seat and steering wheel moving on their own when I pushed the start button. Well, OK, surprising; both move out of the way when the car is shut off and then move back into position upon starting it. There are also three memory settings so you can let someone else drive without worrying about all the time it took you to find that perfect driving position.
Inside, the seats and steering wheel are covered with tan leather, and the rest of the cabin benefits from different textured plastics and real - yes, real -aluminium accents. And, it only gets better at night, when the gauges are illuminated in a warm glow of orange and white. And, opening the doors turns on small LED accent lights in the footwells and outside under the floor to illuminate the ground. These are all small bits, but the whole makes the vehicle feel much more luxurious.
On the centre of the dash sits a video display with a round knob at its base, surrounded by buttons. This is Nissan's version of that ubiquitous command mouse, or button, or whatever, that seems to be on every high-end car. Though the satnav isn't at quite a high enough resolution as other units (though still perfectly usable) the buttons and knob seem to work plain enough. A nice, surprising touch.
Another surprise was reversing - the satnav screen reveals the Murano to have a camera in the rear. Not only does it show what's behind you, but lines on the screen show where the car will steer, a feature usually found on more expensive vehicles. It is roomy enough for five comfortably, with a high seating position, though the cargo space isn't exactly best in class. And, while the rear seats fold down, they don't fold flat, which they should.
For a car like this, the ride is somewhat on the harsh side. Road rumbles can be felt through the steering wheel and the seats and despite its sporty looks, I would have preferred a cushier ride. Handling is more than adequate, but the tyres begin to voice their displeasure in tighter, quick turns, and the car begins to slide ever so slightly, though it comes back quick. It feels quick, thanks to the 265 hp from its V6. But what makes the power very usable - and livable - is its marvellous transmission. Instead of a regular gearbox, the Murano uses a continuously variable transmission (CVT).
Basically, it employs a chain between two pulleys that can infinitely change the gear ratios. In regular driving, this means there is no discernible changing of gears - it gives the car a smooth ride. Only under heavy throttle does the driver realise there is something different - the engine revs to around 4,500rpm and stays there as the speed climbs, with no changing of gear. It's somewhat strange but easy to get used to, and it doesn't adversely affect the drive.
Inexplicably, the gear shifter allows the driver to "change gears" to six different preset gear ratios. I have no idea why anyone would even want to attempt this. This tester came with part-time all-wheel drive which can be locked on if desired. I don't think you'll find many of these on deep desert trips, though - this is definitely an urban vehicle with a bit of off-road capability but without the teeth to dig into rugged terrain. No matter; it looks prettier under the city lights anyway.
In fact, I began to like almost everything about the Murano, until I looked at its price. For the high-end LE version that I drove, it came to Dh166,000, which puts it very close to pretty competitive territory for what it is. For a few thousand dirhams more, you could get an Audi Q5 with better handling and its fantastic quattro all-wheel drive, or a Volvo XC60 T6 - along with the elevated status of both marques. For just a few dirhams more after that, you could step into a bigger and bolder Land Rover LR3.
Nissan offers only one other version of the Murano in the UAE - the lower-tier SL, priced at Dh151,000. The differences between the two are scant, with the upmarket version getting a motorised rear door (an option I found both ridiculous and cumbersome), Bluetooth compatibility, some chrome trim and wheels and satellite navigation. If the SL version came with the satnav - which it should, at that price - I would call it a great deal. But Nissan is in danger of pushing its LE out of the very market it's intended for.
Which would be a shame, really, because you wouldn't want a pleasant surprise to be cancelled out with sticker shock. firstname.lastname@example.org