Our first clue that the 2003 Nissan Murano was not your typical SUV was in the name. Murano comes from elegant sculpted glass art made on the islands near Venice, Italy, and the name fits. The Murano’s shape is definitely not your traditional boxy SUV. But Murano has strong power, great traction, and plenty of ground clearance, all telltale SUV traits. So if the Murano is not your typical SUV, what in the world is it?
Granted, the 2003 Nissan Murano doesn’t look the way we expect an SUV to look. Murano’s Cheshire Cat grille, sweeping curves, and almost total lack of sharp angles looks more like something born of the glass blower’s pipe than a rough-and-tumble auto plant. Add in the fact that it’s built not on a truck chassis, but on the same platform as Nissan’s excellent Altima sedan, and rides on big street-style 18-inch alloys, and you have a vehicle unlikely to attract the hard-core SUV crowd. But driving the Murano shows that its almost organic lines conceal a structure that’s more capable of full-time sport-ute duty than one would expect.
It takes only as few turns and big bumps to discover that the Murano/Altima unibody is strong and stiff, actually feeling tighter than the typical truck-style parameter frame, and that the front strut and rear multi-link independent suspension delivers a comfortable ride.
It packs some power, as well, thanks to the Altima’s 3.5-liter dual-overhead-cam V6. It pumps out a hefty 245 horsepower, and 246 pound-feet of torque, more than the 6-cylinder engines of ‘‘real’’ SUVs like the Ford Explorer and Jeep Liberty. But unlike ‘‘real’’ SUVs, 2-wheel-drive Muranos are front-wheel-drive. But most Murano buyers will likely opt for the full-time all-wheel-drive system that uses an electronically controlled multi-plate clutch to distribute power.
Murano’s transmission is even more hi-tech, being Nissan’s latest Xtronic CVT continuously variable design, which when engaged pulled our all-wheel-drive Murano to 60 in only 7.0-seconds and through the 1/4 mile in 15.6 seconds at 90 miles-per-hour. Not bad for a 3,955-pound vehicle of any type! The CVT delivers strong power off the line, and then holds the engine at peak revs for maximum thrust. The powertrain is super-smooth, even at full-throttle.
The Murano may have a very SUV-like 7.1-inches of ground clearance, but handling is more car than truck. The chassis exhibits a gentle front push in turns, delivering plenty of grip. There is a bit more body roll and less steering feedback than we would like, but the Murano always feels well balanced and firmly planted on the pavement. Both traction control and Nissan’s Vehicle Dynamic Control are optional for those who wish to maximize their Murano’s handling, while 4-wheel disc brakes with ABS and Electronic Brake Force Distribution are standard. They stopped the Murano from 60 in a good average distance of 124 feet. Brake force was strong and consistent, but harsh anti-lock pulse and minimal feedback through the pedal made it hard to stop smoothly.
Stepping from the nuts and bolts to the creature comforts side, you’ll find a well equipped interior with sports car style, yet the airy feel of a minivan. Like the exterior, we see a lot of styling influence from Nissan’s parent Renault here. The dash layout is almost avant gard with a floating center stack and plenty of stylish aluminum trim throughout the 5-passenger cabin.
Notable features include side and head curtain airbags, front seat active head restraints, power adjustable pedals, and a large, lockable storage box with two cell phone holders and enough room for a laptop. Step in is easy and front seats are firm and well padded. Options include leather and heat. Standard features include a 6-speaker CD stereo and automatic climate controls, as well as power locks and windows. But you will have to shell out an extra two grand for the navigation system!
The rear seat is a roomy 60/40 split folding bench, which when folded boosts cargo capacity behind an easy to handle hatch from 32.6 cubic-feet to a surprisingly large 81.6 cubic feet, or only about 10 percent less than the angular Explorer.
Murano pricing starts at $28,739 for the 2-wheel-drive SL model. All-wheel drive raises the price to $30,339. Step up to the higher content SE with 2-wheel-drive, and the base price is $29,539, while the all-wheel drive version carries a $31,139 price tag.
With its unique fashion plate styling and rigid family sedan underpinnings, the 2003 Nissan Murano is certainly not your typical SUV. But it is as solid, powerful and roomy as many of our sport-ute favorites and it’s right in tune with the current trend towards civilized SUVs. Stir in its sharp car-like handling and the minivan-like convenience of its interior, and you get a vehicle that while it may never win over the SUV purists, it’s one of the strongest efforts so far at offering the rest of us the best of all possible automotive worlds.
Engine: 3.5-Liter Dohc V6
Torque: 246 Lb Feet
0-60 MPH: 7.0 Seconds
1/4 Mile: 15.6 Seconds @ 90 MPH
60-0 MPH: 124 Feet
EPA Mileage: 20 MPG City 24 MPG Highway