Skipping the 2008 model year altogether, the Nissan Murano sport utility vehicle is out as an early 2009 model with noticeably more engine power, noteworthy ride and handling and mildly restyled body. Best of all, the starting retail price is lower than what it was for the 2007 predecessor.
The move isn't a sign of poor sales. Murano sales have increased every year since its introduction in calendar 2003.
Rather, the new pricing reflects the competitive realities of today's so-called crossover SUV segment where auto company officials anxiously await buyers for more than two dozen models even as more crossovers are coming to market.
Starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, for a base, two-wheel drive, 2009 Murano with 265-horsepower V-6 and continuously variable transmission is $27,075 -- exactly $1,500 less than the base, 2007 Murano with 240-horsepower V-6.
The lowest-priced 2009 Murano with all-wheel drive starts at $28,675 compared with $30,175 for a 2007 model. The new pricing better aligns with current SUV prices.
A 2008 Toyota Highlander with two-wheel drive and 270-horsepower V-6 has a starting MSRP, including destination charge, of $27,985, while a base, 265-horsepower, 2008 Ford Edge starts at $26,270.
However, when many of the Murano's new options -- such as heated, power-folding rear seats and a 9.3-gigabyte music hard drive -- are added, the 2009 price is beyond $36,000.
The 2009 model is the second-generation Murano and uses a new platform that was developed and first installed under the front-wheel drive Nissan Altima car more than a year ago. Indeed, the carlike ride and handling is a hallmark of crossover SUVs that, unlike traditional SUVs, don't use rear-drive, truck platforms.
In the Murano, the new platform is bolstered by lightweight aluminum suspension components that work to maintain wheel-to-pavement contact and vehicle control while reducing cumbersome weight near the wheels. The suspension geometry is revamped to include an independent front strut configuration that's mounted to a subframe. An independent multilink setup works at the rear of the vehicle.
While all this sounds ho-hum, it's critical to the pleasing ride and handling of the new five-passenger Murano, which wears big, 18-inch wheels as standard equipment. Twenty-inch wheels now are offered as factory options for the first time.
The test vehicle, fitted with the standard wheels and all-season tires, wound its way impressively through mountain twisties at highway speeds. There was no sloppiness in the ride and sense of control, and the 5.6-foot-tall Murano maintained its composure, remained steadily on track and in its lane throughout, helping to make quick work of what could otherwise be a tedious ride.
Passengers felt road bumps but not harshly, and tire noise, while noticeable, wasn't overwhelming.
I just wish the rack-and-pinion steering hadn't been so light to the touch because I found myself needing to correct and adjust at times.
The newfound 25 horsepower in the Murano's stalwart 3.5-liter, double overhead cam V-6 is palpable. Power in the tester came on easily, with no urging, and the engine felt like it had plenty more to give. Torque peaks at 248 foot-pounds at 4,800 rpm.
This is the same, award-winning engine as in the previous Murano, but it has been tuned for improved power.
The continuously variable transmission in the tester made some usual humming sounds that I could do without. But power delivery was commendable.
Too bad fuel economy wasn't. In combined city and highway driving, I never saw even 20 miles per gallon.
And the federal government's city/highway rating of 18/23 mpg for the test all-wheel drive, 2009 Murano that hasn't changed much in size from its 2007 predecessor is disappointing. In addition, Nissan recommends premium unleaded gas, which means a single fill-up of the 21.7-gallon tank can be more than $70.
The Murano's overall shape is the same as before.
I have nothing but praise for the interior. It's modern without being gimmicky, and everything is well-arranged and upscale in appearance. I enjoyed the easy-to-read, colorful, 7-inch display screen in the middle of the dashboard.
Front seats provided good cushion as well as support for a five-hour roundtrip, and back-seat legroom of just over 36 inches is acceptable.
The optional cargo cover was a pain to use, though, and drivers need to watch carefully as they back up because of visibility issues. The test Murano did have the helpful and optional rearview monitor.
At less than 32 cubic feet, cargo room behind the second-row seats isn't as large as in some other SUVs. But I liked that Nissan officials didn't enlarge the Murano.
All safety equipment, including anti-whiplash head restraints on the front seats, stability control and curtain air bags, is standard.
But the Murano received only four out of five stars in frontal crash testing by the federal government. Most new crossover SUVs rate five stars. The government has not released side crash test results.
Consumer Reports provides a predicted reliability rating of "better than average."