2006 Nissan Murano SL AWD
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Review and photos by Chris Chase

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Designing a practical SUV that doesn’t look like a box is about as daunting a task as reinventing the wheel. But in 2003, Nissan did it. That was the year the company launched the Murano: a curvy, sexy and utterly refreshing crossover that looked nothing like the Pathfinder that had been the anchor of Nissan’s SUV lineup for so many years.

The Murano’s arrival was book-ended by the introductions of two other Nissans that had aimed at redefining their respective segments. The new-for-2002 Altima proved that a sports sedan didn’t have to be expensive, and people bought it – literally. The Altima was the fifth-best-selling midsize sedan last year, behind the Accord, Camry, Impala and Malibu. The Quest’s, er, quest for busting open the minivan segment wasn’t as well received.

And while all of this was happening, Nissan as a whole had just been reinvented, following a 1999 alliance (some would say takeover) by French automaker Renault that saved Nissan from the brink of financial collapse. The Murano seemed to be the perfect foil for what had happened behind the scenes at Japan’s number three automaker: not only did it stand out from the SUV crowd because of its looks, it also incorporated some new technology in the form of a continuously variable transmission (CVT). CVTs had been tried before, but without much success (remember the Subaru Justy?), so it was a bold move by Nissan to use largely unproven technology in a vehicle that was so unconventional in and of itself.

2006 Nissan Murano SL AWD
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How did it work out? Well, more than three years later, the Murano still looks like nothing else on the road. Muranos are a common enough sight now that they don’t turn as many heads as they did when they were new, but the design has aged well. The story on the CVT is a mixed bag, with some owners reporting transmission problems and some outright failures, but it’s hard to say if those cases are getting more attention because of the relative newness of the technology.

But reliability issues – whether real or imagined – aside, the Murano’s CVT works great. I admit to having been a CVT skeptic. But spending some time driving a vehicle fitted with one was illuminating.

2006 Nissan Murano SL AWD
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Acceleration is smooth: pull away from a stop with a light right foot and the revs rise to about 2,000 rpm to overcome inertia, and then watch as the tach needle drops to about 1,200 rpm to let the engine’s torque do the work to get the Murano up to cruising speed. Drivers who pay attention to a car’s mechanical machinations when they’re behind the wheel might miss the sensation of a traditional automatic’s “steps” as it moves from one gear to the next. If you think you would, go for the top-of-the-line SE model, which gets a manumatic shift function to let drivers choose from six forward gear ratios for a more involved driving experience.

Another thing this CVT does well is sense when you’re on a steep downgrade, and “downshift” to take advantage of engine braking. No need to shift to a lower gear range or ride the brakes to keep the car from running away, as one equipped with a conventional automatic would tend to do in such a situation.

2006 Nissan Murano SL AWD
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One gripe about the Murano’s CVT was how it seemed opposed to providing serious thrust right off the line. No launch technique seemed to be able to unleash the kind of acceleration from a stop that the 3.5-litre V6’s 245 horsepower rating suggested should be available. Moving the shift lever into sport mode sharpened throttle response at all speeds, but didn’t provide more low-speed spunk. Acceleration in passing situations is much better, however, where a good ‘give’er’ to the go-pedal prompts the CVT’s equivalent to a kickdown. You’re around that rolling roadblock in great time.

2006 Nissan Murano SL AWD

2006 Nissan Murano SL AWD
Click image to enlarge

Isolating the Murano from rough roads are big 18-inch wheels and tires bolted to a firm suspension, providing a ride that belied my SL all-wheel-drive tester’s 1,820 kg curb weight. The Murano’s still a tall vehicle, though, and doesn’t encourage taking too much speed into corners, but handling is pretty nimble, all things considered. Back to those big wheels: they’re heavy and create a lot of unsprung weight (which, simply put, is any weight not held off the ground by the suspension, like wheels, tires, brakes and the suspension components themselves), which really makes itself felt on sharp bumps. All that mass tends to overcome the suspension’s ability to keep the wheels planted on broken pavement, where the Murano starts to feel skittish at higher speeds.

And think about this: while the Murano’s full-size spare is great to have, the thought of having to hoist what must be close to 25 kilograms of wheel and tire out of its home under the cargo floor – while stopped on the side of a busy highway, in a cold rain – makes a great case for run-flat tires. Those big tires will be expensive to replace, too.

2006 Nissan Murano SL AWD

2006 Nissan Murano SL AWD

2006 Nissan Murano SL AWD
Click image to enlarge

The Murano’s brakes are strong, feeling more than up to the task of hauling two tons of car to a halt in a drama-free manner. The Murano’s all-wheel-drive system is typical for the class, sending torque to just the front wheels until traction is lost, at which point power is diverted rearward. An AWD lock button that splits power 50/50 front and rear – only at low speeds, though – is a nice touch in a “soft roader” like the Murano. Serious mudslinging would be ill-advised, though, as the low-hanging exhaust seriously cuts into ground clearance.

Find a smooth piece of highway and the Murano becomes a terrific high-speed cruiser. Here, the engine settles into a quiet purr, the comfortable front seats encourage long drives and there are lots of nice nooks and crannies for stowing road trip essentials like CDs and snacks. Key among these is an absolutely massive console storage bin that’s topped off with a shallow double-door compartment that doubles as an armrest, and front-door map pockets that tilt in to allow easier access.

Other nice touches inside include full lighting for the power window switches, steering-wheel-mounted audio controls and other secondary controls. Also nice were my tester’s heated cloth seats, a rarity for sure – most bum warmers are bundled with leather upholstery. The rear-view camera, mounted above the rear license plate and relaying what it sees through the monitor in the dash when the transmission is in reverse, is useful too. None of this stuff is groundbreaking, but it’s amazing how many car interiors leave out the little niceties that make a car more user-friendly.

Front seat space is great, with lots of leg room and head room, even with the optional sunroof in my tester. The power adjustable pedals that come standard in all Muranos, except the most basic SL front-wheel-drive version, make it easy to find a comfortable driving position. In back, leg room is generous, but head room is less so; tall passengers may want to slouch to gain some space between them and the roof. Rear seat comfort is good overall, though.

2006 Nissan Murano SL AWD
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It’s rare for any vehicle four years into its production run to still look fresh, but the Murano does. And this despite few changes for 2006: this year’s model has new wheel designs, LED taillights and an updated instrument cluster, and that’s about it. Most automakers struggle to extend a vehicle’s shelf-life with half-hearted styling tweaks, but Nissan knew when to leave well enough alone. Good thing, too, because as it is, the Murano is far more than a pretty face.


Pricing: 2006 Nissan Murano SL AWD


Specifications

  • Click here for complete specifications for the 2006 Nissan Murano


Crash test results


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