2003 Nissan Murano
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Story and photos
by Laurance Yap

Sometimes a car or truck comes along and suddenly everything else seems old. It happened to me last year when I drove a BMW 7-series, and it happened to me again recently when I got into this $39,500 (for the SL model; almost $50,000 as-tested for my SE) Nissan Murano. It was a car – or is that a truck? – that had me asking myself numerous times: “why haven’t things always been done like this?” First question: who said that an SUV had to be boxy? Nissan, purveyor of one of the boxiest in the form of the Xterra, has given us a tall wagon/crossover/thingymadoo that puts any other on the trailer in terms of style. From its cheshire-cat grin, to its signature stacked headlights, its dark silver trim, and the clamshell rear hatch, it looks more like a spaceship than an SUV. Even the detailing is futuristic: check out the little two-piece antenna, the elegantly beveled surfaces on the grille, the almost organic shapes comprising the spokes of the standard 18-inch wheels.

Yet this is not an SUV that sacrifices style for space, at least in the passenger compartment. Both front- and rear-seat riders have lots of space to stretch out, and all of the seats slide and tilt. Storage compartments are as numerous as they are voluminous: a bin in the console big enough to hold a laptop, expanding map pockets, an elastic strap for your sunglass case under the armrest, and lidded compartments for your cell phone, change, and cupholders. That’s not even mentioning the huge upper surface of the instrument panel, which has been turned into a sort of tray for all your detritus, nor the way most of the controls have been consigned to a “floating” panel that simultaneously creates more knee room and moves those controls closer to hand.

2003 Nissan Murano
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The pieces inside the Murano’s interior are as dramatically shaped as those on the outside, which has forced a few compromises. Though the cabin feels positively airy in front – on my tester, this was largely thanks to a unique colour scheme of “cabernet” copper and light gray – the sweeping window line means the back feels claustrophobic, though it isn’t. And the short rear overhang and curving rear glass mean that though the cargo area is large, it isn’t very usefully-shaped, and won’t swallow boxes that look like they might fit.

2003 Nissan Murano
Click image to enlarge

The interior fit and finish, while a definite improvement over recent Nissans, still showed some rough edges on my tester: the panel the sliding armrest was fastened to was bent, and the leather-and-metal shifter came off in my hand. Some passengers likened the flat pieces of real aluminum trim inside to the finish on late-eighties scientific calculators, but I kind of liked it.

Perhaps what’s most impressive, though, about the Murano, is how it drives as futuristic as it looks. Those big-bore exhaust pipes poking out the back are telling: with 245 horses from Nissan’s understandably-ubiquitous 3.5-litre V6, the Murano is livelier than most midsize SUVs. The snarly engine is abetted by an “Xtronic” continuously-variable transmission, which gives acceleration a smooth, turbine-like feel that’s out of this world. There are no “fake” gears programmed into the system for manual-shift capability, but “sport” and “low” modes hold the engine at higher revs if you wish.

2003 Nissan Murano

2003 Nissan Murano
Click image to enlarge

There’s an “all-wheel-drive” system, of course, but like most of this ilk, it’s a reactive system that sends all the power to the front wheels unless one of them starts slipping, at which point power is shuttled (pretty seamlessly) towards the rears. It works well, for the most part, but that split-second of reaction time might be all you need to get stuck. Then again, if you’re in such a situation, you’d likely have already pushed the console-mounted button to lock the torque distribution at 50/50.

Murano’s handling is more secure and composed than its competitors, thanks to big 18-inch Goodyears and a multi-link suspension based on the Altima’s, but there’s still a fair amount of body roll. Around town, the longish front overhang and heavy steering give the Murano a slightly nose-heavy feel that makes it seem less agile than it is, but that’s really my only complaint. The brakes are smooth and powerful, throttle response is sharp, and the steering’s weight at least gives it an extra sense of accuracy.

Nissan’s on a bit of a roll right now, and you just need to look at this Murano to see why. While other car manufacturers are busy mining their past for good ideas, Nissan is one of only a handful of companies pushing hard and fast into the future; only BMW is trying comparably hard with new styling, packaging, and technology ideas. So while there are aspects of the Murano that aren’t quite perfect – the packaging sacrificed at the altar of style, the disjointed radio controls and display – I’m still smitten by it because it’s like no other SUV I’ve ever experienced.

And hey, how could you not love a truck that comes in orange?

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