The "Maxima" of SUVs? By Liz Kim Despite howling from environmentalists, car lovers and safety advocates, the American public seems to be as enamored as ever with SUVs, whose sales remain stratospheric. One can see the allure. With the vast quantity of tall vehicles on the road, it's frustrating to be stuck behind one and not be able to see your path; you might as well join the crowd. Plus the cargo space comes in ever so handy when you've overspent once again at Target; buying that six-feet-tall bookcase becomes a nonissue, whereas you'd have to give it some hard thought before threading it through the trunk and split-fold seats of a Hyundai Elantra. However, the public has grown savvier in articulating its demands, and the carmakers have increased their savoir faire in meeting them. Give us the view of the road and the load-carrying capacity of an SUV, consumers cajole, but lose the lethargic steering, harsh ride quality, tippy center of gravity and the gas-quaffing qualities of a truck. The answer was to create an SUV-looking vehicle that's based on a car platform, and make it into what is essentially a tall station wagon, or a minivan, but without the frumpy domestic connotations. The introduction of the Subaru Forester in the late 1990s was one of the first modern manifestations of this concept, and other manufacturers quickly followed suit, from the higher-end BMW X5 to the more humble Mitsubishi Outlander. Nissan saw the potential in this market, and green-lighted a crossover vehicle of its own, seeking to fill the gap that existed between its trucks and cars. The result is the 2003 Murano. Although it was created and is built in Japan, it was exclusively designed for the North American consumer. Positioned to compete against the Honda Pilot (based on the Odyssey) and Toyota Highlander (built on the Camry platform), the Murano is based on the company's rip-roaring Altima. Like the Altima, it features Nissan's exceptional 3.5-liter V6 engine. With minor structural modifications, it produces 245 horsepower at 5,800 rpm and 246 pound-feet of torque at 4,400 rpm. As in the Altima, thrust is plentiful and smooth throughout the rev range. With a polished exhaust note and refined operation, the VQ-series engine has proven to be one of the best performers in any vehicle it's called on to motivate. Managing the power is a five-speed continuously variable transmission (CVT) which benefits the driver in fuel economy and smooth operation. Originally, Nissan made a big deal out of a possible seven-speed unit, but has decided that it would be unnecessary with an engine possessing such a broad power band; such a novelty would prove to be more advantageous with a peaky engine. In any case, no one will miss it; the CVT operates smoothly and manages ratios efficiently, especially notable when going up a hill. Upshifts and downshifts occurred with no problems, and unlike most CVTs the Murano retains the option of a low or second gear mode. We do think that an automanual function would be helpful in the event that drivers prefer to choose their own gears, however. Buyers can choose between a front-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive vehicle. We drove both models and found little difference, although the AWD model did have a slight advantage in surefootedness around corners. This system uses a single coupling in the rear to distribute up to 50 percent of the power when it senses that the front wheels are losing traction. We've previously found that front-wheel-drive vehicles equipped with a good set of winter tires are almost as effective as AWD models in proving to be adroit at handling slick, ice-covered roads, so it's a matter of preference and about $1,600 if you choose the latter. Arresting the Murano are four-wheel vented disc brakes aided by ABS, Electronic Brakeforce Distribution and BrakeAssist. Other standard safety features include front seat-mounted side airbags, side curtain airbags, three-point locking retractor seatbelts for all five seating positions and LATCH anchors to help install child seats correctly. Optional if you get the Dynamic Control Package are stability and traction control systems and a tire pressure monitor system to help you avoid sticky situations in the first place. The Murano also shares its suspension design with the Altima, as it rides on a four-wheel independent suspension with struts up front and a multilink setup in the rear. You can choose between two trim levels, a comfort-oriented SL and the sporty SE. The SL established itself as the more sensible drive, allowing for a friendly, jostle-free ride over bumps and uneven pavement. Nissan expects about 90 percent of sales to be biased toward the SL. Although it's harsh and allows a lot of vibration into the cabin, the SE rewards drivers with more responsive handling and considerably less body roll, which makes for a much more entertaining drive on twisty roads. The whole point of a crossover vehicle is to emphasize comfort over a traditional SUV, and the interior of the Murano continues this trend. Many of the soothing features in the Murano are standard, and they helped to give us a high level of contentment in the driver seat during our brief introductory test drive. Among them is a power driver seat, a center console that slides fore and aft for resting your elbow and automatic climate control. Immediately noticeable is the "floating dash" design of the center console, in which the panel is canted outwards for a futuristic visual effect. It also allows for a large storage bin underneath it. You'll also appreciate the real aluminum trim that graces the center console, shifter area and doors and the Audi-esque "themed" interior with three color choices: Cabernet (get only if you really like red), Charcoal and Café Latte. Nissan recognized the value of storage space in a family-toting vehicle, and has made numerous efforts to maximize cubbies and holders throughout the cabin. A "Hello? Why didn't anyone think of this before?" philosophy governed these features, which include such niceties as a dedicated cell phone holder right next to the cupholder (where most cell phones rest anyway), a coin holder, expanding door bins and a nicely sized, dual-tiered center console that's big enough to hold a computer laptop. Rear-seaters fare quite well too, with a fold-down armrest and upper and lower rear vents. Legroom is generous at 36.1 inches, though is slightly less than that of the Highlander (at 36.4 inches) and the Pilot (at 37.4 inches). A flat floor with no middle bump and the adjustable reclining rear seat backs make up for Nissan's past rear-seat missteps in the Pathfinder and Xterra. Entry and exit for both front and rear passengers are easy thanks to a low step-in and no doorsill lip. Cargo space with the rear seats in use is 32.6 cubic feet, with 81.6 cubic feet availing themselves with the seats down.Facilitating the loading of cargo is a remote release in the cargo area for the 60/40-split rear seats. You don't have to go to the second row to pull the seat backs forward. Just push a lever from the back, and presto, you've got a flat-loading floor. The rear hatch is split so that your cargo doesn't come tumbling out after the contents have shifted during flight. The Honda Pilot can claim superiority in this area, however, as it boasts the option of a third-row seat for seven-passenger capacity and 90.3 cubic feet when both rows of seats are folded. The Murano starts at around $29,000, but several attractive option packages will increase that price. The SE comes either bare bones or loaded with a Popular Package that includes leather trim, sunroof, power-adjustable pedals (to achieve a perfect driving position), roof rails, a power passenger seat, seat memory system, Bose stereo system with an in-dash six-disc CD changer and cargo net and cover. The SL model offers more flexible packaging, breaking up the parcel with a Premium Package with roof rails, adjustable pedals, Bose system and cargo cover and net, to which you can add a leather package that adds the rest of the goodies. Stand-alone options include the aforementioned Dynamic Control package that combines stability and traction control and a tire pressure monitor system, a cold weather package with heated front seats and heated outside mirrors and a navigation system. The Nissan Murano is a compelling choice in a growing segment. It offers a wide array of comfort, convenience and safety features, while also being fun to drive and having great handling and a smooth, powerful engine. The Honda Pilot may offer more generous accommodations for people and cargo, but neither it nor the Toyota Highlander can match the Murano's extroverted exterior; with wraparound headlamps, a rakish angled body and a grille that stands out as unique on the road, it will attract those who want a little extra spice in their crossover vehicle. Nissan expects the "Maxima of SUVs" to sell about 50,000 a year to an even mix of men and women who are seeking a stylish conveyance to ferry their belongings and passengers through the urban maze. Know anyone like that? We know plenty.