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The 2002 Car and Driver New-Car Guide helped welcome six new sport-utility vehicles into an already crowded market. This year's guide features more than double that number of new kids on the trendiest block in Truckville, U.S.A. Most of them are trying desperately to conform to the latest mode of fashion: the car/truck-hybrid vehicle-for-all-seasons-and-all-reasons "crossover ute." Like all the car/boat and car/plane concepts that have been attempted in the past century, car/trucks tend to be rather unconvincing as either cars or trucks, at least from the standpoint of car enthusiasts.
Nissan Murano SL AWD

Highs: V-8 verve on a V-6 budget, BMW handling, daring styling that works.

Lows: Ride tiptoes the line between firm and harsh.

The Verdict: A great truck for the car nut who needs an 82-cubic-foot trunk.

And so it is with increasing ennui and eye rolling that we, your faithful reporters on all things automotive, accept the assignment to cover the optimistic launch of yet another of these omni-use active-lifestyle beasts. But occasionally an automaker surprises us by straying from the everything-for-everybody formula and builds a genuine individual. Isuzu's VehiCROSS was a perfect example — as unique and freakish as Edward Scissorhands, and a hoot to drive. Hummer's extroverted H2 is another, perhaps too obvious, case in point. A much subtler but equally exceptional exemplar is the new Murano from Nissan.
A clear message is being sent by the edgy yet rounded styling themes of this SUV, with its vaguely shoelike profile and a tail end reminiscent of the funky fannies Renault is appending to its cars these days: This ain't no me-too truck. Measuring 187.6 inches long by 74.0 inches wide, it's big. Conformist competitors of this size accommodate three rows of seats, but Nissan chose instead to package first-class seating for five adults (reclining backrests and stretch-out legroom) under a lower, more stylish roofline than one finds on those suburban family buses. Even the interior styling goes its own way with real aluminum trim and various pods and modules that appear to float in space. It's kind of an '80s look — too recent to be retro, but reinterpreted just enough to look cool.

And if you think the body looks unique, wait till you put on your David Kimble X-ray glasses and feast your peepers on the Murano's drivetrain. Sandwiched between Nissan's increasingly ubiquitous 3.5-liter VQ V-6 and our test car's full-time all-wheel-drive system is a high-capacity, belt-driven Xtronic continuously variable transmission (see sidebar).

Why should the enthusiast care?
First and foremost because the infinite gear ratios of the transmission behave like two more cylinders when the hammer's down. In the unlikely event you haven't peeked already, check out the test results and the bar graph: 60 mph flashes by in 7.5 seconds, the quarter in 15.9 at 88 mph. Most sport-utes with scoot like that run V-8s. Brake-torque the Murano (its torque converter can handle this abuse as easily as a conventional tranny's can), then sidestep the brake, and off you go. At about 44 mph you reach the top of the 2.37:1 "first gear," after which the pulleys start changing diameter to maintain an engine speed of about 6250 rpm all the way to a 116-mph governed top speed.

There are other performance benefits, too, such as no hunting for gears when climbing long grades and ideally tailored engine braking for the downhill runs. Drop the hammer to overtake someone from a cruising speed, and you instantly get a step change to the ideal gear ratio for peak passing performance. Note that the Murano's 50-to-70-mph passing time of 5.1 seconds is 0.3 second quicker than that of our recent Lincoln Aviator (V-8 mated to a five-speed auto), which has a similar power-to-weight ratio.

Under all conditions short of wide-open throttle, the CVT increases the ratio to keep the engine operating at peak efficiency so that the Murano's V-6 turns 3 to 11 percent fewer engine revolutions per mile on the EPA fuel-economy test cycles than it would with a conventional four- or five-speed automatic. This results in an EPA rating of 20 mpg city and 24 or 25 mpg highway for AWD or front-drive — not bad for a two-ton truck. We averaged 18 mpg overall, 19 during the 900 miles before our test-track session. Our long-term Jeep Grand Cherokee and Mercury Mountaineer V-8s managed 16 and 17 mpg over 40,000 miles.

But the Murano's straight-line performance isn't its best attribute. What got us enthusing about this truck was its handling and braking. Based on a hugely modified Altima unit-body suspended by struts in front and multiple links in back and riding on standard 18-inch wheels shod in 235/65TR-18 Goodyear Eagle LS rubber, our test car grabbed the skidpad with 0.81 g of resolve and snaked through twists and turns (transmission selector in "S" for higher revs and more engine braking) with remarkable accuracy and minimal body roll or tire squeal. Its steering heft feels natural and predictable at all speeds and under varying corner loads. A well-placed dead pedal and a comfortably bolstered seat heighten the driver's feeling of control and encourage spirited driving. So do the brakes, 12-plus-inch manhole covers that can dissipate 70-mph momentum in 170 feet. Put simply, the Murano behaves like a BMW X5 that's been deeply discounted to just $30,339 ($1600 less with front-wheel drive).

All these stats are impressive for a truck, but they're generated at some cost. Ride quality on our base SL AWD model verged on flinty, raising concerns about the sport-tuned SE model ($800 more). Bumps and potholes set the interior furnishings to banging around in this prototype vehicle. These problems we expect will be rectified in production cars, but if the ride quality is representative, rattles and clangs are sure to develop over the long run. The Murano is rated to tow just 3500 pounds — impressive for a CVT but only entry level at best among mid-size SUVs.
And with just 7.0 inches of ground clearance, this is no gully runner. Despite a claimed approach angle of 28 degrees (equal to the Acura MDX's), our Murano was the only sport-ute on hand for our 5Best Trucks competition (see next month's issue) to grind its chin on our modest hill-climb event. The four-wheel-drive system works like the Volvo XC90's: The front wheels get all the twist until they slip, at which time up to 50 percent of the torque is routed aft to an electronically controlled clutch pack mounted to the rear differential. The driver can also lock this clutch manually below 19 mph via a switch on the center console, although mild tire crabbing occurs on hard pavement when it's locked.

Whatever the Murano lacks in do-everything capability, we don't miss at all. Heaven knows there are enough Jeeps, Hummers, and Rovers in the world to choke every rural rocky road with beltway-grade congestion. What the SUV landscape is short on is $30,000 BMW X5s — or was until now.

Behold the first belt-drive truck.

By now we're amply convinced that continuously variable transmissions (CVTs) can improve acceleration and fuel economy by optimally adjusting engine speeds and loads to driving conditions, permitting maximum acceleration at or near the power peak while cruising at higher load (lower rpm) for peak efficiency. But this is the first CVT with the torque capacity to work in a big SUV, at least in the U.S. Nissan does build a toroidal roller-type CVT in Japan called the Extroid, which can withstand 286 pound-feet. Unfortunately, this device can't tolerate the ultra-low temperatures encountered in America.

So how does the traditional Van Doorne-type push-belt Xtronic CVT, identical in concept to the tiny Subaru Justy's CVT that first arrived here in 1989, come by its newfound strength? The pulleys clamp the belt much more tightly, and they're hardened to withstand the added stress. A beefier belt uses individual steel plates that are 30 millimeters wide and are held together by twelve 0.2mm steel bands on each side instead of the nine used in Nissan's smaller CVT. The new belt's minimal running diameter is also increased, but the overall ratio spread is an impressive 5.40. That is considerably wider than the spreads offered by the Altima V-6's four-speed automatic and five-speed manual (4.04 and 4.09, respectively), although it trails the 6.04 ratio spread offered by the Audi CVT and the new ZF six-speed automatic.

A torque converter couples the CVT to the engine, but because of the high inertia of the belt and pulleys, it isn't needed to absorb drivetrain shock, so it can lock up at about 12 mph to further improve efficiency (most converters lock up at 30 mph), and its ultra-slim design is 23mm narrower than other Nissan converters of similar capacity.

Bottom line, the engineers at Jatco who developed Xtronic with Nissan claim a 14-percent improvement in acceleration and a 12-percent boost in EPA combined fuel economy relative to typical four- and five-speed automatics.

2001 CL Type S
2001 Lexus RX300 Silversport
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