The 4x4 that wants to be a sports car. Nauman Farooq tests a 'crossover' vehicle
Car buyers are confused. No longer do middle aged family men go to a show room and buy the latest four door saloon with a newer radio. These days they are presented with an array of confusing choices and pressure to buy the latest fad - the SUV, the 4x4, the MPV or if they're lucky one of those old fashioned saloons.
The market has gone bonkers if you ask me. The increased choice and ever stronger 'lifestyle' links that are made in marketing are leaving people confused about what they really need or want.
A lot of people are buying a lot of SUV's when they don't really want an SUV. These people had owned nothing but cars, and what they really want are just big versatile cars, that drive like cars.
Problem is, if you make an SUV as steady and easy to drive as a car, it won't be any good when you need to go off road. Ask any Jeep owner when was the last time he or she, took their expensive sport ute through a desert, mountain range or muddy field, and we all know what the answer will be.
The manufacturers are getting wise to this and are introducing 'Soft Roaders' and 'cross-overs'.
A cross-over vehicle is designed to achieve many things. It can drive like a car, look like an SUV, perform the necessary people carrying duties and show some ability to cope with weather extremes better than a standard saloon - useful for those of us in Canada.
The latest in this breed is obviously the Cayenne. It's a brutish and large vehicle that has great road manners yet is more versatile than a car. Most importantly it can provide on road thrills in a Porsche style as well as show competence off road.
For a lot less money, you can take the latest offering from Nissan. It's called the Murano, and it looks like a cross between a sports hatch and an SUV. It uses the same engine as the Nissan 350Z sports car. A cross-over with the soul of a sports car, can it really be a bargain priced alternative to a Cayenne?
Sadly, the answer is no. This might have the heart from a sports car, but it has been detuned to produce a - still respectable - 245 hp. Couple that with the vehicles all-wheel drive system, and its hefty 1800kg kerb weight and you'll appreciate that this is no speed demon.
Making matters worse is the gearbox. Unusually for a car of this size, it uses a Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT). A nice piece of engineering but one which leaves the driver a little unsure of what is occuring down below. It feels a lot like breathing, but only the inhaling! The CVT feels very unnatural, and not particularly quick either. There is a sport mode on the transmission which does help, but still, you're looking at a 0-60 mph time of 8.8 seconds, and top speed is limited to 115 mph due to its high profile tyres.
So, speed isn't its thing, but for a vehicle that looks like an SUV, it handles pretty well. Yes, there is lots of body roll, but there is tons of grip too. The Murano can really take corners like a simple sports car. It's all wheel drive system, variying power front to back, and it reacts fast, giving you exit speeds from a corner that you just wouldn't expect from a vehicle of this type.
On a rain soaked morning, I hurled it around a wet slip road. It gripped its way around the curve admirably - unlike any SUV I've driven previously.
The interior in the Murano looks like its out of a concept car, the fact that my test car had an 'interesting' orange interior made it look even more like a show car. All the interior bits and pieces are recognizable from other current Nissan products.
Things I really liked about the interior include the power adjustable pedals, easy fold rear seats, and a truly fab navigation system. Things I don't like about the interior, well, despite being a big vehicle, the interior feels a bit small and narrow, the steering wheel only tilts not telescopes, and the rim of the steering wheel is too fat! Other than that, the interior is just fine, with fit and finish scoring big points here.
If you think the interior looked like a show car, then the exterior certainly looks like a show car. It's hard to think how to describe its looks. Love them or hate them, people do seem to look and point. From the large number of Murano's you see on the roads here, I guess most people approve of its styling.
So, what do you pay for one? A base Murano SL will start from CAN$39,500 and a fully equipped Murano SE model with the navigation system option included will set you back CAN$49,900 (~£22,500).
Verdict? It's a fine vehicle for hauling your family about in. It handles particularly well and is good to look at. If only they would ditch that awful gearbox it would win a lot more fans.