After a slump in the South African market, Japanese manufacturer Nissan seems to be back on track and ready to conquer the world. While their ‘normal’ passenger cars appear to be relatively unpopular, except among car rental agencies, their legendary 1400-bakkie and newer Hardbody pick-ups still sell exceptionally well, with more and more Micra’s adorning our public road system.

Their 350Z in roadster and cabrio form are the stuff dreams are made of, and like the Micra, we are seeing more of them on the road every day. Where Nissan is, however, making a killing is in the sports utility segment, with the X-Trail probably being the most popular Nissan since the good old Sentra.

For now that is. In the past couple of months Nissan has released a number of very desirable SUV’s, most notably the delightfully butch Pathfinder, the Navara double-cab (the latter being based on the former), and the jaw-droppingly gorgeous Murano – an SUV so different to the norm that it is simply impossible to ignore. In fact, the Murano is a bit of an oxymoron: it’s got the size of an SUV, yet handles like a car; it’s got the space of a station wagon, yet has the luxury of leather; it’s got all-wheel drive, yet surprises with its simplicity of operation. And on top of that, it combines the award-winning engine from the 350Z with a stepless CVT transmission.

Nissan detuned their infamous roadster’s all-aluminium 3.5-litre V6 engine for use in the Murano, but it still produces 172kW at 6000rpm, with 318Nm of torque available at 3600rpm. Considering that the Murano weighs in at 1870kg, it still manages a 0-100km/h time of 8.9 seconds with an impressive top speed of 200km/h – all with the help of the amazing CVT transmission. It works by running a steel belt over two conical pulleys which increase and decrease their effective diameter as they open and close, always in step so that the tension on the belt remains constant. The bigger the driver pulley (the one connected to the engine) is in relation to the driven, the higher the “gear ratio” and the faster you go for a given engine revs.

It’s actually as simple as this: if you floor the Murano the revolutions will climb rapidly to 6000rpm and stay there, the transmission rapidly catching up and giving you smooth, seamless and surprisingly quick acceleration. The difference between the CVT transmission and an automatic transmission is most evident on uphills as there is no hunting or momentary loss of power as the box changes gear – the revs just rise as necessary to maintain speed or accelerate. Nissan also claims that it’s more economical than an automatic transmission, quoting a fuel consumption figure of 12.3 litres/100km in the combined cycle – which is not bad for a vehicle of the Murano’s size!

Normally the Murano is driven through the front wheels (unlike most vehicles with this size or power), yet there is no trace of torque steer with pleasantly neutral handling. On broken, slippery or very uneven terrain the vehicle’s torque is electronically distributed between the front and rear wheels, and most of the time you don’t even feel it working. A button on the centre console locks the transmission in permanent all-wheel drive for crawling through muddy or rocky patches, but doesn’t make the Murano an off-roader at all – instead the all-wheel drive system is designed rather to look after you if you do something silly on a slippery road.

The suspension has been up-rated for South Africa’s long distances and high average speeds, but ride is still remarkably smooth on good surfaces and free of thumping on unmade roads. The brakes are ventilated discs all round, while ABS and EBD prevent lock-up with brake assist helping with emergency stops. The interior is all black leather and brushed aluminium accents, and there seems to have been a conscious effort to avoid gadgetry just for the mere sake of it. Only the driver’s seat has power adjustment but both front seats have heaters. The steering column is adjustable for reach and height, and the automatic air-conditioning has three simple, intuitive settings.

If you love loud music you’ll be happy to know that the Murano is fitted with a straightforward and easy to use eight-speaker Bose sound system with a sub-woofer in the spare wheel cavity. The leather seats are wide, soft and comfortable and may initially come across as lacking lateral support – however, as with any car, it gets better the longer you drive it.

The cabin is huge and seats five people in comfort, with even the rear seatbacks being adjustable. Mother-company Renault’s influence can also be seen in the cabin with the Murano having a multitude of storage space a la Scenic. There are a couple of little oddments trays between the front seats, a decent size bin-style glove compartment, deep, expandable pockets in the front doors and a lockable compartment under the centre armrest.

Under its super-modern exterior, the Nissan Murano is a no-fuss vehicle that is unpretentious, comfortable, convenient, sporty and pretty straightforward. It has presence like few other vehicles on our roads today (except maybe a Hummer), and if a pseudo-SUV with stand-out looks is what you’re looking for I don’t think you can do better than the Murano.

At R379 100 – which includes a 3 year/ 100 000km warranty and 5 year/ 100 000km service plan – it also has a very appealing price tag. Sure, you can go for tradional or status-focused SUV’s (like a BMW X3 or Subaru Forester), but why be average and everyday when you can stand out? I believe the Murano is unique enough within its segment to be the vehicle of choice, and that it has what it takes to grab the title. Given the choice, I’d buy one in a heartbeat.

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