Like the other SUVs in this test, the Murano is available in front drive or all-wheel-drive forms. Prices start just over $28,000 for the well-equipped front-drive SL model, ranging to nearly $31,000 for the luxury-oriented AWD SE version. Every Murano is fitted with a full complement of safety gear, such as dual front airbags, front-seat side airbags, and inflatable side curtains. Four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes with electronic brake-force distribution and brake assist are standard fare.

The Murano's Altima-based suspension is compliant, yet it patters some on rippled surfaces. The standard 18-inch wheels, great on smooth surfaces, are partly to blame here, as the 65-series tires won't absorb much harshness on broken pavement. Steering effort seems a bit heavier than on the Highlander and Endeavor, not terribly crisp, but agile enough. We did, however, run out of steering boost sometimes during quick turns at slow speeds. Nevertheless, on smooth pavement the Murano's suspension felt the most sophisticated of our three testers, with a wonderful balance of damping and compliance versus ultimate grip. A Sport Suspension option for the Murano offers even stiffer springs and shocks, but we feel the base setup is the right one.

Depress the throttle, and the Murano's 3.5-liter/245-horse V-6 brings plenty of power to the party to reinforce the SUV's sporty looks. Continuously variable valve timing helps keep the sidewinder VQ V-6 "on the cam," and dual exhaust outlets trumpet an enthusiastic tune. In our testing, the Murano consistently took 0-60 mph and quarter-mile acceleration honors.

In keeping with the SUV's distinctive design, the Murano's specification includes a unique continuously variable transmission called Xtronic. Instead of a series of stepped gears, the CVT uses a belt that rides on two cone-shaped pulleys. The position of the belt on the pulleys determines the gear ratio at any given moment, infinitely variable depending on throttle position, road speed, road load, and other factors. Nissan is no stranger to these transmissions, having introduced its first CVT in a production car in Japan in 1992. In a way, it's the ultimate automatic transmission, completely responsive to the driver and vehicle situation, unencumbered by having to step through or hunt for the right gear ratios. Despite roaring to the 6200-rpm redline and staying there on a wide-open-throttle freeway merge, the CVT never feels strained.

Next to the Saturn Vue, the Murano is the only SUV equipped with this innovative transmission here in the States. But don't stray too far from pavement. There's a soft underbelly of aluminum castings, heat exchangers, and other vitals underneath. And the Murano's CVT takes only special "green" transmission fluid not readily available in the hinterlands.

Murano's all-wheel-drive system works differently from those of the Highlander and Endeavor. It's an on-demand setup, operating in front-drive mode unless the front wheels begin to lose traction, at which time a multiplate clutch pack will send up to 50 percent of the available drive torque to the rear wheels as needed to maintain traction. An AWD Lock mode for slippery, low-speed conditions can be activated by a console-mounted switch. In AWD Lock mode, the drive torque is split evenly between the front and rear wheels, but only up to 19 mph. Above 19, normal operation resumes. As a side benefit, the Murano's AWD system seems to mute the torque-steering problem that other V-6-powered FF-L platformmates such as the Altima and Maxima experience under wide-open- throttle acceleration.

With a fresh dose of sport-coupe-like energy and style, the all-new Nissan Murano takes the car-based midsize SUV beyond errand-runner status.