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

Every now and then, a new vehicle comes along that's so right for its market and so original, it must have product planners at rival car companies scratching their heads and muttering under their breath, "Wow, why didn't we think of that?"

Like the other SUVs in our test, the Murano owes its basic structure to a front-drive midsize sedan, the Nissan Altima in this case. But the Murano blends technology and Technicolor in such an intriguing way it elevates the midsize SUV to the level of modern industrial art. Like the first Apple Macintosh computer or Edison light bulb, we wouldn't be surprised if the first Murano ended up in a museum somewhere. There's nothing else like it on the road. And that's not easy to do these days.

Nissan hasn't exactly been a hotbed of new SUV product in recent years. With the exception of the low-tech, trail gorp-oriented Xterra introduced four years ago, the only other SUV in Nissan's garden was the aging, largely ignored Pathfinder. But with the alliance of Nissan and Renault now bearing fruit, the bare spots in Nissan's model coverage are starting to green up nicely. After all, this is the year of the Z.

Compared to an Altima, the Murano is 4.0 inches shorter, but 3.5 inches wider and 8.5 inches taller. With the Murano, Nissan reapportions the space allotted to passengers and cargo so that rear-seat passengers have plenty of stretch-out room. A steeply sloping rear-roof section steals cargo space above the beltline, especially acute when the rear seats are in the up position. But drop the rear seats and suddenly all that rear-passenger space transfers to the cargo side of the ledger. A 60/40-split, reclining rear seatback allows Murano Mission Control to mix and match passenger and cargo space to suit the occasion. Nifty pullout handles to fold down the split rear seat are located just inside the liftgate door where you can reach them when loading cargo.

Notably finished in manner, polished, even suave, the Murano's interior is a treasure trove of interesting details. There's real brushed-aluminum trim covering the console, gauge surrounds, steering-wheel spokes, and some door items. The console is chock-a-block with flocked, jewel-case-like compartments--a deep, narrow one for a cell-phone, a wider, shallow one for keys and loose change, and so on. Switchgear feel is top notch. As on the Z, a superbike-like pod houses the instruments with stunning bone-colored gauge faces. The top of the dashboard is an expansive, well-crafted organizer for odds and ends. The cabin is a complete sensory experience--shapes, colors, textures that surprise and delight. Although the placement of some switchgear takes getting used to and the thick, American Motors Gremlin-like rear roof pillars rob rearward visibility, the overall impression is "thoughtful." In perceived quality, we can't help but imagine the hand of the plucky French here.

The boldness that first surfaced in the 350Z and Altima is evident in this unexpected SUV. You see it in the Cheshire Cat smiling chrome grille and vertical-stack headlamps up front and the Cinderella pumpkin coach bustle-back liftgate at the rear.