2010 Nissan Murano S: A techless mud wrangler

CNET Car Tech takes a look at the 2010 Nissan Murano S.

2010 Nissan Murano S
The Nissan Murano S lacks tech options, but does get all-wheel drive. Josh Miller/CNET

Nissan proudly advertises the Murano as the on-road SUV, highlighting the vehicle's carlike refinement, but our 2010 Nissan Murano S, with all-wheel drive and a locking differential, showed us that it has some off-road chops, as well.

With its smooth body lines and an almost space-age shape, the Murano looks nothing like the macho truck-based SUVs. Instead, it lead the way for a whole slew of crossovers, such as the Chevy Traverse and Ford Edge. But it retains SUV dimensions, with seating for five and ample cargo space, along with a high-riding position.

When we got into our test vehicle, we noted standard Nissan elements, such as the keyless entry and start system. But the screen in the middle of the dashboard lacked the interface controls we were used to, and, after firing up the engine, ugly orange lettering came to life on the display showing climate control and audio information.

Nissan Murano screen
The garish orange screen shows audio and climate information. Josh Miller/CNET

Clearly, this screen was not an LCD, which meant no navigation system. Checking the car, we saw that Nissan had dropped off a Murano in S trim, the lowest possible, and that there are no tech options available at this trim level. None. Worse yet, the S trim doesn't come with a Bluetooth phone system or even satellite radio, leaving us with an MP3-compatible six-CD changer and an auxiliary input.

The S trim's lack of tech left us with only the driving experience to evaluate, and none of our usual exploration of navigation, phone, and audio systems.

Standard V-6

We didn't anticipate a big difference in this 2010 Murano S versus previous Muranos we had taken out, and we weren't mistaken. The 2010 model gets the same 3.5-liter V-6 that Nissan has relied on for years. It's a good engine, making the Ward's 10 best engines list repeatedly. Nissan hasn't pumped up the displacement, as it did with the 3.7-liter V-6 in the 370Z and the Infiniti G37.

Nissan did make updates to the model for the 2009 model year, increasing engine power to 265 horsepower and 248 pound-feet of torque. Our 2010 Murano S felt ready to run, with responsive acceleration at low speeds as we trundled around the city. We wouldn't say the Murano feels like a small car, but it is easily maneuverable, with responsive steering.

Nissan Murano shifter
Nissan makes one of the best CVTs in the business. Josh Miller/CNET

The Murano, like many other Nissan models, uses a continuously variable transmission (CVT) rather than an automatic or manual with fixed gears. As such, it gives the car linear, smooth acceleration unless you step hard on the gas. Trying a fast launch, we watched the tach needle climb toward the 5,000 rpm mark as the transmission let the engine pick up speed.

Nissan does a very good job programming the CVT. When we tried stomping hard on the gas while already at speed, it felt like a regular automatic, immediately boosting engine speed in a virtual downshift.

At freeway speeds, the Murano tooled along nicely, the cabin well-insulated from road noise and the suspension delivering a smooth ride. We were less keen on the stock audio system, which sounded a little muted. At higher trim levels you can get a premium Bose audio system.

Thrashing the car around some mountain roads full of rain-wet curves, the Murano did not give us a whole lot of confidence. There is no manual gear selection on the transmission, just some low ranges, and it isn't programmed to downshift aggressively as you brake before a turn. And although the car did not exactly wallow, the suspension is not tuned for hard cornering, showing plenty of lean.

But one thing we found intriguing about the Murano was that all-wheel drive is a no-cost option, and there is a differential lock button. Normally, torque is biased toward the front wheels, throwing it to the rear when it detects slip. In our mountain driving, that aspect of the all-wheel drive helped the car keep grip as we slogged it around slick curves.

Mudder

Then we found a muddy dirt road full of ruts and deep puddles. Pushing the differential lock button ensured the torque would be going to all wheels, no matter how much slip they were experiencing. As we worked our way down the road, a puddle loomed ahead, crossing the road. Knowing the water served as a cover for deep mud, we carefully put the front wheels in and almost immediately felt them slip.

Nissan Murano diff lock button
The AWD Lock button keeps power going to all four wheels. Josh Miller/CNET

Applying heavier gas, the rear wheels pushed the car in further as the fronts scrabbled for grip, sending a spray of mud up the sides of the car, until we attained more solid ground on the other side. We were pretty happy with the Murano's behavior, as having to call a tow truck and be pulled clear would have been no fun at all.

Finding a deeply rutted ascent, we pointed the Murano up, feeling it start to slide from side to side. But again, the engine kept all four wheels turning, letting the Murano get enough grip to pull itself up to the top.

The car isn't really built for this kind of work. Its clearance isn't bad, but it was working on standard street tires. However, it demonstrated some solid capabilities for slippery mud or snow.

After all the different driving conditions we put the Murano through, it still made 20.6 mpg. That's not bad, considering the EPA range is 18 mpg city and 23 mpg highway.

In sum

We like the 2010 Nissan Murano as a platform, but we would never get an S trim model. Nissan has some good cabin tech available in other cars, but none of it can be had in this one. And forget about aftermarket modding, as the screen in the dashboard makes that unlikely.

The top of the line LE model comes standard with iPod integration, Bose audio system, Bluetooth phone system, and a backup camera, this latter being a big safety lack in the S trim. A navigation system is also available for the LE model, which uses a hard drive for map storage and shows traffic information.

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