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2011 Nissan Murano (Mike Ditz/Nissan)
2011 Nissan Murano (Mike Ditz/Nissan)

2011 Nissan Murano SL AWD

Murano is Nissan's best-kept secret Add to ...

If you can find a 2010 version of the Nissan Murano crossover kicking around a dealer lot, you should know that, according to carcostcanada.com, Nissan Canada has a $6,000 factory-to-dealer rebate in play.

Odds are you won't find a 2010, though. The big sales sweetener on the 2010 was put in place to move out whatever 2010 Muranos were left - to make room for the new-for-2011 Murano. Other than 2.9 per cent financing, Nissan Canada has nothing special in the deal department on this newest Murano.

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No deal need. The Murano, powered by a smooth, 3.5-litre V-6 (260 horsepower), has been updated in all sorts of ways. Nissan doesn't feel compelled to jolt sales of the Murano with anything more than the product story itself.

So here it is.

For starters, there is a new grille, large bi-Xenon high-intensity headlights and integrated fog lights in the front bumper. Head on, this is a handsome package. But this Nissan looks even better from the side. The highlights include big wheel arches and well-defined character lines. The rear glass area, LED taillights, a small spoiler and twin chrome-tipped exhausts finish the package. I would argue the Murano is the best-looking mid-size crossover in a crowded field.

The cabin, meanwhile, is a strong design, with a large centre console the centrepiece of which is a seven-inch display (for infotainment). Big and tasteful control knobs, a telescoping steering wheel and storage cubbies everywhere round out the overall package.

Yes, there is plenty of storage space and it's welcome. Who doesn't need pockets for mobile phones, coins and maps? There is even a huge glove box and seatback pockets. All useful and all good. And a few words about the Bose audio system, with its 11 speakers and a two gigabyte hard drive included audio/video and USB inputs: thoroughly modern and sounds great when cranked.

The generous cargo area at the rear has a foldaway organizer that pops up with a push of a button. The button is hidden below the rear cargo floor, but once you figure that out, the cargo floor transforms into a space with removable partitions designed to keep individual items from rolling around in back. Smart stuff, this.

That V-6 engine is tied to a continuously variable transmission. This sort of gearbox is made up of two V-belt pulleys with a belt running between them. Your gear ratios change via variable pulley adjustments. I'm oversimplifying here, but here's what you need to know: power is applied smoothly with maximum fuel efficiency at the top of the list. CVTs are notoriously unsatisfying if you're a performance nut, however; because there are no gear steps - no clearly distinguished shift points - the drive feels a little lawnmower-ish.

So much for the gearhead talk. Almost. I do need to mention that all 2011 Muranos come standard with all-wheel-drive. This system adjusts automatically to road conditions in a tenth of a second with no input from the driver. You'll get engine power to the wheels that need it quickly, but don't think this is some sort of serious off-roading wagon. It's not. It just works well when the road conditions are lousy.

The AWD system is aided, in fact, by electronic anti-skid control and traction control. These nanny systems are intended to keep excessive wheel spin under control and, again, do wonders in bad weather - though you may need to turn off the traction control in fresh snow, to maximize traction.

Regardless of the weather, the Murano's four-wheel independent suspension is an excellent design if you like a comfy ride when the pavement gets horrible or there is no pavement at all. Much of the suspension is made of lightweight aluminum which is also a good thing for weight management and ride control. The Murano is no lumbering crossover, but a decently nimble tall wagon whose driving qualities suit trips to the cottage very well, indeed.

My SL model tester ($40,783) had heated leather seats, but the lesser Muranos get cloth upholstery. The seats were firm but not hard and left me feeling quite happy after a two-hour drive.

The cockpit itself is wide open thanks to several design features, not the least of which is the big frontal glass area. Then there is the large dual-pane moon roof, which means more airiness, still. Nissan doesn't seem to spend much to market the Murano and I find that odd. I believe it would be a hotter item off of dealer lots if more people knew about its existence. I mean, aside from the performance, styling and creature comforts, the Murano boasts above-average reliability and good crash test scores for both front and side impact.

My bet is that Nissan would sell a lot more Muranos if a lot more people knew to take one for a test drive.

jcato@globeandmail.com

Tech specs

2011 Nissan Murano SL AWD

Type: Mid-size SUV

Price: $40,743 ($1,580 freight)

Engine: 3.5-litre V-6

Horsepower/torque: 260 HP/240 lb-ft

Transmission: two-speed CVT

Drive: All-wheel

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 11.7 city/8.5 highway; regular gas

Alternatives: Chevrolet Traverse, GMC Acadia, Honda Pilot, Kia Sorento, Mazda CX-9, Ford Flex, Toyota Highlander, Dodge Durango, Ford Edge, Ford Explorer, Jeep Grand Cherokee

Follow on Twitter: @catocarguy

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