2009 Nissan Murano

To signal, I suppose, the model-year face-lift, Nissan designers gave the 2009 Murano a tensed chrome brow, a fierce furrowing that is, actually, quite a bit more aggressive than anything else in the Nissan garage. -- Dan Neil (Nissan)

I would like to give my Nissan Murano test vehicle an Advil, or Tylenol, or perhaps I should Simoniz its hood with that HeadOn stuff that you apply directly to the forehead. This thing looks like it's suffering from the world's worst migraine.

To signal, I suppose, the model-year face-lift, Nissan designers gave the 2009 Murano a tensed chrome brow, a fierce furrowing that is, actually, quite a bit more aggressive than anything else in the Nissan garage. Compared to the new Murano, the lava-breathing GT-R has the countenance of the Buddha. I suppose my question is, does it convey aggression, really, or something akin to consternation, or constipation? This is the look I get when I listen to Kenny Chesney sing or when I eat heavy German food.

It was a problem that Alfred P. Sloan -- GM's empire builder and the man who practically invented stylistic obsolescence -- never contemplated: What if you design a car just right, so well-tempered to its mission and market that anything you do to it subsequently looks phony and trumped up? In other words, how do you market the new design when the old design is better?

The Murano inarguably got it right the first time. Introduced in 2003 as a 2004 model, the Murano was as smoothly contoured as the glass from which it took the name. Its fluid lines wasted no effort encapsulating the shape, a kind of high-sided, short-coupled wagon on big wheels: the crossover. The Murano was a huge hit for Nissan and -- along with the crazed FX35/45 performance utes -- gave Nissan the hip, sassy-as-spit brand image it enjoys today. The Murano also kicked open the door for a crowd of slippery crossovers such as the Mazda CX-7, Buick Enclave and Hyundai Sante Fe. No good deed ever goes unpunished.

After a model-year hiatus (no 2008 model), the Murano comes back with a little more mustard on the ball, styling wise, but generally modest changes. The profile is about the same. The interior passenger room is about the same -- though rear cargo space is trimmed back a bit. The Murano is still based on the Nissan's midsize Altima platform, with routine model-freshening improvements in rigidity and quietness. It's still powered by Nissan's ever-present 3.5-liter V6, with a bump in output to 265 hp and 248 pound-feet of torque. And it's still routing power through a continuously variable transmission (CVT), though this generation of the device is much smarter and far more livable than the last. Compared to the earnestly plodding evolution in the rest of the Murano, the CVT retune is a thunderclap of innovation.

Here's a quick chalk talk on CVTs: A conventional geared transmission, whether manual or automatic, has only so many ratios to match engine speed (where output and fuel efficiency are maximized) and vehicle speed. Conventional transmissions, then, leave a lot of fuel efficiency on the table. A CVT, which uses a drive chain between two variable-diameter pulleys, has essentially an infinite range of gear ratios and so allows the engine to run at optimum speed for any given load.

The trouble with CVTs is their reaction time: You give the car the gas and there's this long moaning engine note as the CVT computer system slowly orients the pulleys to optimum ratios. A lot of cars with CVTs sound as if they are having a full-body massage, even though the CVT is operating as designed.

Nissan's new CVT software works a lot better. The step-off acceleration is respectable, and the passing-speed response is all but indistinguishable from an automatic's kick-down passing behavior. Once throttle demand slackens, the CVT quickly falls into a mellow overdrive mode. Other cars with CVT sound as if they are going to hock up a lung at highway speeds.

The payoff for all this hot, gear-on-gear action is fuel economy: The Murano gets 18 miles per gallon city, 23 mpg highway. That's the same as the former, less-powerful Murano -- under the less demanding EPA test standards, as well -- and it's the same rating in both the front-wheel and well-wheel drive versions. Usually, AWD versions pay a fuel economy penalty. Under the circumstances -- which is to say, when gas costs more than reasonably priced Chablis -- 18/23 mpg isn't a marquee statistic. Still, it's better than a lot of Murano competitors with the same room and less power.

A couple of housekeeping notes: The Murano comes in three trim levels (S, SL and LE) and two editions, front-wheel drive and AWD. The base, FWD version retails for $26,330 and the utterly blissed-out LE AWD (with the 30 GB hard-drive based navigation/audio head, rear-seat DVD, 20-inch rims, and lots more) is about $39,000.

Nissan has gone to some trouble to refine and update the interior, drawing heavily from the Infiniti larder. The center-stack controls are direct lifts from the company's premium brand. There are grace notes here and there. The steering wheel is tilt and telescopic. The LCD display is handsome and intuitive. There's even a push-button start system, with which I managed to somehow kill the battery even though I had the key. Awesome.

If you've driven a Murano, you've driven this one. It's fairly well planted and agile, considering the bar-stool height. The brakes and steering do their thing without incident or complaint. But I must say -- as the spoiled owner of a late-model Honda Odyssey -- the body control could be better. The Murano floats and sways down the highway, and when it encounters broken pavement it takes two or three oscillations for the suspension to re-compose itself.

Here's what I like: I like the reclining rear seats, which make a fairly cramped compartment downright luxe. I like the rear seat lever releases along the rear bulkheads, which allow you to drop the seats easily while loading. I also like the power rear-seat return that raises the seats again, either from buttons in the rear or in the cockpit. These are all features that, while not unique in the market, more than earn their suburban keep.

Still, for me, the Murano is betwixt and between. If I've got to have a luxe crossover -- and I owned Nissan stock -- I'd go for the smaller but infinitely more charismatic Infiniti EX35. If I needed a kid-mobile, the Murano just doesn't have the ease of access or storage. If I needed a sporty crossover, I'd be sorely tempted to wait for the new FX35/45 twins, coming this summer.

Have Nissan product planners bracketed the Murano out of its reason for being? No wonder it has a headache.

dan.neil@latimes.com

2009 Nissan Murano SL

Base price: $27,800

Price, as tested: $29,625

Powertrain: 3.5-liter, 24-valve DOHC V6 with variable-valve timing; continuously variable transmission; front-wheel drive with limited-slip differential.

Horsepower: 265 at 6,000 rpm

Torque: 248 pound-feet at 4,400 rpm

Curb weight: 3,875 pounds (est.)

0-60 mph: 8 seconds

Wheelbase: 111.2 inches

Overall length: 188.5 inches

EPA fuel economy: 18/23 mpg, city/highway

Final thoughts: Nissan's bar and grille.