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Two years ago, Nissan provided an early Christmas present, unveiling the popular Murano for sales in January. It was a nice public relations move that not only garnered considerable attention in the automotive world, but also addressed a few problem areas in this midsize crossover that needed attention.

Although the 2011 Murano has experienced no major changes since its last redesign, that’s not a bad thing because it continues to reside near the top of the class in a competitive field of sport utility vehicles that combine versatility with nimble driving acumen.

The Murano remains an extremely attractive crossover that offers sophistication, sporty handling, a spacious backseat, appealing cabin, and delivers plenty of performance. It starts at $29,280 for its entry-level model and rises another $10,000 if one wants to pay for the most upgraded model. The SV model driven here for a week, one of four available trims, goes for $32,895.

New for the later part of 2011 – although I’m not quite sure why it resides under the Murano umbrella – is the Murano CrossCabriolet, a two-door convertible that mirrors many of the characteristics of the Murano SE model.

The Murano crossover comes with a few minor styling updates that are new for 2011, adding value to an already fine car-based SUV that has always enjoyed a solid reputation. But overall this is essentially the same model that has pleased car buyers since its debut in 2004.

One area that some of Murano rivals like to point out is a third row of seating has still not materialized. The Buick Enclave, Ford Flex and Toyota Venza all have a third row of seats, but overall the Murano is still the standout of the group. Other major competitors include the Honda Pilot, Toyota Highlander and the Ford Edge.

Every Murano model comes with front-wheel drive and is powered by a very punchy 3.5-liter, V6 that delivers 260 horsepower. The Murano also includes the continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) that many consider the best on the market.

Performance and its excellent handling make the Murano very fun to drive. This SUV hugs the road on challenging turns and the steering and responsive braking system give the driver a feeling of confidence in all types of situations.

The interior cabin is characterized by an array of premium materials. The seating is comfortable for all five passengers regardless of where one sits. The Murano also provides a generous cargo area and the second row folds up flat for additional space without removing the headrests.

Overall, the Murano is a very refined, appealing SUV that offers plenty of value for the price. It should be on the test-drive list for anyone shopping for a midsize crossover.

2011 Nissan Murano SV

Power: 3.5-liter, V6, 260 horsepower
Mileage estimate: 18-23 mpg
Price: $32,895

Standard features include: rear tinted glass; keyless ignition/entry; dual-zone automatic climate control; six-speaker stereo, six-CD changer, satellite radio, iPod integration, auxiliary audio jack, Bluetooth; panoramic sunroof; roof rails; automatic headlights, foglights; 7-inch color display screen; rearview camera; eight-way power driver seat, four-way passenger; brake assist; stability and traction control

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