Nissan Murano: Guilty pleasures

Michael Booth hates urban off-roaders and all that they stand for. But he secretly loves the stylish and sophisticated new Nissan Murano

Would suit City-based former Land Rover Freelander owners
Price on the road £29,995
Maximum speed 124mph (0-62mph in 8.9 seconds)
Combined fuel consumption 23mpg
For more information 08457 669 966

Bother. Just when I begin to strengthen my resolve against urban off-roaders and all they have come - rightly or wrongly - to symbolise (fraudulent utility, the lofty arrogance of their owners, a blithe disregard for endangered lichen and other pollutant-sensitive fungi), along comes the new Nissan Murano. It is a seductive piece of street jewellery, quite possibly the most attractive 4x4 on the market (and this despite looking like a jacked-up Micra from the rear).

Ever since the Land Rover Freelander first hit the streets, we have grown used to SUVs that look like an air-cushioned sports shoe crossed with a medieval jouster's helmet. But with its metallic portcullis grille and squishy, Tonka-tyred stance, the Murano is perhaps the ultimate expression of this Nike-knight aesthetic.

As well as its charismatic looks, the Murano also packs one of my favourite engines: Nissan's 3.5-litre V6, also found in the sensational 350Z. It is mated to an exceptionally smooth "stepless" automatic gearbox, the first I've tried that didn't feel like it had a permanently slipping clutch. The ride is Jaguar-wafty (sorry, I do try to keep technical terms to a minimum but sometimes it's the only thing that will do), and it is built to typically Nissan levels of quality (that is, better than Renault, but not quite as good as Toyota). The interior is vast and it is both cheaper and better equipped than most rivals: climate control, leather, in-dash six-disc CD autochanger, sat nav, rear-view parking camera and electric sunroof are all standard.

Surprisingly, given the crowded urban 4x4 market, the Murano has no direct rivals, slipping in between both Land Rovers (Freelander and Discovery) and BMWs (X3 and X5), as well as gently nudging the rumps of the Volvo XC90, Lexus RX300 and VW Touareg. Then again, Nissan is the master of precision-targeted off roaders, offering such niche-seeking missiles as the X-Trail, Terrano, Pathfinder and Patrol, though none have the Murano's sophisticated blend of ride, power and comfort.

Predictably, the Murano can't follow its more robust Nissan stable mates, the Pathfinder and Patrol, off road. Most of the time its power is channelled through the front wheels, but it sends traction to the rear automatically when needed and there is a switch to engage permanent four-wheel-drive. Out in the countryside, though, even the feeble Freelander would leave the Murano churning like a demented dairy maid in its tyre tracks. Nissan claims the Murano has "the functionality of a 4x4 but the lines of a sports car", but those pseudo off-road looks don't fool me. Well, actually, they did and consequently I found myself struggling in what was a fairly innocuous-looking dirt track. Have a look underneath - as I should have done - and you'll see the Murano has barely more ground clearance than a Mondeo: one rogue rock in a ploughed field and bang goes your twin-piped exhaust.

Of course, the Murano could be the greatest toff-roader ever built but still be unable to turn the tide of sheer loathing directed towards these kinds of vehicles by some sections of the media. Between you and me, I loved it. But, weak and prone to public opinion as I am, it will remain an object of regretful fantasy; one of those things - like a World of Leather barca-lounger, a Travis album or a hair transplant - that I secretly covet but know I could never permit myself to buy.

It's A Classic: Steyr-Puch Haflingher

Now here's a name that would never get past the market researcher's out-tray these days, but Austrian engineering firm Steyr-Puch is a legend in the four-wheel-drive world. Its Haflinger utility vehicle remains one of the most redoubtable machines ever made, able to tackle 50-degree slopes, boggy mudland and craggy mountainous terrain with the sangfroid of a mountain goat in wellies, long before the likes of the Murano swaggered on to the scene.

Despite having a piffling 40bhp, 700cc, two-cylinder engine (air cooled and mounted at the back), the Haflinger boasted fully independent suspension and differential locks both front and rear (the "Let's off road!" crowd will appreciate the significance of this). Built from simple ­ some might even say crude ­ pressed-steel panels and with a tiny cab or skimpy canvas top, the Haflinger (built from 1959-1974) was low on luxury but cheap to run and repair. It retains a cult following among hairshirt hippies and hard-core Hebridean farmers alike. If only Frodo had had one, the Lord of the Rings would have been a novella.