Japanese Funk

Whilst playing with ideas for this blog post I spent a lot of time deliberating between two cars reasonably similar in terms of concept but vastly different in terms of execution, however upon further investigation I discovered that not even 11 months ago I wrote an entry which briefly covered the launch of both of these vehicles, and so it seemed fitting that I try to combine things again to save you two very samey reviews.

The two vehicles in question are the Nissan Murano and the Lexus NX, both strikingly designed crossovers from two Japanese automakers which are assembled in Japan itself…now to be perfectly honest that’s about where the similarities end but seeing as though I’ve seen plenty of reviews for both in the last few months (and indeed several of the Lexus on UK roads too) I had a niggling urge to get off my chest about just how these two are represented to buyers both by the companies which produce them and also the general automotive media.

The original Murano has always looked rather dashing in orange, a rare trait for any car

Let’s start with the Nissan, which arguably has some sort of historical relevancy in it’s relatively youthful (and small) segment. The original Murano was launched back in 2003 and although it was not based on the same underpinnings as it’s 350Z bretherin (unlike the Infiniti FX I hasten to add), in orange with big 19″ alloy wheels it looked nearly as striking and relatively sporting too. As a result the Murano proved to be a relative sleeper hit among mid-size SUV buyers in the USA; cheaper than a Lexus RX yet nearly as plush inside and just as practical it found a solid niche amongst so called ‘DINKS’ (Dual Income No Kids) or older couples with an active lifestyle. Unfortunately for Nissan they totally messed up with the second generation’s styling when it launched in 2008 and as such sales tanked badly; a ‘Cross Cabriolet’ version added a lot of publicity for the Murano nameplate but ultimately very very low sales due to the consensus it was a monstrosity intended for rich Florida widows!

The Cross Cabrio never came to the UK but looks a state in whatever country it is.

Seeing as though the Rogue (X Trail in the UK and Europe) grew substantially in it’s current generation there was some doubt as to whether there was a need for Nissan to replace the Murano; rivals such as the Ford Edge and Toyota Venza hardly set sales charts alight and merely existed for those who couldn’t really afford a ubiquitous Lexus RX. However Nissan announced intentions to relaunch the Murano as their flagship crossover with a style-led makeover, and the car launched at last year’s New York Auto Show was actually pretty striking in a good way. Lots of swoopy lines and a cool-looking floating roof mean that the Murano gets a lot of double takes on US roads (apparently), and the LED running lights at the front are a world away from the awkward toothy grille of the previous generation yet still remain totally distinctive and very Nissan-like.

The new Murano is almost as striking in orange, although doesn’t suit orange quite as well

Inside things get a lot more toned down but only in a way that means it will appeal to most people and in particular those without the need for the latest high-tech gadgets but who still want a modern interior. If I am totally honest the rest of this review is going to be based on several which I have read, but I can’t give much more than that and believe me I read a lot of car reviews as you can imagine. So yeah the Murano’s interior is best described as nice…it’s plenty spacious in both the front and the rear and indeed those front seats are highly adjustable and offer the best seat comfort this side of  Volvo, plus the boot space is very reasonable for it’s size and the standard power opening option is always a handy addition for buyers of any age (sadly it’s something I really want for my next car!). Quality is meant to be reasonably nice either, with none of the cheaper plastic which used to adorn previous Muranos; I mean obviously we’re not talking real leather adorning every surface and apparently the wood isn’t the most convincing, but still soft touch surfaces abound and the leather wrapped centre console is a nice touch especially in contrasting trim.

Most people will be perfectly happy with the interior of the new car, I know I would

At a time where automakers are designing ever more complicated cabins it comes as a bit of a relief to see that Nissan have granted the Murano with again merely a nice set of tech features; standard on most cars is a 7 inch panel located in the instrument cluster which gives detailed feedback and personalisation…for some this may seem like overkill but I love me an instrument cluster display and one which combines it with real dials is pretty damn good in my books. On the centre stack there are near-enough conventional HVAC controls alongside a few buttons and a nicely sized (7 or 8 inches depending on trim) touchscreen with Nissan Connect services. I know touchscreens end up getting dirty and often pale in comparison to iPads and their ilk, but for a lot of buyers a big screen in the car means they want to touch it, and Nissan’s system is much less complex than anything from Ford or GM and actually seems to work, yet still offers good content and graphics *cough Toyota*.

The rear of the Murano is arguably it’s most attractive angle and showcases the floating roof design

Under the bonnet most American readers will be unsurprised to find that Nissan’s venerable ‘VQ’ 3.5L V6 engine resides under the bonnet and is connected to a CVT automatic gearbox. This is an engine which has been around in essentially the same form since the mid 90’s and yet continues to get good (if not amazing) reviews in terms of power and refinement. BHP is around the 260 mark and whilst performance isn’t going to set the world alight is is also more than most people will need (7 seconds to 60). Undoubtedly this engine will soon end up turbocharged or with direct injection, but much like Honda and Toyota, Nissan is content to tweak their mainstream engine and get reasonable fuel consumption improvements with each iteration. In US figures the car should average 24 mpg which sounds relatively appauling for those in the UK, but in UK-mpg it coverts to around 27 mpg and is apparently a figure which is actually attainable – for a petrol V6 that is actually reasonably impressive considering that most 3.0L diesel SUV’s fail to routinely better 30 mpg.

While not as fancy as Audi’s new central screen , Nissan’s effort is pretty damn nice

All of this seems pretty inconsequential though (as does the driving experience which is apparently again ‘nice’ but not especially sporty) seeing as though I am never likely to see a Murano in the metal, at least not on these shores. The demand for the original Murano was so strong that Nissan eventually brought it over back in 2005 and for a couple of years it even sold respectably well given it’s striking looks and low-ish price, but the second generation did not fail nearly as well even with the diesel engine it was given shortly after launch (a 2.5L 4cyl which was dog slow and noisy). It’s cancellation in 2011 means that Nissan is unlikely to bring it back to this market, especially when the new X-trail and Qashqai are doing so well…there is little need to bring more punters into Nissan dealerships at the moment.

So then we have the Lexus NX, whose job is to do precisely that; Lexus have never been a volume player in any European market and although most of their vehicles sell steadily, none of their current offerings have set the world alight…the NX could be the one to change that though. Small crossovers are big business in all global markets but especially in Europe where drivers are really warming up to the high-riding driving position and practicality that these vehicles offer, and the NX is Lexus’ first serious attempt at getting into an up-and-coming market…the CT hatchback is too awkward and ungainly to be competitive for most people!

The rear of the NX is also it’s most attractive angle, and probably it’s least offensive

Considering how bland most of Lexus’ designs are they really decided to go for broke with the NX – when the concept car version launched back in 2013 I described it as origami-inspired, and the production model is similarly striking. However the reaction to this dramatic look has been very divided from the automotive press, unfairly so I think because in the metal the NX is eye catching and given how subjective looks are for most buyers I think it very unfair for magazines to detract marks simply because they think it doesn’t look as clean as some European rivals. OK so something like the Evoque does look more attractive but it does cost a pretty penny more and falls short in some areas, similarly the Q5 and X3 could be said to be uninspired and bland but then nobody does. Lexus have been brave with the NX’s exterior and I for one hope it pays off.

Inside Lexus has actually been pretty brave too…it’s a little more unconventional than rivals and indeed the Murano too. The two stack centre console is styled along the lines of the spindle grille and is accentuated with metal surround and a classy analogue clock in the middle of sleek vents; maybe that sounds a little too much like an advert but I really do think that the NX is a nice place to spend time, plus it still has a traditional gear stick which some buyers will like. In other ways though the Lexus does fall a little behind the pack and could do well to borrow some ideas from the more mainstream Nissan; the centre screen between the dials is quite small and not that informative, and navigation is offered in two non-convincing formats (a smaller touchscreen which is too high up, or a complicated Remote Touch/mouse controlled system) – the X3 and Q5 are much superior here and Lexus (and Toyota) really need to invest in their infotainment systems before they inherit Jaguar Land Rover’s reputation for awful usability. Also practicality could be a lot better too, as rear space is apparently not fantastic and the 395L boot is notably smaller than rivals…booooo.

The NX’s larger brother, the RX, continues to be the biggest selling luxury crossover bar none

Let’s be honest though, buyers of the NX are as likely to cross shop it with the Evoque and X1 as bigger rivals and those cars boast worse practicality and infotainment systems, but a bigger threat to the NX’s success is likely to be the traditional Lexus weakness of powertrains. Put simply Lexus don’t do diesels, and in the UK and other European markets diesel is currently the default choice in this type of vehicle…indeed BMW only offers diesel engines in the X3 and other rivals only have a nominal petrol versions, normally as a performance offer. Japanese manufacturers on the whole haven’t embraced diesels, but they do at least have one or two solid offerings. Indeed Toyota have had to develop one or two of their own simply because nobody would have bought cars like the RAV4 or Avensis without an economical mile muncher, but with their premium brand they decided to take a different approach and stick to offering hybrid options in place of traditional diesel ones. In the NX this means that alongside the sporty ‘200t’ variant (Lexus’ first ever turbo engine) there is a 300h…essentially a 2.5L petrol engine with a small hybrid motor which should mean diesel like economy with even cleaner emissions.

I personally like the front of the NX, especially the LED running lights

The problem is though that most buyers are accustomed to how diesel engines drive…plenty of low range torque means a more relaxed driving experience and the regular automatics which are employed in most vehicles of this type suit this kind of driving style very well. However in most of Lexus’ hybrids they insist on using a CVT gearbox which can result in people having to floor the accelerator to get going, especially in a heavier car such as this. The 200t is a little more conventional as it has a 6-speed automatic and a more regular power delivery but as you may expect it loses something in terms of mpg; the 300h should get a realistic 45-50mpg but the 200t is only likely to see 35mpg or so which isn’t great for a relatively small vehicle. Handling and ride are apparently sub-par too and that combined with these power-train issues mean that on the whole the poor NX has received a less than warm welcome from most UK magazines, and even across the Atlantic the general attitude of automotive press to both Lexus and small crossovers as a segment means that here also the NX hasn’t been met with the adoration that Lexus may have helped for.

I’m personally a fan of the NX’s split level dash…it’s a little quirky but I like it

Only time will tell if either the NX or Murano will turn out to be the success story which their manufacturers are hoping for…I saw today that U.S. Murano sales are up 72% year-on-year but given that last year the old model was on it’s way out that’s maybe no surprise. The NX has seen more modest sales, especially when compared to it’s larger RX brother (which sold nearly 3x as many in February), but still is outperforming most rivals in the American market if not over here so far.

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