In the Spotlight - Nissan Murano vs. Chevrolet Lumina SSV Ute

Words & Photos by Francois Steyn

I’ve always liked the look of the Murano and the fact that you don’t see many of them on the road had its own appeal. And then there is the 3.5-litre V6 petrol engine, delivering a normally aspirated 191 kW and 336 Nm of torque. I expected it to be a driver’s car, like the BMW 35i X3 was, but the CVT gearbox diluted all the fun. It is still quick though, with a top speed of 210 km/h, but it doesn’t feel that racy.

When you floor the right pedal from standstill you don’t get kicked in the gut, however, a few seconds later you’re breaking the law. The power delivery is so smooth and the interior so well sound proofed that you feel completely detached from that lovely VQ35DE power plant under the bonnet. Nissan aimed to make the Murano comfortably controllable in all situations, which is why the power delivery is so linear. Add speed sensitive power steering and a brake pedal that firms up at speed and the result is an altogether relaxing experience. You can switch to manual mode for six pre-programmed gear ratios, but though the changes are smooth they don’t happen in a flash. Just a pity that after a week and more than 500 km in it, it only returned 14.3l/100 km.

The intelligent ALL MODE 4X4-i sends power to any of the four wheels as needed and can be electronically locked to transfer equal amounts to the front and rear. The ground clearance of 185 mm might not sound like much, but if you take care you can get over a fair amount of protruding earth. ABS with EBD, VDC (traction control) that automatically controls engine and brake output to keep the vehicle going in the right direction, and HID bi-functional Xenon headlights are just some of the safety features.

Inside you are treated to a luxurious cabin with aluminium, gunmetal and leather finishes. The double sunroof is electrically opened to let the summer sun in, and the sound of your BOSE sound system with 11 hi-fi quality speakers out. I am not much of a sound geek, but the integrated DVD/MP3 player with a 9.3 GB HDD music server is pretty cool. So is the seven-inch, high-res MAP display of the 40 GB HDD SatNav system. This is controlled by a smart control panel sporting a joystick-type dial above the audio controls. The rear-view camera also shows up on this screen.

The phone, radio and cruise control are operated from the leather steering wheel, and the boot lid can be opened and closed remotely. Even though the boot may not be that big - it has a rather high floor - you can fold the second row of seats flat to expand the luggage bay.

The Murano surprised me in more than one way. I had hoped for more fun, but I did not expect all the luxury touches.

Early last year I tested the Chevrolet Lumina SS Ute Automatic and loved it. A year later I had the opportunity to drive the updated SSV Ute in manual guise. I did not expect much of a difference, but I was very wrong. It still has the same 6L V8 engine with 270 kW and 530 Nm of torque, but the manual does not switch off one bank of cylinders at lower engine speeds, as did the auto.

This means that all of the torque is at the ready when you drop the clutch. There is a much bigger sense of excitement in the manual and I had to concentrate when I pulled away with force, especially since it was raining the whole week. I dared not switch off the traction control, as the tail came out every time I stomped on the throttle exiting a corner.

Rear wheel drive and mountains of torque make it fun to play with, but is it drivable? Thanks to a near 50/50 front to rear weight distribution and very direct steering you never ever feel like it is driving you. I always felt completely in control, even in the wet, and the ABS brakes with electronic brake-force distribution offer great feel and stopping power. The only criticism here would be that you would have thought the dual exhaust system would reward you with the sweet sounds of that massive V8, but the interior is so well dampened that you can only hear the radio or talk on the integrated Bluetooth hands-free kit. Adding to this quiet interior is the tall sixth gear. At 3,000 r/min you are doing close to 200 km/h. Due to the addictive feeling when pulling away, the on-board computer mostly read 14 l/100 km. However, I did manage 10.5 l/100 km over 40 km doing 120 km/h on one occasion.

The interior has been updated and gone are the geeky oil pressure gauge and engine coolant temperature (which I rather liked). You now have a touch screen radio above the upmarket dual zone climate control knobs. The steering wheel still houses the audio, phone and cruise control buttons, and the instrumentation is reserved with old school dials for temperature and fuel, but it says SS below the rev counter and V8 below the speedo.

Oh yeah, and it has racing style pedals too. At R432 500 it may be a lot of money, but Torque-for-Rand this is a bargain!

Toyota Avanza vs. Nissan Livina

(See images in gallery below)
One of my favourite new vehicles has always been the Toyota Avanza. When it was introduced it cost just over a hundred grand, has loads of space and it’s a Toyota. Fighting in the same class, but in the opposite corner, is the Nissan Livina. Both are essentially practical budget wagons for people who don’t care what the neighbours think about them and need room for the kids and their labrador.

Neither one claims to be a super car and neither come close. The Livina’s 80 kW of power edges ahead of the Avanza’s 76 (both at 6 000 r/min), but it is in the torque department that the Nissan clearly stands out. The extra 100 cc is good for 12.5% more Nm at a rivalling 4 400 r/min, but the way in which it is delivered is even more evident. I have no complaints about the five-speed manual of the Nissan, but I am sure the auto ‘box on the Avanza came straight out of my old 1993 Camry 200Si automatic. Four speed in 2012? Really? Both cars’ engines are a tad noisy at highway speeds, but they can keep up with the traffic. The Avanza was a bit thirsty, but that is to be expected from the automatic shifter.

This is where these cars start to make sense. The Livina has a large luggage space and if you fold the second row of seats flat, you will have to do a lot of shopping to fill it. The Avanza makes up lost points here with a third row, offering seats for seven occupants. In Nissan’s defence, the Grand Livina also takes seven people, but then you pay for it in the looks department.

Both the Livina and Avanza are built to price and it shows in the switchgear. The Avanza’s air conditioning/fan knobs are impossible to figure out and you need to tug on the cable-operated knobs to change the settings. The radio in the Avanza was an aftermarket Kenwood, which gave it a second-hand car dealer feel. The Nissan has an integrated sound system, but neither has multifunctional steering wheels. That being said, I suppose if you want to pay Polo money for a people carrier with ABS, driver and passenger airbags and a three year service plan (all of which come standard on both by the way), then you cannot expect X5 or ML luxury. A welcome surprise was the Halogen headlights on the Avanza.

I like practical cars, and I’ve always liked the Avanza for being rear wheel drive and cheap. However, at R177 400 for the Nissan and R191 500 for the Toyota, I’d work a bit harder and get myself a Daihatsu Terios.