Land Rover, Jeep and Toyota are the leaders in recognition, with a heritage going back more than 50 years.
Nissan also has a long heritage in 4x4s – how much news footage have we seen of the world's troublespots with United Nations-liveried Nissan Patrols to the fore? But for some reason, they do not enjoy the same high profile as the others.
However, four-wheel drive vehicles will be a key factor in Nissan's future strategy, thanks to the success of cars like the X-trail.
In Europe, the Patrol – a large heavy-duty off-roader – will remain in the line-up of true mud-pluggers, along with the Terrano. The X-trail will soon be joined by a European version of the Pathfinder – on sale in North America – a seven-seat rival for the Land Rover Discovery in the line-up of 4x4s with moderate off-road ability.
In North America, there is another car called the X-terra, which does pukka off-roading and has chunky Jeep Cherokee-like proportions, as well as the whale-like Nissan Armada (if you thought the Range Rover was big, you haven't seen anything yet).
The UK will soon have the chance to sample one of the new generation of soft roaders, the Murano, which will go on sale next year. Starting its life as a car designed for the North American market, the Murano got off to a slow start, performing below sales targets for a few months.
However, after people had become used to its unusual styling, the Murano developed into an astonishing success. Current figures show it achieving 5,500 units a month.
With sales like that, Nissan in Japan and Nissan Europe suddenly became interested. The car will go on sale in Japan this year and, despite the lack of a diesel variant, Europe will see the Murano early next year.
With demand from the North American market running so high, only about 1,000 Muranos will be headed for the UK next year, so the lack of a diesel engine is unlikely to hurt sales.
There will be only one high-specification version, coming with leather, satellite navigation and every other item of equipment that might normally be restricted to the options list.
What Nissan is offering with the Murano is a vehicle more or less as large as a BMW X5 for the price of a low-end X3.
The company claims that the idea of paying big bucks for a Nissan is now tried and tested following the remarkable success of the new 350Z coupe and the appetite for the forthcoming Z Roadster.
A 350Z coupe with all the options and packs fitted comes in at just under £29,000 on the road, so Nissan feels that just under £30,000 for a large, well-equipped SUV will be a tempting prospect.
Target drivers include those currently driving cars such as the Lexus RX300. Nissan's managing director in the UK, Bill Bosley, admits there is work to be done to ensure the process of selling the Murano to potential customers meets their high expectations.
Where 350Z customers are likely to have chosen the car regardless of the level of service from Nissan dealers because they would be car enthusiasts who wanted the Z, Murano customers will be different.
Lexus dealers are generally regarded as setting the standard for customer care and Nissan is aware it needs to raise its game to ensure Murano customers leave with their new car, completely satisfied with the service and tempted to return to buy other Nissans.
Bosley, who has previous experience with Nissan's luxury Infiniti brand in North America, said: 'We don't want to sell customers just one car – we want to sell them other cars in the range.
'It will be a challenge to ensure we get the level of service right, but if we do it will also be an opportunity.'
While Nissan is keen to join the big three in the off-roader market with an expanded range of 4x4s, it obviously has its sights set on the premium sector as a benchmark for customer care.
Does this have anything to do with Infiniti's arrival in Europe on the horizon?
Behind the wheel
IF Nissan has been criticised in the past for designing dull-looking vehicles, the Murano continues recent form led by the Primera, X-trail and Micra where the cars truly stand out from the mainstream.
Nissan wanted to get away from the aggressiveness associated with the styling of most large SUVs and endowed the Murano with a 'friendly face'. Its cartoon whale-like rounded front end and curvy shape is like no other SUV on the road.
The tailgate is lightweight composite plastics, reinforced by steel, making it easy to open and close, and the Murano comes with imposing 18-inch alloy wheels as standard.
Interior space is generous, as you would expect in a car this big, and the cabin, with leather upholstery and automatic transmission, has a more upmarket ambience than other cars in the Nissan range.
The rear seats have a reclining function and there is also a remote flip-down which can be activated from the luggage compartment.
Although the steering wheel only adjusts for rake and not reach, the driver's seat is electrically-adjustable in 10 directions and there is electric adjustment for the pedals, so finding the ideal driving position shouldn't be too difficult.
Additional vents for the dual-zone climate control are sited on the B-pillars for the benefit of rear seat passengers and there are numerous extra storage areas in the cabin – a two-tier lockable centre console storage box with room for a lap-top computer as well as flip-out door pockets and a tray and two bins under the luggage area.
CVT autos have often come in for criticism for lacking an immediate response from a standing start.
However, the Murano seems to combine its 245bhp V6 engine and CVT rather well, setting off as cleanly as a conventional auto.
Our test route included some severe uphill work and the benefit of CVT in these conditions was being able to maintain a steady speed without shifting up and down the gearbox as in a conventional auto.
It made smooth and refined progress, turning in neatly with limited body roll and plenty of grip. Vehicle Dynamic Control (VDC) is fitted to bring things back into line if the going gets tricky.
The ride is less impressive. It's fine on smooth roads, but there can be an unpleasant crashiness from the suspension over bumps.
However, these were US-specification cars, and we assume some tweaks can be made before the car goes on sale in Europe.
GOOD to drive, spacious and well-equipped, Nissan should have no trouble selling out of next year's Murano allocation in the UK and raising its profile in the 4x4 market.
Engine (cc): 3,498
Max power (bhp/rpm): 245/5,800
Max torque (lb-ft/rpm): 246/4,400
Max speed (est mph): 130
0-60mph (est sec): 9.0
Fuel consumption (est mpg): 25
CO2 emissions (g/km): 275 (est)
Fuel capacity (l/gal): 80/16
Transmission: CVT auto
On sale: early 2005
Price: Under £30,000