First Drive: 2011 Nissan Murano CrossCabriolet
We should have known better, but we just couldn't bring ourselves to believe the rumors. For over two years now, we've heard whispers of Nissan's plan to introduce a convertible version of its Murano crossover, but the idea seemed so far-fetched that we just couldn't wrap our gray matter around it. We managed to fall asleep at night by dismissing the notion as yet another silly bit of industry rumor-mongering, the sort of fodder serially dished out by British auto weeklies that splash absurd future product predictions on their covers (generally accompanied by fanciful artist's renderings) to sell more paper at the newsstand.
We doubted it, but we should have known better. Nissan has shown real design bravery lately, as well as an unquenchable desire to fill any and all white space in its portfolio. Remember, it was Nissan's product planners who conceived of a car designed exclusively with a T-square, throwing in a bit of asymmetrical glass and a patch of fake grass atop the dashboard – just in case anyone thought the resulting box was too boring. The automaker then announced that it was making a big bet on a brilliant but funny-looking $33,000 five-door only capable of driving 100 miles before having to have its e-umbilical cord reattached. It followed this up with a tiny yet oddly lovable space-age hatchback-crossovery thing wearing a Kabuki mask. In retrospect, we shouldn't be questioning Nissan's wisdom in lopping the top off its mid-size crossover to create a ragtop – we should be wondering what's taken it so long.
As we stand around looking at the CrossCabriolet at its sun-drenched San Diego launch, we can't help but be confounded. By all rights, the CrossCabriolet ought to look like a SEMA refugee. You know the type: four doors, shadetree roofectomy by Sawzall, a frumpy and ill-fitting top and a targa bar straddling the passenger compartment to keep the whole thing from collapsing in on itself. Amazingly, in person, the Murano convertible doesn't look anything like this. Nissan has clearly expended a surprisingly large amount of styling and engineering resources on the project, and the resulting vehicle looks more cohesive than it has any right to.
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Photos copyright ©2011 Chris Paukert / AOL
Nissan's biggest commitment to the model was lopping off the rear doors and lengthening the front slammers by a whopping 7.9 inches. As the wheelbase between the 20-inch alloys remains the same at 111.2 inches (overall length and width are largely unchanged), the look isn't completely harmonious, but it's surprising how well it comes together. That's largely because Nissan has fitted the Murano with all-new bodywork from the A-pillar rearward. The look is further helped by the re-raked windshield, the angle of which has been adjusted to improve top-down airflow. As an added benefit, the faster angle helps reduce the visual 'beach buggy' quotient. Finally, by instituting an entire network of unseen structural reinforcements, Nissan has avoided adding the dreaded homecoming parade basket handle.
The CrossCabriolet's rear aspect is at once the most unique and troublesome, thanks largely to the top's bizarre split-window design. In theory, the narrow, heavily smoked upper glass pane seems like a valuable idea to aid in rearward visibility, but in reality, it's too horizontal to do much good, and the glass is actually behind the scalps of rear-seat passengers, so they don't really benefit from a skylight, either. In the end, the CrossCabriolet isn't the eyesore one might expect, but we don't see any Red Dot design awards in its future, either.
While we can question the advisability of turning a crossover into a décapotable (this thing is so bizarre it seems only fitting to refer to it in French terms), there's no denying the standard Murano's credentials. With smooth, solid power from its 24-valve, 3.5-liter V6 (tuned for 265 horsepower and 248 pound-feet of torque), an incredibly well-behaved CVT and surprisingly luxurious accommodations, the hardtop Murano is one of our very favorite crossovers. Thankfully, many of those strong points have been preserved in the new CrossCabriolet, including the same nicely formed instrument panel, complete with high-quality plastics and legible gauges. We particularly like the available high-grade camel leather – a $500 option. Even without the high-dollar hides, the cabin still plays above its station.
Interestingly, Nissan has also splurged enough to give the CrossCabriolet its own seats. As expected, the rear goes from a three-across bench to more sculpted places for two in order to make space for the top mechanism. They're surprisingly roomy, though, and offer enough head and leg room even for six-footers, but a center armrest would've been nice. What we didn't expect, however, was for Nissan to splash out a few bucks to resculpt the front seatbacks to afford better outward visibility to those sitting in back. Still, we're not quite sure why they didn't pop for an integrated-belt solution – scrambling into the back is a deliberate enough process because of the slow-to-slide power driver's seat – having to unsnap the belt loop each time you get in and out of the back only exacerbates the issue. We also wouldn't mind if Nissan fitted shingle-style headrests to improve rear visibility, but the twin hoops (with pyrotechnic pop-up rollbars) would probably still get in the way.
As you might expect, Nissan has bent over backwards in an attempt to maintain the Murano's structural integrity – no small task considering the size of the opening created through the convertible process. Engineers have reinforced what's left of the B-pillar area, gusseted the sills and floors, and added cross-braces and support everywhere they could. Even still, physics cannot be denied – the CrossCab suffers from a fair bit of cowl and mirror shake, and there's a disconcerting amount of steering column shudder on rough roads – a confidence-sapping condition exacerbated by the Murano's light, feel-free power steering (a problem largely shared with the standard Murano, though not to this degree). To its credit, our Sunset Bronze tester emitted nary a squeak or a rattle, even though our tester was a preproduction example.
All of those reinforcements and an admittedly artfully folding top means that the CrossCab weighs about 230 pounds more than its straight-laced sibling. Even though Nissan's origami artists have managed to get the five-panel roof to stow into a space only 20-percent larger than that of the 370Z Roadster, the mechanism has still taken a toll on cargo space. Top-up, the cargo capacity is 12.3 cubic feet, and with the roof lowered, it drops to 7.6 cubes, still enough for a couple of golf bags. Unfortunately, the lid cannot be raised or lowered unless stationary, and we found interior to be a bit boomy at highway speeds with the roof closed and windows up – particularly for rear-seat passengers.
As in the standard Murano, the drivetrain is smartly done, offering ample power and refinement, but the CrossCab simply isn't as good to drive enthusiastically as its hard-hatted counterpart, something we blame on the body structure and perhaps a bit on the added weight. Simply put, this high-rider makes it immediately clear that it's built for cruising and not canyon carving, so cruise we did. Besides, loping along and enjoying the view is better for preserving the high-octane-drinking CC's 17 miles per gallon city and 22 mpg EPA highway fuel economy estimates.
At the end of the day, while we're all for boldly iconoclastic design, the CrossCabriolet leaves us with far more questions than answers. We're not sure why Carlos Ghosn green-lighted something like this over a less costly and seemingly more salable concept like a convertible version of the Altima Coupe (the CC is understood to be one of the CEO's pet projects). Company officials insist that as the crossover segment continues its rapid expansion, the genre will inevitably morph and grow enough to accept a whole range of bodystyles, and Nissan clearly wants to lead the charge.
That may be right, but we still think the company's latest model is going to be an awfully tough sell, if for no other reason than its dear asking price – $47,190 delivered. The Murano CC only comes one way – fully loaded – including leather, navigation, HID headlamps, Bose audio, and so on. To be fair, an equivalent hardtop LE model with navigation and AWD rings up at $41,820, so by that yardstick, the price premium to go topless is actually quite reasonable, but the dynamic and spacial tradeoffs are still substantial. The CrossCabriolet may have no clear rivals, but at nearly $50k, Nissan's latest is wading treacherously deep into luxury waters. This is Audi A5 Cabriolet territory, and we'd happily trade the Nissan's lofty driving perch and added rear seat and cargo space for the far superior driving dynamics, fuel economy and more desirable badge on offer from Ingolstadt.
Of course, it probably doesn't matter what we think. Nissan says it already has some 900 pre-orders and thousands more requesting information on its latest creation. At least one thing is clear: Whether you're looking upon the CrossCabriolet's funky flanks with awe, bemusement, longing or contempt, it's going to be fun to chart this pilgrim's progress when it hits showrooms later this month.
Photos copyright ©2011 Chris Paukert / AOL
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