“Talk to Lieberman,” I heard from a few seats up. A bunch of us auto-journo types were on a bus heading off to drive the new Porsche Cayman R. “Huh?” I asked. Damon Lavrinc from Autoblog was chatting with Jason Cammisa from Automobile about the Nissan Versa Base, Nissan’s no-frills, $9,990 entry-level joy buzzer and one of my personal favorites. Cammisa, it turns out, is in total agreement, going on and on about the baked-in attributes of Nissan’s cheapest offering. But why were we all discussing a seeming penalty box like the V-Base on our way to drive a natural born track-killer like the Cayman R? Because they come from the same school, though you could argue that the Versa is much harder core. Think about it: manual-only, no power windows, no power doorlocks, no A/C, no radio, no ABS, no traction control – no nothing. Just a car, really, that happens to be fantastic to drive.
Sadly for fans of simplicity, the car we geeked out over, the great Versa Base of 2010, is gone, replaced with a more “advanced” model. Federal law now mandates traction control and tire pressure monitoring while economies of scale demand power windows and locks. But at least it’s still $9,990. Of course, Hyundai will sell you the three-door Accent, a car that our own Carlos Lago refers as the “Porsche GT3 RS of the sub-sub compact market.” But the Base is hardly Nissan’s only great idea.
Take the Murano CrossCabriolet, which is — contrary to all pre-first impression chatter — a pretty intriguing vehicle. Let’s get the looks part out the way up front. Rarely has a car garnered such verbal scorn from our testing crew. And this is before either of them sat in it. The above-mentioned Lago went into a long form rant about how horribly the CrossCab hurts his eyes. By long form I mean five hours. The last ugly rant I heard from him (about Nissan’s Quest, oddly enough) lasted only twenty minutes. But Carlos’s reaction was tame compared to how the topless Murano affected Kim Reynolds.
Every twenty minutes or so Kim would walk over, look at the Murano CC, look at me and just start laughing. He was trying to make some sort of point about how awful he thinks the new CrossCab looks but he couldn’t even get the words out of his mouth. He would just turn red in the face and giggle. Finally, after a few hours, Kim spit it out that he felt the Murano CrossCabriolet was violently malformed. But here’s the thing, even though we had seven other cars at the track to test, we didn’t talk about any of the others. Which is one reason why Nissan just might be on to something. And then I left the track…
…in Fontana, affectionately and derisively referred to by some of us left-coast elites as “Fontucky,” I think I can safely (if not, again, derisively) say that most Fontanans aren’t concerned with MOCA’s 2011 schedule. Which only added to my surprise when a guy ran me down on Cherry Ave. and shouted, “Is that a custom?” No, I informed him, it’s the new Murano CrossCabriolet. “It’s beautiful!” he shouted back, and told me how he’s going to get one for his wife. Now, here’s the crazy part: this guy in his Accord couldn’t even see the convertible Murano’s best attribute, it’s better-than-any-Infiniti interior. He was just reacting to the car’s good (ahem) looks. A lone crazy? No, it turns out, not really.
I spent a couple of days after that tooling around L.A. in the CrossCabriolet and came to the conclusion that the car’s charisma is undeniable. Thumbs up and amused/bemused commentary followed me wherever and whenever I parked. Do I get it? Personally, not really. But I do get the fact that by daring to be different, Nissan has created a compelling product that might find fans outside of the demographic in “need” of an AWD four-seat convertible SUV stuffed with 1970s Aston Martin leather. Take my English cousin Natalie B for pudding proof. She’s a UK radio personality who spends her time interviewing folks like Jeff Goldblum and Alexandra Burke. In other words, Nat’s a bit of personality, a bit of a tastemaker. I chauffeured her around Los Angeles in the CrossCabriolet and after a couple outings she opined, “You know, I quite like how this looks.”
Speaking of looks vis-à-vis Nissan, I’d be absolutely remiss if I didn’t mention the it-keeps-growing-on-me Juke. Yeah, yeah, Nissan Puke, Nissan Joke, I’ve heard ‘em all. Back during our 2011 Sport/Utility of the Year testing, big boss man MacKenzie kept explaining to everyone within earshot that the Juke might look a bit polarizing, but you need to see it in Tokyo traffic to really appreciate the design. His words fell on mostly deaf ears. That was then. But now, I happen to spend a lot of time commuting (and eating my way) through Korea Town, and while not even kinda/sorta Tokyo-sized or neon’d, K-Town does offer me the chance to see a good number of Jukes stuck in traffic near noodle shops. You know what? Angus is right.
I haven’t gotten to the part about how superb the Juke is to drive. I like that its 1.6-liter turbo mill has no problem whatsoever getting up to 80 mph. I love the steering, how chunky and accurate it feels — and that’s before you punch Sport mode and the Juke’s tiller becomes even sharper, it’s throttle even more responsive. I love being able to bob and weave my way through traffic, aided by a combination of the Juke’s lightness (less than 3000 pounds!), great visibility, parkour-like reflexes and unexpected power. No matter where I’m going or what I’m doing, I find myself pushing our long term Juke harder than I push other cars. The amphibian-faced diminutive SUV demands it.
So what about the rest of the lineup? Here’s where Nissan falls down a bit. Discounting the Quest (I haven’t driven it — yet) and the Z (too iconic to talk about here), only the Cube stands out. But not too out. The sad truth is that the re-bodied, Versa-chassised Cube isn’t even half the car the previous generation right-hand drive-only (and not for sale here) Cube was, though it is twice as big. The sedans? The Sentra is effectively dead. Not that anyone desired one before, but the recent arrival of the Hyundai Elantra moves the Sentra from bad to pathetic. Maxima? Not so much a four-door sports car as a pricey Toyota Avalon competitor that’s having a hard time attracting the AARP set, let alone anybody else. But what about the once segment topping Altima? To quote the world’s most infamous wardrobe malfunctioner, what have you done for me lately? Especially since the 900-pound gorilla Sonata not only exists, but the Camry is (still) King Kong. The trucks? Frontier? Titan? Armada? Pathfinder? Xterra? Not so much, though the NV sounds interesting and based off a whole bunch of time spent in the most excellent Infinti QX56, I do wish Nissan would bring over the Patrol. Rogue? Well, speaking for myself, I’d much rather have a Juke.
Which leaves us left with the regular edition, four-door Murano, a car I know I’ve driven but can’t remember a thing about. If I close my eyes, I can see it parked at a bowling alley for my friend Glenn’s birthday party, and… that’s it. I think that proves the viability of the CrossCabriolet right there. People are talking about the convertible version, pointing at it, asking questions about it. Both loving it and hating it. The four-door, hard top Murano? Are you kidding? No one has said a word. Proving (once again) that there really is no such thing as bad publicity. And how’s this for a closer? Could Nissan’s fraternity with Renault be rubbing some Frenchie weirdness off on their products? Is Nissan — yeah, Nissan — filling the wacky void left when Citroen left our market all those decades ago? It’s looking likely; Nissan is definitely on to something.