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Ten years ago, two years after its lash-up with Nissan began, Renault released something called the Avantime. Resembling a scaled up subcompact hatchback, the Avantime was built on a minivan chassis and featured two long, double-hinged doors to facilitate ingress and egress in parking lots. It was also a tremendous flop. So much so that Matra — the storied French automaker which built the car for Renault — decided to pull out of automotive production altogether. Since the Avantime’s demise in 2003, it’s become somewhat of a cult item, fetishized by a certain type of automotive enthusiast who appreciates the outré and bizarre.
Fast-forward to 2011 and Renault-Nissan is at it again. The Murano CrossCabriolet resembles nothing so much as an overgrown rendition of one of those European B-segment convertible runabouts that never seem to make the transatlantic leap. Americans, the conventional wisdom goes, prefer their droptops more grandiose or sporty than cutesy. Seeing an opening, Renault-Nissan Poobah and part-time Mr. Bean re-enactor Carlos Ghosn shepherded the CrossCabrio to market.
So what it is it? It’s a damned bushel-barrel of bonobos on some very choice psychedelics, that’s what it is. Alternately, it’s Malibu Real Estate Barbie’s dream machine. The two, remarkably, are not mutually exclusive. The Wall Street Journal’s Dan Neil once compared the CrossCab to a “sorbet of mouse scat,” but Neil works for Rupert Murdoch. He has your phone tapped and has likely spent the last two weeks working up creative metaphors to describe your feeble sexting prowess. Regardless, the CrossCabrio is not an unpalatable frozen dessert concocted by Johnny Knoxville and company. Rather, it’s a smile-generation machine built to weed out the soulless. It’s a car constructed specifically to drive a stake through the heart of people so self-serious that they’ve begun to actively hate fun.
On paper, it’s either ludicrous or genius. In execution, it’s a bit of both. Available in only one fully-loaded trim for $46,390, the CrossCab’s equipped with two doors, Nissan’s always-excellent V6, a continuously-variable automatic transmission, all-wheel drive and a folding soft top with a bi-level rear window. Nissan’s well-executed nav/infotainment system is also standard. Yes, 46k is inching into Infiniti territory, but so is the interior. Plus, the sound system is fantastic and really rather loud. Perfect for Friday afternoons in Carmel with the roof down, blaring Fear’s “I Love Livin’ In the City,” an utterly uncouth anthem that’s as obnoxious and true today as it was in 1977. And yes, of course that happened. Why wouldn’t it? The CrossCabriolet requests — nay, demands such incongruities! After all, it is one.
Built on the Murano platform and featuring all-new sheetmetal and plastic from the front fenders rearward (including a re-angled windscreen), the CrossCab suffers from a few maladies that tend to plague cars never designed to be convertibles. Many journalists have mentioned “cowl shake,” a phenomenon where the windshield frame seems to vibrate out of sync with the rest of the vehicle. Frankly, the problem was easily as bad in a Volkswagen Eos I recently drove, and that car was engineered by Germans. I’m not sure if it’s because many of the initial reviews were based on were preproduction examples of the CrossCab or if I’m just less persnickity in my sensitivity to such things. Whatever the case, it simply wasn’t as bad as everyone’s made out. The real annoyance is the charming-at-first-blanch snap-fastened loops that hold the front seats’ belts in place. It’s a chore to undo and re-do them every time a rear passenger wants in or out. Once in, though, the backseaters will find little to complain about. Floridians who lament the passing of the Sebring convertible will find much to like here, even if the price tag’s significantly higher.
That tag may be what’s ultimately the CrossCab’s undoing. The Avantime wasn’t a cheap vehicle, either; Europeans didn’t feel like playing semi-premium German money for a mainline French brand. But I’d argue that in a certain light, the Nissan’s a bargain. I spent the majority of my time in the CrossCabriolet on the Monterey Peninsula, in the midst of some of the most exclusive automotive events in the world. As I pootled around Greater Monterey, people couldn’t stop taking pictures of the car. When I was parked, every third passer-by had something to say about it. When I followed a Ferrari 458 into The Quail, the parking attendant caught my eye and exclaimed, “A convertible Murano? I’ve never seen one of those before!” Yokohama 1, Mareanello 0. Plus, the elevated ride height gives one a very slight advantage in sating position over the fools who laid out 10 times the cash for a Rolls Phantom Drophead Coupé. Value for money, thy name is CrossCab.
What’s more, despite its bizarre nature, the CrossCabriolet knows exactly what it is and doesn’t pretend to be anything else. It’s a weird, high car with a nice engine, a CVT and all-wheel drive based on a decent crossover chassis. It’s relatively entertaining to drive, has plenty of passing power and makes no attempt to disguise its transmission by offering goofy paddle shifters with some sort of fake “gears” for the CVT. Nope. You put it in drive, you go. You put it in park, you don’t go. If you’re crawling along the beach, you can put it in low, and there’s a reverse gear that triggers a camera if you need to back up. That’s it. Input, output. Press the button, drop the top, turn up the radio and wallow in the incongruities. If they don’t bring a smile to your face, you might just want to rethink your life.