Photographer: Mark Elias
pursuits

The Strange, Ugly Car That Everyone Wants

Nissan’s discontinued Murano CrossCabriolet is still in high demand, and we’ve finally figured out why.
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The taxonomy of the auto industry these days mostly breaks down to three branches: big, fast and green. A fourth class all but vanished in 2014: really weird vehicles.

That was the year Nissan scrapped its Murano CrossCabriolet, arguably the strangest car of the 21st century. The CrossCabriolet was a vehicular chimera, mashing up the body of an SUV with the ragtop of a convertible sports car. It was big, heavy and high off the ground, but had less cargo space than a Volkswagen Beetle. It looked plenty sporty with only two doors, but came with a continuously variable transmission (read: no “gears”), tended to vibrate at speed and cornered like a bucket of sand on a skateboard.

Car & Driver pulled no punches in its seminal review: “Drivers will hate this car.” This unholy beast wasn’t cheap, either, setting buyers back almost $45,000. And as if all of that weren’t bad enough, it was styled like a retirement-home cocktail party in shades of “Merlot” or “Glacier Pearl.”

The CrossCabriolet came only in a high-end trim and was priced at $44,540, 11 percent higher than the standard Murano.
Photographer: Mark Elias

In the pantheon of product misfires, the CrossCabriolet seemed to be right up there with New Coke and the GoPro drone—at least, according to car people. Drivers, however, are a wider demographic, and many of them loved this strange beast with a passion ordinarily reserved for terrible sports teams and rescued pets.

“There’s always people that look for something weird, something different,” said Tim Fleming, manager of industry forecasting at Kelley Blue Book. There’s no accounting, in other words, for taste.

So, the strange events that followed the final emergence of a CrossCabriolet from an assembly line in  Kyusha, Japan, shouldn’t have come as a surprise. In the four years since, the vehicle has become a sought-after prize. A 2014 iteration is now trading hands for about two-thirds of the sticker price, according to CarGurus.com, far higher than the average 43 percent garnered by other vehicles from the same era.

At press-time, 74 CrossCabriolets were listed on Cars.com, with a median price of $25,000. A cherry version such as this one now commands more money than a new Nissan Murano.

Fun Factor

A big Nissan SUV styled like a sports car still commands a premium on used-car lots.

Source: CarGurus Inc.

How did this happen? Well, scarcity helps. Yokohama-based Nissan didn’t make all that many of these lack-of-utility vehicles. Sean Millikan has sold three from his Future Nissan dealership in Roseville, California. “It wasn’t a good seller as a new vehicle,” he explained. “But as soon as I get {a used] one in, I put it on social media and it’s gone.” The last two went to a Reno, Nevada, couple that lives two hours away. “They had said, ‘If you ever get another one of these, let us know,’” Millikan said.

The pair favor the ragtop down in the Nevada heat, the high ground clearance and the all-wheel drive during snowstorms. And they've been hard-pressed to find anything similar.

A post shared by Sean Millikan (@seanissan) on

The CrossCabriolet is most certainly an exception to the grim rules governing the car industry. Beholden to the same suppliers and safety regulations, car companies have settled into a race won only by small adjustments. Gone are the swashbuckling days when a gutsy gambit could break up the field. Auto manufacturers don’t even go bust anymore; they just retool or consolidate. “There’s little incentive to do something different these days,” Fleming said.

It’s a smart, brutally efficient business. And it’s pretty joyless, though joy should never be undervalued when it comes to cars. Nobody wants a toy designed by an economist or their style defined by an accounting department.

Therein lies the secret of all this CrossCabriolet affection. It makes very little sense as a car—which is one of the main reasons people love it. Few things in commerce feel as good as an irrational purchase, and anyone plunking down more than $25,000 on a product desperately wants to feel good about.

Rafi Mohammed, the economist behind Boston-based consultancy Culture of Profit, said consumers weigh purchases both objectively and subjectively. But when it comes to cars, the subjective tends to hold sway (which is one of the reasons he owns a lime-green Ford Mustang). “Value is in the eye of the beholder, and I truly believe that,” Mohammed said. “Personally, I tend to go for highly differentiated products.”

The prior success of the Nissan Juke emboldened the company in its convertible SUV endeavor.
Source: Nissan

 

In 2013, Nissan cut the price of the CrossCabriolet by 6 percent, to $41,995. A year later, it scrapped the model entirely. The Murano was due for an overhaul, and sales on this convertible version didn’t justify another big chunk of research and development capital.

Still, Nissan doesn’t consider the CrossCabriolet a mistake. Michael Bunce, vice president of product planning, said it sold fairly well among women and baby boomers, which was the whole point. If a car company truly homes in on a target demographic, it’s going to get some flack. “That’s how you end up with some vehicles that are quite polarizing,” Bunce explained. “Not every car is for everyone … and that’s fine.”

Nissan has been built on such “calculated gambles.” Some of its best-sellers, including the original Murano and the bug-eyed Juke, were lambasted by critics at the start, Bunce explained.

“Our whole philosophy is setting up good internal tension—that’s our job, to find white space,” he said. “Sometimes you put your toe in the water and you spend a bit of money to learn something. And with CrossCab, we’ve learned a lot.”

Range Rover continues to give its Evoque SUVs the ragtop treatment.

Nissan rivals picked up a few lessons, too. There’s a new batch of strange machines out in the wild, including Range Rover’s two-door, convertible Evoque and a pack of “sport-activity coupes” peddled by BMW and Mercedes:  big, burly trucks with roof lines raked down at the back like those of sports cars. All these vehicles are slightly retooled versions of standard models, yet they command a hefty price premium.

Jaguar Land Rover was bold enough to launch its ragtop SUV in the middle of winter, billing it as “the most exclusive and capable convertible” in the world. “(It’s) a marketer’s dream,” said David Larson, head of the company’s product planning in North America.

In a tiny slice of the auto industry, it still pays to be different.

The German marques, however, have yet to entirely chop the top off an SUV, a bit of restraint that continues to fuel CrossCabriolet sales. “If you ever have a chance to ride in one, sit in the back seat,” Bunce counseled. “You’re so high off the ground—and with the top down, there’s nothing like it.”

(Updates with Nissan headquarters in eighth paragraph. An earlier version corrected the location of the car’s assembly line.)
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