Payne: Sculpted Nissan Murano is rolling art deco

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

If Nissan can spare a copy of its stunning new Murano, it might consider a donation to the Josephine Ford Sculpture Garden behind the Detroit Institute of Arts. Passing patrons would surely find it more coherent than Calder's "The X and its Tail."

Contemplate the Murano's finely sculptured grille, for example.

It has nothing to do with feeding air to the engine (accomplished by an opening along the SUV's chin), and everything to do with aesthetics. The tulip-shaped, repeating chrome and plastic ribs are industrial art deco design at its finest and might be mistaken for a classic 1930s Cord were it not for the Nissan logo in the center.

Framed by two boomerang-shaped headlights, this startling fascia begins an art deco journey from stem to stern. Behold the "floating" greenhouse covering the passengers like an umbrella. Or those swollen, swept hips (akin to the 1938 Dubonnet Xenia perhaps?). Or the Murano's jagged shoulder lines that echo California's Sierra Nevada mountains — not far from where the ute was conceived by Nissan's Los Angeles-based design team.

In a world of plain, boxlike, midsized SUVs like the Lexus RX350 or Jeep Grand Cherokee, the Murano (named for the island off Venice that produces world-famous glass creations) is a standout. A statement vehicle. It will get most of its show-room traffic on the flamboyant coasts of California, New York and Miami — but the vehicle it reminds me of most is the now-defunct Chrysler Pacifica.

Like the Murano, the chiseled, 2003 Pacifica was a refreshing crossover in a sea of ute boxes. Like Marilyn Monroe, alas, Pacifica was a troubled beauty. A cursed Chrysler child, it stumbled out of the nursery, was plagued by glitches, and suffered an early death. The Murano comes from more stable stock. Indeed, it too debuted as an '03.

Now in its third generation, it has turned heads while providing solid performance. But the 2015 model is a whole new animal. It is the first production Nissan that features the brand's layered, "V-motion" design language.

Did I say "features"? Make that "flaunts." This is one racy automobile. It's not for introverts. Gatsby would have killed for this car.

Its upscale pretensions don't end at the '30s-like curves on its exterior. The interior mirrors the outer shell with plunging dash lines enveloping the tulip-shaped center console. The piano-black console materials and stitched leather instrument shroud suggest more luxurious automakers like Cadillac and Mercedes. But where the controls of those vaunted brands can be as maddening to converse with as an eccentric billionaire, Murano proves the most sensible instruments this side of a Jeep.

Where is the menu for the center console? Always along the bottom of the screen. How do I reset the odometer? Button on the left dash.

The Murano's feminine form can fool the eye into thinking this is a compact SUV. Inside, however, there is no doubt as to its midsize proportions. The center armrest could swallow an iPad. I am all elbows and knees, yet I had plenty of room in the front seats, my arms resting comfortably on the door rests — not the window sills.

The rear seats are cavernous (hey, Nissan, how about a Barcalounger-like, flip-up ottoman feature?). This ship could easily fit three rows — but unlike its Pacifica contemporary, the Murano's upscale look is aimed at empty nesters and friends. The Pacifica was an extension of Chrysler's minivan stable — a family vehicle with second row captain's chairs and a third-row bench.

I was introduced to this $30,445-plus figurine in Napa Valley. Wine country. I get it.

Invite another couple for a weekend escape. Park by a wine orchard and drink in the view. Pour them a glass of Chardonnay in the cup holders that drop between the rear seats (they recline like the fronts). Ahhhhh. This is your captain speaking: Relax and enjoy a quiet flight, and . ...

What's this? The Murano is all-wheel drive? And it's built on the same sporty chassis as the Nissan Maxima? Hold on to those wine glasses folks.

In Napa they once mashed the grapes with their feet. Too bad they didn't have an AWD Murano. Throw this baby in a wine vat, and it could churn grapes to wine in seconds.

I couldn't find any wine-makers who would take me up on the offer, so I went off-roading on their muddy winery roads instead.

The AWD Murano comes nicely muscled with a standard 3.5-liter, 260-horsepower V-6 connected to the wheels by a ... Continuously Variable Transmission? Say what? I fear the worst. CVTs may gain 20 percent fuel economy, but the plodding slush-boxes kill performance faster than general anesthesia. Thankfully, Nissan is aware of this — these are the same guys who make the wicked Nissan GTR, after all — and have engineered their CVT with "D-stop logic." Translation: It's still a CVT, but nicely masked by the upshifts of a proper automatic.

Thus equipped, Murano and I slipped and churned and waggled our way through a Napa winery after a California downpour. Now I know why Murano's ugly-duckling cousin, the Subaru Outback, comes equipped with unsightly, black plastic, skirt cladding — it provides a protective coat against mud. By contrast, I felt bad dirtying my Arctic Blue Metallic Murano's sumptuous side panels — crisply creased and highlighted with chrome. Sure, I would prefer a Nissan Titan on back roads compared to the Murano — but then I'll take the crossover's asphalt manners any day.

And since most metro folks spend 99.9 percent of their time on asphalt, the Murano gets the gold. That's the beauty of this beauty — it's as pretty as Erin Andrews and has her athletic skills to boot.

Not to say Murano is faultless. Art deco facade aside, its bulbous front hood is out of step with V-motion's plunging curves. More like B-motion.

And be wary of the optional, albino interior. You don't have to be a newspaper-stained wretch like me to imagine how quickly an all-white interior can get smudged. Fortunately, the black and tan interior trim is not only practical, but prettier than anything this side of a Merc.

I drove a fully-loaded, tech-stuffed, V-6 Murano for $43,745. That's $10,000 less than a similarly-equipped Lexus RX350 that doesn't have nearly the panache. Lexus has its own boomerang-like, show-me design on the way. And not a moment too soon.

Who said that SUVs aren't art?

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.

2015 Nissan Murano

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel or all-wheel drive, five-passenger sport utility vehicle

Price: $30,445 base ($43,745 as tested)

Power plant: 3.5-liter, dual overhead-cam V-6

Power: 260 horsepower, 240 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: Xtronic Continuously Variable Transmission

Performance: 0-60 mph, 7.1 seconds (Car & Driver)

Weight: 3,940-4,017 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA 21 mpg city/28 mpg highway/23 mpg combined

Report card

Highs: Art deco styling; lounge-like interior

Lows: Bulbous hood; dirt-magnet, albino interior option

Overall: ★★★

Grading scale

Excellent ★★★★

Good ★★★

Fair ★★

Poor ★