LA JOLLA, CA — Curves! We have curves on a “utility” vehicle.

Nissan Motor Co. Ltd.'s Darrel Ida, product planning manager for the all-new Murano cross/utility vehicle, says the Murano's sleek sheetmetal is all about sending the message Murano isn't a cookie-cutter SUV in the ubiquitous Explorer vein.

“If it looks like a regular SUV, it is a regular SUV,” insists Ida. He says the SUV/CUV equation has come down to “art versus appliance.” Explorers and their ilk are appliances, and Nissan wants to take its customers in a new direction.

It should be an intriguing journey into uncharted waters. First, if Murano's swoopy curves eschew the implication of “truck,” then that may be risky — part of the SUV mystique supposedly has been rough-and-ready looks that insinuate go-anywhere capabilities.

Second, Murano's curves come with a price: There's absolutely no room for a third row of seating, although Nissan marketers insist they didn't want one. They're tilting Murano at upscale buyers, with a particular eye on couples who more often than not don't have children and who, Nissan claims, adamantly DON'T want that soccer-mom third row.

They'd better be upscale, to be sure, because Nissan blindsided many journalists attending the Murano preview here with some pretty ambitious pricing. A front-drive Murano in the base SL trim starts at $28,199. All-wheel drive can be added for $1,600. Move to an AWD model in the upper SE trim, and it starts at $30,599. That's before any vitals like leather ($1,299), and there are some other big-bucks add-ons such as a $1,999 navigation system.

An SE popular package with most of the necessities is $3,499, meaning a well-endowed Murano SE with AWD will be about $34,000. Remember, there's only seating for five (Honda's much larger, much squarer Pilot seats seven and maxes at $34,000). And despite the premium pricing that rivals Lexus and others, this thing's wearing a Nissan badge.

Nissan's marketers say their targeted buyer wants premium attributes, but doesn't want a pretentious badge. The company says there will be 50,000 of them to buy Muranos annually.

As you can note from the above, the base Murano is a front-driver, as it shares the Altima unibody platform. This is a good structure, and the firm chassis tuning makes for one of the best-driving SUV/CUV/whatever-you-want-to-call-it this side of the BMW X5 or Audi Allroad.

However, I think Murano's lack of a permanent AWD system is a serious shortcoming. Many car-based utilities, particularly those from the Japanese auto makers, use the Murano's system of inherent front-drive until the front wheels spin, when a center differential then sends a certain amount of drive torque (in Murano's case, up to 50%) to the rear wheels. These systems work fine for occasional bad-weather or off-road circumstances, but it's hardly the solution to make the most of AWD advantages.

The Murano does have one huge technical (and expensive) calling card, however: its Xtronic continuously variable transmission. Xtronic trashes the fixed gear ratios of a conventional automatic transmission in favor of a wide spread of infinitely selectable ratios. The CVT eliminates gearshifts and improves fuel economy by about 10%, says Nissan.

The real advantage, though, is decidedly snappy performance. Driven by a 245-hp version of the always excellent 3.5L VQ V-6, Murano moves out with authority. At speed, the Xtronic translates demand for more acceleration into instantaneous thrust.

The entire performance experience really does transcend most other CUVs, even though the burly VQ V-6 feels as if it's finally met its match in being hitched to the porkish 5,053 lbs. (2,293 kg) of an AWD Murano.

Inside, there's a refreshing airiness that's highlighted by the unique “floating” instrument binnacle and center stack. There's plenty of the now-required aluminum-look trim to go around, and rear-seat accommodations are particularly pleasing, with an unusual amount of legroom and seats that recline.

Some of the materials still bear the mark of Nissan's heavy cost-cutting efforts, though: There's plenty of cheapish plastic on the doors and lower-surface areas, and the center console's storage box/armrest had a trashy feel that we can only hope got fixed before sales started in December.

Murano is an interesting piece, tantalizingly styled, backed by genuinely entertaining driving dynamics and the bold use of the Xtronic CVT as the only transmission. Competitors are sure to be closely scrutinizing the market's reaction to Nissan's daring anti-SUV.