Volkswagen has long reigned supreme among cost-conscious consumers who want an “affordable luxury” vehicle. Can’t quite afford an Audi? A VW Passat or Jetta will still make you feel like you’re getting significant style and performance. But recently VW has repositioned its brand for global sales domination by lowering price points on its most popular entry-level vehicles, leaving the “affordable luxury” mantle up for grabs. If we had to bet on which car company is best poised to conquer that market, our money would definitely be on Nissan.

The halo effect of Nissan’s supercar-lite GT-R, for starters, has boosted the appeal of all the carmaker’s more attainable performance-oriented vehicles. The sporty-yet-affordable Maxima and Altima sedans (with the latter redesigned in attractive fashion for 2013) are two of the best-looking and best-performing vehicles on the road. On the sport side, the 370Z coupe and roadster are track monsters with sex appeal that give the boy roadster market of Evos and WRXs stiff competition.

However, Nissan’s cornerstone in the “affordable luxury” market might just be the crossover Murano. With its sophisticated style, solid performance, pampering creature comforts and technology in the cabin, the Murano SL stands out from the Toyota Highlander, Hyundai Veracruz, Ford Edge and the rest of the crossover competition. Murano owners won’t feel any buyer’s remorse when an Acura MDX or even its sister SUV the Infiniti FX-35 passes by, and it delivers all this sporty luxury with a price tag barely north of $40K.

That money buys cutting-edge vehicle dynamics systems (traction control, ABS, tire pressure monitoring), power everything, leather seats and steering, an ear-blistering audio system, HDD navigation with a seven-inch monitor and XM/USB/Bluetooth, as well as rain-sensing wipers and a dual-panel moonroof. The interior has a luxurious feel with quality appointments throughout, plenty of space (there’s a new optional third row of seating for 2012) and intuitive center console layout.

The Murano is no slouch once you fire it up and get out on the road. In fact, its biggest advantage over the competition is how it drives — it’s the most fun to drive in its segment. The suspension is firm and capable in aggressive driving without being uncomfortable as a daily driver. The speed-sensitive power steering is surprisingly responsive for a crossover, and the nimble handling belies the Murano’s heft. Coming in either front- or all-wheel drive, the Murano boasts a brawny 260-horsepower V6 engine mated to a continuously variable transmission that delivers consistently smooth power.

At the end of the day, the only thing wrong with the Murano? Its hideous offspring, the Frankenstein’s monster Nissan calls the Murano CrossCabriolet (below), which looks like someone drove their crossover under a very low bridge. Now while that car is head-turning, as passersby laugh, point, mock or just stare in shock, we’d suggest you stick to the regular Murano crossover and get noticed for all the right reasons.

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