For years, Nissan has sat and watched from the sidelines as Honda, Ford and Toyota have ruled the compact SUV segment. Now the Japanese company is jumping into the game with its all-new Rogue, a car that, even in its rookie season, seems ready for the pro-bowl.
If I see one more SUV with sharp, upswept rear-quarter windows, I'll know it's time to start applying for jobs in automakers' design departments, seeing as they obviously can't come up with anything better. The Rogue is yet another victim of this hackneyed design, but surprisingly the generic profile glass doesn't lead to significant blind spots here like it does in some competitors. Besides the bland styling in the car's profile, the Rogue does stand out as a thoroughly Nissan product.
The front end resembles the larger Murano SUV, which helps the Rogue's "Nissan-ness," but the rear definitely stands out on its own and falls decidedly on the attractive end of the design scale. Large, 17-inch wheels on the SL add to the athletic stance, as does the Rogue's low height compared to its competition.
That height doesn't cut into headroom, but the design inside creates a cockpit feel that's more akin to a sports car than the airy feel of an SUV. That's intentional, and when driving a black-leather-equipped Rogue SL, I definitely had flashbacks to a recent drive in the sportier Altima coupe.
The interior is one of the Rogue's highpoints. It's almost up to the level of the Honda CR-V, and that's saying a lot. It joins the new Saturn Vue on my list of runners-up to the Honda, and it certainly outshines the Toyota RAV4, Mitsubishi Outlander and Ford Escape. Visually, it all starts with the gauges, which are clear and easy to read. Between the two main gauges is a digital readout for fuel, the trip computer and other information, which is a nice touch. The subtle amber hue of the readouts is repeated throughout the cabin on the gauges and stereo.
I drove Rogues with both cloth and leather interiors. The cloth seats are surprisingly supportive, made of a sturdy material that I don't imagine will wear much over the first few years of ownership. The leather, of course, was a step up, and in black with red stitching it resembled a 350Z. This goes a long way toward Nissan's goal of aiming the Rogue at more of a male demographic than the female-heavy demo Honda looks for. That said, I don't think a sporty interior would be a turnoff to any women I know.
The Rogue has plenty of headroom, hip room and legroom, especially in the rear seat. I rode in a Hummer H3 taxi cab the day before I tested the Rogue, and the seats in Nissan's compact SUV had much better thigh support than the Hummer's, despite the Rogue being a smaller vehicle.
The only major drawback on the inside was the monstrous glove box door. In the ever-escalating — and needless — glove box wars, manufacturers keep trying to one-up each other on the size of the tried-and-true interior storage compartment. Some design glove boxes to fit laptop computers, while others add an MP3 connector and cubby. Nissan's is more than a foot deep and could fit most purses or a large first-aid kit. The problem? The door of the glove box is so low it's nearly impossible for it not to bang the passenger in the shins. If you scoot the seat back so it doesn't bang your legs, it's impossible to reach into the box itself. That's one oversight in an otherwise perfectly executed interior.
As in the CR-V, Nissan decided to offer just one engine and transmission combination for the Rogue. That engine is a 170-horsepower, 2.5-liter four-cylinder that outdoes both the CR-V and four-cylinder RAV4 in terms of horsepower, and you'll feel it when you stomp on the accelerator. Toyota offers an optional V-6 for the RAV4, and the Outlander only comes with V-6 power. The Rogue's engine mates with a continuously variable automatic transmission, and the SUV is available with either front-wheel drive or front-biased all-wheel drive.
There has been much debate over the application of CVTs in various models among different automakers. Some work well, others don't. For the most part, it's been the teaming of a powerful engine with a CVT that has impressed me, like in the new Altima. Those that have failed are the economical, four-cylinder-powered cars, like the Nissan Sentra and Dodge Caliber. The Rogue falls somewhere between those two extremes.
The engine certainly has enough power to live up to the sporty image the company is aiming for, and under hard acceleration it comes to life with a healthy roar that's not the norm in a four-cylinder-powered cute-ute. Nissan has also added shift paddles and manual shifting to the CVT in the Rogue's SL trim. Because it doesn't have gears like a conventional automatic, a CVT never really "shifts," but the transmission's software can create the sensation of shifting, and the result is pretty impressive; it feels like a regular automatic transmission with a manual-shift feature.
When cresting hills, I felt the lack of power a few times that most drivers associate with a four-cylinder. Luckily, even when in Drive you can use the shift paddles to get a quick downshift, then let the car take over again; it will reset itself to Drive after a few seconds of continuous speed. I found this feature extremely beneficial and imagine it will be a favorite of commuters who are constantly stuck behind slow-moving traffic.
The Rogue also lived up to its sporty roots in the handling department. While the steering felt loose at low speeds, it really tightened up the faster I went. I was tuned into the turns on windy roads, and the feel of the wheel was dead-on. Road and wind noise was minimal, and the suspension provided a soft ride, which many "sporty" SUVs abandon for a firmer one. I don't understand why some manufacturers seem to think an SUV needs to feel like a sports car in the ride department, and after hitting a stretch of pothole-filled roads I was very glad Nissan feels the same way.
The Rogue had very little body lean for an SUV, but it's probably still not up to the level of the Outlander. Even so, the Rogue is probably the best all-around performer in the four-cylinder class.
Over roughly 200 miles of mixed highway and two-lane-road driving, averaging around 35 mph, the Rogue's trip computer told me it was getting 23.7 mpg, right between the 21/26 mpg (city/highway) EPA estimate for the all-wheel-drive model I was testing. Front-wheel-drive models get 22/27 mpg (city/highway). That's comparable with the rest of the class using new 2008 EPA testing guidelines. There is room for improvement, though, and a hybrid version of the Rogue could be a big seller. Unfortunately, there are no plans for one at this time.
As far as SUVs go, there isn't much that's mind-blowing about the Rogue's storage capabilities. The cargo area with the rear seats up is an unimpressive 28.9 cubic feet. On paper that's less than many in the class, but when you see it in person you can't really imagine needing much more. The low, sloping roof contributes to the smaller cargo capacity. The rear seats fold mostly flat with the pull of a knob next to each head restraint. It's a simple setup that I prefer to the cumbersome methods employed in the CR-V and Outlander. With the seats down, cargo expands to 57.9 cubic feet, but it would be nice if the extended floor was truly flat.
Besides that cumbersome glove box, there's a cubby in the center console with an insert for CDs and other junk we all live with in our cars. Two cupholders up front and two in back handle most drink sizes you can imagine, from 32-ounce fountain drinks to skinny water bottles. There's a purse hook on the back of the passenger seat; it's a nice thought, but only the skinniest of straps will fit on it. One of my wife's behemoth bags would be resigned to the rear floor. Similar hooks reside in the cargo area for grocery bags, which makes more sense.
Another nifty feature in the cargo area is a little divider that pops up from the carpeted floor. This is one of the most skilled, simple innovations I've seen in a small SUV. The hidden compartment has three dividers that can easily be removed, so a quick trip to the grocery store won't result in eggplants and onions rolling all over the place. I'd hazard a guess that you could get about 10 lightly packed plastic grocery bags in this pop-up cubby. Plus, it has a removable, washable plastic bottom.
Like many new 2008 vehicles, the Rogue comes loaded with a bevy of standard safety features. Electronic stability control, front seat active head restraints, antilock brakes and a tire pressure monitoring system are standard, along with side torso airbags in front and side curtain airbags for both rows of seats. Active head restraints for the front seats are also standard. As of publication, the Rogue has not been crash tested.
Full pricing for the Rogue models had not been announced at the time of this writing. However, Nissan has confirmed the base trim level, the Rogue S with FWD, will start under $20,000. Usually when we hear that phrase it means the price will be $19,995. Even if it is indeed $19,995, the Rogue will come in slightly below the competition.
Rogue in the Market
Nissan has a winner on its hands. The only thing that may fail to totally turn people on is its middle-of-the-road exterior styling. Luckily for Nissan, none of the competition is considered a beauty, so it's entered a pretty level playing field. I still prefer the CR-V's transmission, but everything else about the Rogue screams "winner." For a manufacturer's first entry into a segment, the Rogue completely impresses.
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