Nissan’s new crossover is a lovable Rogue

Driving in urban traffic is smooth thanks to a well-calibrated throttle.
Driving in urban traffic is smooth thanks to a well-calibrated throttle. Nissan

Carney’s Law states that if you have to say it, it probably isn’t true. Think “I’m not a crook,” or “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.”

The theory comes to mind when contemplating the slick, comfortable, friendly Nissan Rogue, the Japanese automaker’s new compact crossover SUV that’s set to do battle for the driveways of suburbanites and secretaries who typically snap up Honda CR-Vs and Toyota RAV4s in droves.

Male customers like to be identified with rough-and-tumble SUV traits, and they say women are attracted to rough characters. So Nissan apparently felt the need to dress up its cardigan-wearing Sport Comfort Vehicle in a leather jacket of a name. The problem is Nissan’s combatant is anything but roguish.

The tattoo-evoking name isn’t likely to scare anyone off. The compact SUV segment is growing faster than indignation at Chinese product quality, and with equally good cause. Customers are wary of committing to a vehicle as thirsty as a Ford Explorer or a Jeep Grand Cherokee until the last coupon of the payment book has been used. But they still want more space than even today’s roomier compact cars can offer.

And petite women in particular appreciate the taller seating position of an SUV. Increasingly, for them a compact crossover SUV is the best solution. The vehicle is made up of a small car platform topped by a tall, roomier upright wagon body. Think of crossovers as Honda Civics, Toyota Corollas and Nissan Sentras that have been slipped a bit of surplus baseball human growth hormone.

These compact crossovers are easy on the wallet too, with price tags that fall well short of those of traditional family SUVs and offering gas mileages that fall midway between gas gulpers and the frugal fuel-sipping cars on which they are based.

Nissan’s Rogue should win friends easily, but competition in the crossover segment is fierce. Recent refreshes to the CR-V and RAV4 have seen their sales take off thanks to their comfortable rides, surprisingly nice appointments and reasonable prices.

The Rogue stakes out its own territory in this segment. While the RAV4 remains more boxy and upright to make room for its third row of seats, and the new CR-V takes on the jellybean shape of a minivan, the Rogue looks more sleekly car-like in comparison, with fenders that bulge like shoulders and a sloping roof that tapers to the rear like Nissan’s popular Murano mid-size crossover.

Only the Rogue’s grille (which is the same color as the car’s body) detracts from its appearance. Nissan saved money here, and it shows. Yes, the company took a beating for pinching pennies in their cheap interiors a few years ago, but shifting the cost-cutting to the front of the car (its most visible part) seems counterproductive. Thanks to some well-placed jewelry, the CR-V looks expensive by comparison.

On the inside, Nissan has truly redeemed itself from the dismal days of Rubbermaid cockpits. Not only is the dash nicely styled, it also features genuine soft-padded surfaces. Some manufacturers seem to push customers to opt for leather seats by using a nasty gray “mouse fur” fabric as the base material, but the Rogue’s fabric seats are pleasantly textured and they are multicolored, making for a stylish, inviting cabin. If the CR-V sets the standard for lavish interiors in this segment, the Rogue matches it.

Something similar happens when you twist the key. Like the CR-V, the Rogue will have drivers opening the hood just to make sure there really is a four-cylinder engine in there — so quiet, smooth and powerful is the Rogue’s 2.5-liter, 170 horsepower motor. That engine is joined to a continuously variable transmission (CVT) with an infinite variety of ratios, so it can perfectly match the engine speed to the driving conditions.

At least, that’s the theory. In practice, many CVTs, especially those sold by Ford in recent years, have annoyed drivers with engines that drone away at a constant speed as if disconnected from the car’s wheels. Nissan’s CVTs have always been better than that, and the Rogue features the latest version which is better still.

A continuously variable transmission is supposed to match the efficiency of a manual transmission but with the convenience of an automatic. In the Rogue, it also matches the driving quality of a good automatic transmission. And for drivers who miss shifting gears, a steering wheel-mounted paddle shifter is available — it lets the driver change from one ratio in the CVT to another, simulating the feel of gear changes.

The Rogue’s CVT transmits power to the front wheels on the regular models and to all four wheels on the all-wheel-drive versions. A standard electronic stability control system also oversees the Rogue’s status, directing power to the wheels where it is needed and applying brakes to others if the car starts to slip.

Driving in urban traffic is aided by the Rogue’s well-calibrated throttle response. There’s no “jumpy” reaction here meant to trick the driver into thinking the engine’s more powerful than it really is — the Kia Rondo is currently the top offender on that list — so it’s easy to ease smoothly forward in stop-and-go traffic.

Likewise, the brake pedal yields a progressive response, slowing the Rogue just as the driver expects. These details may sound obvious, but too many manufacturers continue to overlook them.

The Rogue’s thick-rimmed steering wheel feels good when driving, but the electric power steering, like most such systems, is numb and steering efforts are overboosted at parking lot speeds.

Nissan fine-tuned the Rogue’s handling placing special attention on the lurching and body lean to which taller vehicles are prone. The result is a solidly planted feeling when driving on twisty roads. Hopefully, this will not only please the driver but minimize any car sickness in the back seat.

That rear seat is exceptionally large. The Rogue is bigger than its competitors and there’s no available third row of seats, such as in the RAV4, so there’s plenty of room for a spacious second row. The Rogue’s cargo space is also rather large when compared to those of its peers and Nissan accounts for this by pointing out a nifty pop-up organizer built into the floor that’s designed to keep grocery bags in place while the driver tests that curvy road handling.

The Rogue is slightly larger than its competitors and has an incrementally larger, more powerful engine. But its EPA gas mileage of 22 mpg in the city and 27 mpg on the highway (under the new tougher 2008 EPA test) tops that of its rivals, probably because of the efficiency of the CVT transmission.

All this could mean good things for Nissan. The automaker’s return from financial distress has been fitful, with boom and bust cycles, but the Rogue is a very appealing contender in a segment that’s on the rise. The result should be a flood of happy customers who appreciate the Rogue’s combination of comfort and efficiency, even if it isn’t very roguish.