- The Washington Times - Friday, July 10, 2009

The compact crossover segment has ballooned with so many nameplates that it is now easier to name the few automakers that don’t have one. These crossover utility vehicles are increasingly popular, economical alternatives to the thirsty and heavy-handling SUVs of yesteryear.

There are plenty of choices, sure. But the rush to compete in this crowded market has resulted in a certain follow-the-leader mentality: All the major players have crossover vehicles within a couple inches in size; 4-cylinder engines of nearly the same size and power; and very similar packages of standard safety features, plus the same optional gadgets and conveniences.

Nissan’s 2009 Rogue follows the formula to a degree: Its sinewy 170-horsepower 2.5-liter four-cylinder is pretty much standard for the segment, as are its general size and features. But as usual, Nissan manages to separate from the crowd by injecting its distinctive engineering flavor in several meaningful areas.

Some of the Rogue’s uniqueness is owing to the fact that Nissan was late to the compact-crossover party. Real late. The Rogue was launched as a 2008 model, while segment stalwarts such as the Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V have been around for 10 years.

But the tardiness means Nissan had time to see what does and doesn’t work. For one thing, Toyota and Honda started out with too-small packages with too-small engines. Their RAV4 and CR-V have grown over the years to today’s more American-sized proportions, while Nissan’s first-generation Rogue offers a meaningful inch or two of extra wheelbase.

It pays off.

The Rogue rides with more sophistication than Honda’s CR-V and might match Toyota’s RAV4 (whose ride quality I think leads the segment), although the Rogue’s wheelbase is 1.2 inches longer.

Credit the Rogue’s standard multi-link rear suspension and some well-considered shock tuning, but the larger 17-inch wheels and tires standard with our base-priced $23,010 SL-trim tester might not hurt, either.

The Rogue’s rear door lifts upward like nature intended. The cargo area isn’t quite as large as some of the competition, but Nissan makes amends by including one of the slickest built-in cargo organizers around; it can keep plenty of pesky plastic grocery-store sacks in their place, the truest test.

The rest of the Rogue’s interior is a little plain, which initially gives the impression of chintziness, but most of the materials look and feel good, and the overall layout is decent.

Particularly nice are the sculpted door pulls, while the optional leather package brings six-way power adjustment for the supportive seats, although its $1,950 package price is steep for this market and doesn’t deliver much additional equipment of substance.

I still can’t find the love for Nissan’s orange gauge backlighting. And for whatever reason, Nissan couldn’t engineer a large touch-screen driver interface and site for optional navigation; a portable dash-mounted “navvie” unit is the costly ($560) alternative.

Many don’t care for Nissan’s continuously variable transmission, which eliminates the sometimes irksome shifting of conventional automatics and purportedly improves economy. And many might be right, given that standard automatics, now sporting five and six ratios, typically shift almost imperceptibly, and the six-speeders might be at least as efficient as Nissan’s beloved CVT.

Of the CVT as used in the Rogue, let’s say three things: 1) the manual-shift mode is a hoot, cracking off delightful “virtual” gearshifts; 2) it helps deliver impressive highway fuel economy. I got a couple miles per gallon better than the Rogue’s rated 26 mpg; 3) it’s annoyingly slow to start, even though the Rogue’s four-cylinder usually pulls vigorously.

About the looks. The 2009 Rogue is a little plain, compared with some of the overstyled stuff out there. The front grille is particularly unadorned by today’s standards, not much chrome or “aggressive” gaping air intakes, and the Rouge’s profile isn’t too special.

Nissan’s stylists obviously were going minimalist, preferring to let the Rogue’s effective packaging, fair value and unique driving characteristics help it stand out from the small-crossover herd.

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