NISSAN MOTOR CO. LTD. TOOK ITS SWEET time getting a small cross/utility vehicle to market in the U.S.

As the auto maker prepares to launch the all-new Rogue, it is a decade behind Japanese competitors Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co. Ltd., which introduced the RAV4 and CR-V in the U.S. in 1996 and 1997, respectively.

Both CUVs have proven successful, with the CR-V now the best-selling compact utility vehicle in the U.S., selling 124,262 units through July, Ward's data shows.

As with its Altima sedan, Nissan hopes to make the Rogue the sporty alternative to existing choices that emphasize comfort and utility over dynamic driving.

No question, a niche exists for a small, sporty CUV. But while the Rogue exhibits Altima-like handling, with tight, direct steering, a suspension that isn't overly harsh but still firm and some nice interior amenities, it isn't perfect.

In order to offer such features as paddle shifters in a vehicle that will price in the low-$20,000 range, Nissan had to make sacrifices. It appears the interior bore the brunt of the cost cutting, with a fuzzy rat fur headliner and shiny, hard plastic.

However, the cockpit design is clean and simple, and the paddles add an element of fun and control to what otherwise would be a so-so driving experience.

The Rogue rides on the same C platform as the Sentra compact sedan. It also shares its architecture and much of its design with its close cousin, the Nissan Qashqai, a smaller CUV selling well in Europe since its spring launch.

Unlike the Qashqai, the Rogue is available with just one engine choice, the QR25DE 2.5L 4-cyl. mated to Nissan's Xtronic continuously variable transmission.

Paddles are standard only on the SL trim, which should account for 70%-80% of total Rogue sales.

The engine makes 170 hp and 175 lb.-ft. (237 Nm) of torque in the Rogue, with the latter figure being best in class for a 4-cyl. compact CUV, Nissan brags.

As with the Sentra SE-R, Nissan has created so-called phantom gears in the Rogue's CVT to give fans of traditional step-gear transmissions the shifting sensation they crave.

Use of the paddles proved to be essential, as on-roll acceleration was lacking without “downshifting” for the necessary torque. Otherwise, the engine strained even at mid-open throttle as the CVT searched to find the right ratio.

Acceleration in the lighter 2-wheel-drive Rogue was just as plodding. In spite of the torque-sapping CVT, the 2.5L was likeable. But it also would be nice to see a second engine option, perhaps the Qashqai's 2.0L turbodiesel.

The Rogue's design borrows heavily from Nissan's Murano, with the same swoopy silhouette that has inspired a number of CUV designs in recent years.

Despite the cheaper materials, the interior is roomy, and the backseat can comfortably seat two adults, although the second-row seats don't recline. Unlike the RAV4, there is no usable third row.

Nissan isn't specific about sales goals for the Rogue. Pricing ranges from $19,250 for a 2WD Rogue S to $21,870 for an SL model, with AWD. The vehicle is arriving now in U.S. showrooms.

Nissan Rogue SL AWD

Vehicle type: Front-engine, 4-door, 5-passenger cross/utility vehicle

Engine: 2.5L DOHC inline 4-cyl. with aluminum heads, aluminum block

Power (SAE net): 170 hp @ 6,000 rpm

Torque: 175 lb.-ft. (237 Nm) @ 4,400 rpm

Compression ratio: 9.6:1

Wheelbase: 105.9 ins. (269 cm)

Overall length: 182.8 ins. (464 cm)

Overall width: 70.9 ins. (180 cm)

Base price: $21,870

EPA fuel economy city/highway (mpg): 21/26 (11.2/9.0 L/100 km)

Market competition: Toyota RAV4, Honda CR-V

[+] PROS/CONS [-]
> Paddle shifting is fun > CVT is sluggish
> Price is right > Ditch the rat fur
> 170 hp from 2.5L > How ‘bout a diesel?