BALTIMORE – 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 next month, 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 to be successes, 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 midsize car, Nissan is hoping to make the Rogue the sporty alternative to existing choices that emphasize comfort and utility over a dynamic driving experience, says Ken Kcomt, director-product planning for Nissan trucks and SUVs.

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 sporty 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 some sacrifices. It appears the interior bore the brunt of the cost cutting, with a fuzzy rat fur headliner and a multitude of shiny, hard-plastic surfaces.

However, the cockpit design is clean and simple. And so long as they don’t look up, buyers likely can live with the rat fur as the paddles add 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 sold in Europe that is off to a successful launch since arriving in the marketplace this spring.

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

’08 Nissan Rogue SL AWD
Vehicle type Front-engine, front-wheel drive 4-door cross/utility vehicle
Engine 2.5L DOHC inline 4-cyl. with aluminum heads, block
Power (SAE net) 170 hp @ 6,000 rpm
Torque 175 lb.-ft. @ 4,400 rpm
Compression ratio 9.6:1
Bore x stroke (mm) 89 x 100
Transmission Continuously variable
Wheelbase 105.9 ins. (269 cm)
Overall length 182.8 ins. (464 cm)
Overall width 70.9 ins. (180 cm)
Overall height 65.3 ins. (166 cm)
Curb weight 3,460 lbs./1,569 kg
Base price range $20,000
EPA fuel economy city/highway (mpg) 21/26 (11.2/9.0 L/100 km)
Market competition Toyota RAV4, Honda CR-V

Paddles are standard only on SL trims, which Kcomt says should account for 70%-80% of total Rogue sales and were the only models here to test-drive.

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 (our first tester was an all-wheel-drive model) 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.

Honda has hinted it plans to install a diesel in the CR-V for the U.S. But so far, Nissan only has confirmed a diesel for the Maxima large sedan in 2010.

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.

Both vehicles have a “toothy” grille and arched D-pillar. However the Rogue’s taillights are horizontal and wrap around the back corners, compared with the Murano’s low, vertical lamps.

From the side and back, the Rogue is clean and sexy, but the large center portion of the grille where the Nissan emblem rests is a distraction.

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

A nifty interior feature is a pop-up cargo organizer standard on SL trims, with detachable partitions to keep grocery bags from toppling over.

While Nissan isn’t specific about sales goals for the Rogue, Kcomt hints the auto maker hopes the new CUV will equal the performance of the RAV4 and CR-V.

Entering the market 10 years after the major rivals and selling 100,000 units annually will be a stretch, but Nissan’s new entry should be able to take a bite out of the competition with its more exciting ride and handling characteristics.

The Rogue is due to hit Nissan dealers in mid-September, with pricing to begin at about $20,000 for the base S trim.