Nissan adds a SUV with a price to entice buyers

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Sport utility vehicles no longer are the darlings of car showrooms. But Nissan has a new SUV that's sure to attract buyers -- even those who are keenly sensitive to gasoline prices.

The 2008 Nissan Rogue is the latest and smallest of Nissan's five SUVs and has the lowest starting price: just over $20,000.

The five-passenger Rogue also is the only Nissan SUV offered with a fuel-sipping four-cylinder engine. It's mated to a fuel-efficient continuously variable transmission, and the result is a government fuel economy rating that tops Toyota's competing small SUV, the RAV4, and Honda's CR-V.

Best of all, the Rogue has carlike ride and handling rather than a truckish SUV ride.

And all safety features, including curtain air bags, electronic stability control with traction control and a number of braking aides, are standard.

Starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, is $20,175 for a 2008 Rogue with two-wheel drive. A Rogue with all-wheel drive starts at $21,495. These prices are at least $2,600 less than the Nissan Xterra SUV, which had previously been Nissan's lowest-priced sport utility.

But what will pique the interest of many shoppers is the fact the Rogue's starting retail price is lower than any other 2008 Japanese-branded SUV.

Honda's CR-V, which leads this segment in sales, starts at $21,335 for a two-wheel drive model and $22,535 for an all-wheel drive version. The 2008 Toyota RAV4 starts at $21,935 with two-wheel drive and $23,335 with four-wheel drive.

The Rogue price also comes in lower than the 2008 Mitsubishi Outlander SUV that starts at $20,640.

The Rogue's styling is rather utilitarian for my tastes. The tester -- a top-of-the-line SL with all-wheel drive -- wasn't particularly attractive in its stark white paint. It sort of looked like a jellybean-shaped appliance.

The tester handled well in both city and highway driving, with predictable and comfortable steering and a nice ride that conveyed the feel of the road without transmitting road bumps harshly.

The Rogue is one of the newfangled crossover SUVs that ride on a carlike platform rather than that of a truck. In this case, the platform under the Rogue also is used for the small Nissan Sentra front-wheel drive sedan.

The tradeoff with crossover SUVs is they aren't as capable in rigorous off-road situations and can't tow as much. The Rogue's towing capacity is 1,500 pounds.

At 15.25 inches in length, the Rogue is about 2 inches longer than the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4.

Its 5.5-foot height is about on par with the CR-V and RAV4, and the fact the Rogue is shorter than the more than 6-foot-tall Xterra helps reduce sensations of tippiness. The test Rogue handled mountain twisties well even as it provided nice views out because passengers sit up from the pavement a good bit.

I just wish that engine sounds, particularly the straining and buzzing of the four-cylinder under acceleration, were more pleasant.

As it was, the Rogue's 2.5-liter, double overhead cam four cylinder often sounded labored during acceleration, reminding the driver and passengers that an all-wheel drive model can weigh nearly 3,500 pounds.

The continuously variable transmission -- called a CVT for its variable gear ratios -- didn't help. It often sounded like the transmission was letting the engine rev continuously.

Top horsepower is 177, which is more than the 166 horses offered in the four-cylinder engines of the CR-V and RAV4. Torque in the Rogue peaks at 175 foot-pounds at 4,400 rpm, which is more than the 165 foot-pounds in the CR-V and RAV4.

Despite the higher power, though, the federal government's fuel economy rating for a two-wheel drive Rogue is 22 miles per gallon in the city and 27 mpg on the highway. This tops the 20/27 mpg for the CR-V and the 21/27 mpg for the RAV4.

Fuel economy for the all-wheel drive Rogue also tops the ratings of the two main competitors.

The utilitarian styling of the Rogue carries into the interior, where there's lots of obvious plastic that doesn't have a rich look. Seats were supportive and comfortable, and analog gauges were easy to read.

The 17-inch tires standard on the Rogue SL transmitted road noise about all the time into the passenger compartment, and there was wind noise at highway speeds.

As in other SUVs, rear seats fold down for expanded cargo space, which tops out at 57.9 cubic feet. But the Rogue's rear-seat headroom of 37.6 inches is less than what's in the competitors.

The spare tire is tucked under the rear cargo floor.

Despite all the safety equipment, the Rogue rates only four out of five stars for front-passenger protection in a frontal crash. The driver rating, as well as the rating for side crash protection, is five out of five stars.

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