The Nissan Rogue Sport Shows How Compact Crossovers Are the New Big Thing

The complications of our confusing crossover-filled future are on full display at the Nashville launch of Nissan’s newest CUV.

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As humans, we love nothing more than to categorize and classify the things that surround us. We look at the world and impose our own labels and divisions in a quest to give everything a structure we can understand. Now, just as Darwin went to the Galapagos and returned with news of his namesake finches, a journey to Tennessee to check out the new 2017 Nissan Rogue Sport feels very much like a confirmation that, like it or not, subcompactae crossoverforma is here to stay in the automotive kingdom.

Although any information about the driving experience is embargoed until next Tuesday, here are seven of my first impressions formed over the course of several hours with the Rogue Sport during an extended tour of the Nashville area, courtesy of Nissan, last Friday. Just to sum it up: they’re probably going to sell a boatload of these.

#1. What’s in a name?

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Though new to this country, the Rogue Sport is actually a rebadged version of a subcompact crossover sold around the world as the Nissan Qashqai (Cash-Kai). It’s smaller than the current Rogue by about a foot in length and five inches in height, though it’s basically the same width at the wheels. In addition to a few emissions and suspension tweaks for homologation purposes, Nissan decided it needed a more pronounceable name for the American market. And where else to turn but the #1 non-pickup vehicle in sales so far this year?

If you haven’t looked around lately, Nissan Rogues are everywhere these days. It blew past the Altima to become the company’s best-selling model in America in 2016, and in short order dethroned the Toyota Camry to grab that #1 non-pickup spot so far this year. And frankly, it’s not even that close—the Camry sold just over 83,000 units through March, while the Rogue was the only non-pickup to top 100,000. April sales figures will be out soon and there’s little reason to think the 47% year-over-year increase can’t hold. That 2017 redesign apparently hit all the right spots for consumers, especially the class-exclusive third row seating.

Nissan wants some of that brand magic to rub off on its little brother and give it instant recognition—the only question is, will the Rogue Sport’s just-right-size approach and cheaper price pull potential Rogue buyers away? 

#2. That face looks familiar.

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On the outside, they’ve done away with the Rogue’s double-chinned fascia and returned to a simpler interpretation of their current “emotional geometry” design language. If it looks familiar, it’s because it’s basically the same front end that the current-gen Rogue sported before its 2017 redesign (remember, same width). Recycling aside, it’s a pretty clean package and downright conservative when you look at the risks Nissan took with the Murano and Maxima, not to mention the aggressive styling found in competitors like the Toyota C-HR.

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Nissan parked a Rogue Sport and a regular Rogue next to each other in a garage in their North American headquarters. The little guy does look basically like a smaller Rogue, but again, that’s kind of the point. Still, it lost most of the extra length behind the back wheels, so the truncated rear is pretty apparent side-by-side and a sloping roof gives the Sport a more hatchback-on-stilts profile. If you like the look of the Rogue, chances are you’ll like the Sport too. If not, you’re probably cursing its derivative design—Nissan is betting there are a lot more people in the former camp based on the sales figures.

#3. It’s what’s inside that counts.

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The first thing you notice when opening the door is how pleasantly weighty it is, evidence of Nissan’s efforts to improve sound deadening inside. My tester model was a top-of-the-line SL Platinum edition pushing $30,000 with all the bells and whistles—a leather interior and heated front seats, push-button start, dual-zone climate control, and a 360-degree “Around View” camera system—but even the $21,400 FWD base model comes with well-bolstered cloth seats and the same basic infotainment unit found in the Rogue.

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Higher trims add the NissanConnect app and navigation system, but despite its relative speed and ease of use it seemed a little redundant given that Nissan is upfront about gearing the Rogue Sport toward young, urban, smartphone-wielding millennials. Maybe a unit built more around docking your phone rather than another proprietary suite combined with Apple CarPlay could have cut the price even more. At 61.1 cubic feet, the seats-folded cargo space is down 9 cubic feet from the regular Rogue, though the available “Divide-N-Hide” storage system makes full use of underfloor space in the rear. There is no third row because there's literally no room. 

#4. The fuel economy should be better.

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Here’s where things don’t quite line up like they should. The Rogue Sport is powered by a 2-liter four cylinder engine, putting out 141 horsepower and 147 lb.-ft. of torque—that’s about a 17 percent drop from the regular Rogue’s 2.5-liter powerplant. But at 3,225 pounds, it’s only five percent lighter. The result is strangely worse fuel economy for the smaller Rogue Sport, one mile per gallon lower than its big brother at 28 combined.

Nissan also could have probably eked out slighter better numbers on that front had they opted to upgrade to one of those newfangled eight or nine speed automatic transmissions instead of their omnipresent CVT with its artificial gearing. Again, no driving impressions, but use your imagination—it’s a CVT. Still, it didn’t seem to bother the 100,000-plus people who bought a Rogue so far this year.

#5. The price is mostly right.

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Of course, every manufacturer has a crossover or three these days, so you can’t pin the original Rogue’s successes on the whims of the market alone. Nissan muscled its way to the top of the mid-size crossover pile using an extensive list of available features coupled with aggressive sales incentives. The Rogue Sport undercuts a few of its competitors, notably the Toyota C-HR and March sales-leading Buick Encore, but comes in at a higher base price ($21,420) than the popular Honda HR-V and Jeep Renegade.

Moving up the ladder, the SV and SL models start at $23,020 and $26,070 respectively, with AWD available at a $1350 cost on all levels. Available options like the heated leather interior, Nissan’s “Safety Shield” collision-avoidance feature set, and remote start come along at the higher levels, and everything tops out at around $30,000. You might find more luxury options the Encore and a real four wheel drive system in the Renegade, the Rogue Sport appears to be gunning for that ever-popular middle ground of general competency.

#6. But what about the Juke?

Astute observers may have noted that Nissan already has a subcompact crossover-type thing in its lineup with the humble Juke. So what does the Rogue Sport’s introduction mean for everyone’s favorite ugly duckling? A second generation is supposed to debut later this year, but it remains to be seen how long it will be able to survive once the little Rogue arrives and sucks up all the oxygen.

A couple of points on that front. During a presentation to journalists, the Nissan guys showed a slide labeled “Nissan CUV/SUV Lineup” with pictures of the Rogue Sport, Rogue, Murano, Pathfinder, and Armada and little marketing descriptions for each. Conspicuously absent—the Juke. Before anyone could ask, one of the presenters said they consider it a “niche” model, outside the brand’s mainstream lineup. How long do niche models hang around at major manufacturers? It sold a little less than 1,500 units in March, a 40 percent drop from the year before. Also, Nissan had lined them all up in real life outside the hotel in a neat display that lacked a Juke as well.

#7. It’s another sign that crossovers are the future.

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We all know that crossover sales are exploding and sedan sales are imploding, but the fact that manufacturers are expanding their range of CUV sizes is just one more indication of the segment’s takeover. When it comes to categorizing sedans, we don’t bat an eye at labels like compact or mid-size, while “crossover” has been a stubborn, one-size-fits-all descriptor. Now the market is flush enough to support these kinds of classifications. Nissan would prefer you call the Rogue Sport an “entry-compact,” but subcompact works all the same.

Nissan thinks the Rogue Sport is perfect for young, childless couples, yet just ten years ago salesmen would be steering those very people towards a nice little Sentra. So if the Rogue has supplanted the Altima as its best-seller, Nissan needed another crossover to cover the Sentra split. For potential drivers, the calculation is simple—why get less when you can get more? Thanks to improved technology and engineering, little is lost in making the switch from a sedan for a large segment of drivers, and the perceived gains are tantalizing.