2014 Nissan Rogue SV FWD First Drive

As good as it needs to be to be as good as it possibly is

What It Is
The second generation of Nissan's popular crossover that you might've overlooked the first time.
Best Thing
Large and in charge, yet it has a small, efficient footprint.
Worst Thing
Some questionable interior materials, spongy brake pedal.
Snap Judgment
A jack of all trades, a master of one, and definitely a strong contender for your crossover consideration.

When was the last time you heard anyone talk about the Nissan Rogue? Seriously, think about it. We've gone gaga for the Mazda CX-5 and Subaru Forester. We've admitted that the Honda CR-V is a surprisingly competent vehicle for as utterly sedate as it may be--same for the Toyota RAV4. And we've swooned over the new Jeep Cherokee, as it propelled us up and down mountains that some goats might be too sheepish to traverse.

Yet, the Nissan Rogue has surprisingly continued to quietly trudge through the fanfare of its rivals to take in some heady sales numbers amid an aging design and lack of advertising. Did you know that the 2013 model is the fourth-best-selling vehicle in its class with sales numbers expected to approach 200,000 by the end of this year? Neither did we.

To continue that--and to grow sales strength--there's the 2014 Nissan Rogue, that's shorter, wider, and actually far roomier, with a new design direction and added refinement. The idea is to give customers more of what they've grown to love and introduce some new amenities and a more enjoyable experience. The questions we had when Nissan flew us out to its Nashville home turf to drive the thing were simple: What do customers love, and should we start paying attention to this seemingly stealth bomber of the compact crossover segment?

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The first time I saw the 2014 Nissan Rogue, I was standing next to Nissan's worldwide creative director, Shiro Nakamura, at an embargoed event during summer's Nissan 360. Nissan even took away my cell phones to make sure I'd show no one until after its worldwide introduction two weeks later.

Nakamura asked me what I thought. What I told him: "It looks nice." What I was thinking: "Honey, we shrunk the Nissan Pathfinder," which isn't exactly a bad thing. The Pathfinder has a Sean Penn schnoz--disproportionately massive--but the crossover otherwise looks smooth, flowing, and generally inoffensive. The 2014 Nissan Rogue differs in that its nose borrows from Nissan's international Haus of Design and comes across as a little more provocative, same with the boomerang-style tail lights. Given that, it's sufficiently distinctive enough to make it possible to figure out what it is. And whether you consider it ugly or not, that's wholly irrelevant. It sticks out from a crowd of generally bland competitors.

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Sitting Down

Perhaps the biggest story to be told with the 2014 Nissan Rogue isn't its polarizing exterior; it's the mixed-bag interior. When you look at it, it comes across as modern, airy, and sophisticated. It has a third row of seats, which is rare in the segment, and its ergonomics are superb. So before we get into those, let's talk about its downsides: its dashboard uses quite a bit of premium and soft-touch plastics, but there are portions on below the top and on the door panels that feel hard to the touch and cheap. On the drive route, we were debating about the standard mouse-fur cloth seats found in our midgrade SV model, with some saying it was a bit too 1990s--personally, I like the fabric--and we found the beige interior package already showing some signs of smudging. We'd recommend going for the charcoal interior or finding a Rogue equipped with leather.

The rear head rests impede some visibility, the third row really isn't designed for anyone but kids and in-laws, and the standard five-inch infotainment display looks a tad dated, as it's the go-to when not splurging for the premium seven-inch touchscreen monitor with navigation.

So now that we've gotten that out of the way, let's talk about the good stuff: The '14 Rogue uses the same zero-gravity foam in its seats as the Altima, and wow, are they comfortable. No matter whether you opt for the third row of seats or not, the Rogue has a second-row that can slide forward and back nine inches as well as recline. Room is ample, visibility is otherwise excellent outside of the rear headrests, and it has a Divide and Hide cargo management system that seems gimmicky until you try it. Then, you wonder why it's not available in more vehicles. Although Honda has a lock on the Magic Seat market--a really cool party trick that helps open up rear space--the Nissan Rogue's movable rear bench certainly makes a compelling argument that Honda's way might not be the best one when it comes to packing as much as possible the finite constraints of a compact crossover.

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Admittedly, our time and experience in this department was far too limited for our tastes, allowing us the opportunity to write more about the way the 2014 Nissan Rogue drives when we get one back at our Los Angeles office. What we can say is that the Rogue is the bridge between the Honda CR-V and Mazda CX-5 in terms of driving dynamics. The Honda is a snooze fest, but its ride is taut and comfortable. Its steering is linear, and it absorbs road bumps with surprising aplomb. The Mazda is sharper, more responsive, and has far quicker steering. It's also noticeably quieter than the CR-V. The 2014 Nissan Rogue perfectly hugs the middle between those poles.

While the roads we drove didn't undulate much, the Rogue still took to them without much commotion. We noticed some unexpected tire noise when equipped 17-inch all-season tires, but the sound of wind rushing past the front pillars at speed was negligible. Likewise, the 175-horsepower, 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine felt sufficiently punchy enough to keep up with its class when paired to its standard continuously variable automatic transmission, but it won't bowl anyone over with outright speed. Its killer app comes by way of ultra-efficient fuel economy, pegging 28.4 mpg over a 70-mile drive loop that consisted of country roads and highways. That compares favorably to even the 2014 Subaru Forester we drove in our five-crossover comparo, which scored a then-remarkable 27.4 mpg over the course of the day.

Fun enough, especially when using the torque-vectoring Lane Trace Control system to keep power directed where you want it and Active Ride Control that uses the throttle and stability control systems in conjunction with one another to eliminate jerky sensations when going over speed bumps--your mall-going family members will love it--perhaps our biggest driving gripe came by way of a numb brake pedal that has a substantial dead spot in its travel that Nissan's engineers say makes it feel more linear. It's not particularly confidence-inspiring, and we hope they change the tuning on it ASAP to give it more of a "bite" feel similar to sportier vehicles like the Mazda CX-5, Jeep Cherokee, and even the previous-generation model.

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Let's just say it: Outside of fuel economy, the 2014 Nissan Rogue isn't a leader in any one metric. Then again, neither is the prodigious Subaru Forester that we named our favorite small crossover earlier this year well before it was the cool thing to do. Proficiency is all the Rogue strives for, and it succeeds on nearly all accounts, excelling on more than a few.

Is it perfect? Nope. Is it much better than the model it replaces? Without a doubt. Add in the fact that it's cheaper than the competition and drives better than a good chunk of it, and we think that this darkhorse could be among the better vehicles in the class.

We have to use that caveat "could be," however. Our time behind the wheel was limited at best, and the roads we drove it on were of the smoothest tarmac Tennessee has to offer. We want to--no, we need to--get the 2014 Nissan Rogue back on the choppy Los Angeles roads we know and love to give it a fair shakedown. We need to get the Rogue in alongside the Subaru Forester and Mazda CX-5 to compare the three crossovers back to back. It's possible that the Rogue could be better than both, but quite frankly, we didn't have enough drive time to tell you that for sure. All we can tell you is that if Nissan deserves to sell 200,000 Rogues this year, like it's on-pace to do, the 2014 model deserves to bring its sales into the same playing field as the segment's top-selling Honda CR-V and Ford Escape. It should officially in the hunt with them in terms of sales and, more importantly, with what it has to offer as an overall product.

Basic Specs

2.5-liter inline four-cylinder engine, continuously variable automatic transmission, front- or all-wheel drive, 175-hp, $23,350-$32,270 ($25,090 as-tested), 26 mpg city/33 mpg hwy (fwd) 25 mpg city/28 mpg hwy (awd)