Ten years ago, the American marketplace had three distinct hybrid-powered SUVs for sale — Ford’s Escape, Saturn’s Vue, plus a trio of full-size mild-hybrid GM models, Tahoe, Yukon and Escalade. All of those are gone, expectations unrealized by market forces that didn’t see the need for the vehicles or by buyers who didn’t want to spend the extra money for these mileage misers.
Today, after 20 years of hybrid car sales, there are still just a smattering of compact crossover hybrids, one midsize luxury model and some random samplings in the larger classes. Primary hybrid crossover sales come from the Toyota RAV4 and Lexus rH400, (representing Toyota’s dominance in this engineering) while Subaru has been trying to make inroads with its Crosstrek Hybrid. The next potential big seller is this week’s Nissan Rogue Hybrid.
Nissan is much larger than many of us think. Aligned with Renault in Europe and now a primary owner of Mitsubishi in Asia, Nissan also builds engines with Mercedes and facilitates parts for other automakers. Nissan also owns Infiniti. And now with a renewed emphasis for electric, hybrid and alternative-powered cars, Nissan hopes to climb beyond its rank as the world’s number four automaker. In 2016, Nissan/Renault/Mitsubishi sold almost 10 million new vehicles, just behind GM, on a world stage that saw more than 87 million new vehicles sold.
The American marketplace is now number two in total new car sales, behind China, with 17.5 million new cars/trucks sold last year.
Nissan’s Rogue made a large push up the sales charts last year as well, climbing to the number 10 slot and becoming the third most popular crossover/SUV in America with almost 330,000 sold. The Rogue is now Nissan’s top selling product in the United States, eclipsing the Altima sedan.
Nissan, the company with the all-electric Leaf, has often talked alternative energy products, yet few have been created for mainstream consumption. There have been hybrid Altima sedans — using Toyota’s hybrid technology by license — so this Rogue should not be a surprise, other than why it took so long for the automakers to bring hybrid-power to what is now the fastest growing automotive category worldwide.
A standard Rogue uses a 170-hp 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine with a CVT automatic. Fuel economy is at the top of the compact crossover class — 26/33 mpg.
The Rogue Hybrid uses a 141-hp 2.0-liter four mated to an .8-KW electric motor utilizing a unique dual-clutch automatic that allows a kind of free-wheeling operation like that of a manual-transmissioned, four-on-the-tree 1969 Saab. When you lift off the throttle, the car glides. There is no engine braking, yet you feel (hear is perhaps a better description) the momentum of the turning wheels sending power into the regenerative braking system similar to actual braking action. Icons and lights on the informative dash tell you when you are being efficient — or not.
The caveat is sometimes less than smooth throttle responses despite the fluid nature of the car, its quiet ride and otherwise seamless operation. Jump into the throttle to leave an intersection to enter traffic, and the Rogue pauses, for what seems like seconds, as the vehicle seems to be thinking whether or not to engage the gas engine, the electric motor — or both. Engage Eco mode, one of three driving modes, and this situation is so exaggerated that you hesitate to merge at all. Only by clicking on the Sport button does the Rogue Hybrid drive in a normal sense with all power available, better steering feel and the appropriate level of acceleration.
In part, this stunted power delivery is planned programming in order to enhance city fuel economy, one of the strengths of a hybrid. Indeed, the Rogue hybrid, here in FWD format, earns EPA estimates of 33/35 mpg, a full seven miles per gallon better on the city cycle than the regular gas-powered Rogue. Two fill-ups revealed 29 mpg in cold weather driving, with one tank of 24 mpg during a 150-mile snowstorm.
Alas, this front-driver was not much of a match for the wintry weather that often visits Maine in February, its Dunlop Grandtrek tires struggling to offer the kind of grip necessary to navigate snow-covered streets. It would have been more favorable for the Rogue to have sampled an AWD version of this popular crossover, or at least one dressed with the proper rubber below.
The Rogue Hybrid loses some max cargo room to the rear-mounted electrics — and there is no third row seat option like in the standard Rogue — yet Nissan compensates with a clever two-stage covered bin. Only 200 pounds heavier than a standard Rogue, the hybrid model retains the crossover’s composed ride and handling dynamics. Steering feel, however, reflected some oddities during certain speed intervals that is entirely related to the hybrid’s role with electric steering.
Pluses: The roomy cabin asks no sacrifices, the Hybrid is very quiet, the cabin is generally well outfitted and easy to use, the 360-degree Surround-view camera view while backing is outstanding, and the Rogue Hybrid is about $2,400 less than the RAV4. Buyers note: the RAV4 comes with AWD standard; it is optional on the Rogue. The Rogue Hybrid has a marked edge over its competition on the EPA ratings too.
Cons: The Rogue does not yet offer Apple and Android connectivity, the brake pedal has a decidedly wooden feel, the lackluster acceleration in all but Sport mode could be a turn-off, and Nissan should strongly consider moving the bank of button controls on the left side of the dash. These buttons are black on black, low in the dash and awkward to see. There has to be room for these controls elsewhere.
Standard Rogue S pricing starts at $24,760, $26,110 with AWD. The SV Rogue Hybrid (only two trim levels for the hybrid) begins at $27,180 with FWD and $28,530 for AWD. The top SL-themed Hybrid starts at $32,100 with a plethora of safety and convenience gear.
There is a strong sense that hybrid power will proliferate in the industry. Small turbocharged engines mated to hybrid power packs will help achieve the pending fuel economy standards. While this Rogue Hybrid is a decent start, its impersonal driving feel is in marked contrast to the well-baked regular Rogue and shows room for improvement.
For commuter drivers and urban dwellers alike who want max economy with their compact class crossover versatility, the Rogue Hybrid is a strong contender for their dollar.