Where there once was a multitude of small, compact cars angling for a spot in your driveway as the primary travel device for a young family member, or perhaps a second or third vehicle for multiple drivers, the market is now offering a wealth of small crossovers instead. Oh sure, small cars are still plentiful to choose from, but few people are buying them anymore as taller, more versatile five-door crossovers based on these same small car platforms have greater mass appeal today.
Heading the pack currently — it changes every few months — is Kia’s successfully styled Soul with Jeep’s Fiat-based Renegade in second place, while Subaru’s revised Crosstrek is a close third. Other credible offerings include Buick’s top-selling Encore, Chevy’s similar Trax, Honda’s HR-V plus Toyota’s all-new C-HR. The Soul and the C-HR are front-drive only, while all of the others — including our Nissan Rogue Sport — offer standard or optional AWD.
Key to this burgeoning segment is how these vehicles perform like their larger siblings, as well as include similar levels of amenities and comfort. The Kia’s bold styling draws customers, as does its roomy interior, so this car/crossover must be considered a benchmark despite the absence of snowbelt AWD. This is where the Nissan makes a larger impact than some of the more established competition — styling, AWD and overall competence.
While the Chevy and Honda models are competent small crossovers with better fuel economy than the Nissan, the Rogue Sport feels more polished and well-rounded. The Nissan’s ride and handling portfolio is also superior to almost every other subcompact crossover; highway stability is top notch, cornering control is composed, and steering feedback is adroit and never artificial feeling.
Roughly a foot shorter than the standard Rogue, the Sport’s smaller dimensions don’t translate into compromises inside unless you regularly haul 7-foot basketball players in the second row seat. Rear comfort is class-competitive, while the cabin is markedly quieter than several rivals that cost the same.
In better equipped SL trim ($22,380 for base, $23,995 for SV and $27,045 for SL with $1,350 added for AWD), the Rogue Sport is available with several modern driving assists that are just that, electronic driving aids rather than interceding devices that can annoy and surprise. Stocked with panoramic sunroof, forward braking assist, intelligent laser cruise, lane departure prevention and much more, the Sport SV definitely has more appeal than the base level transportation devices that are the customary loss-leaders in all small-vehicle segments. And that too is key; some rivals can add hardware to offer similar active performance, however the sum of the parts may not equal the well-rounded development evident in the Rogue Sport.
Actual performance is supplied by a 2.0-liter in-line four making 141 hp — about average for this group. Teamed with a CVT automatic transmission, a Nissan favorite, the Rogue Sport is a little soft on bottom-end power, yet as revs build, acceleration prowess climbs as well. Absent the annoying droning of early CVT powertrains, the Sport exhibits little cruising hesitation and generally obliges any power requests with relatively seamless responses. Never fast, the Sport is still quite steady and won’t disappoint the vast majority of road pilots. EPA ratings are 25/32/28 mpg with AWD; our realized average for Halloween week was 30 mpg for three fill-ups.
In my mind, this is the threshold that makes small crossovers worthy of their purchase rate. To be successful in the market, buyers are expecting to achieve at least 30 mpg. Anything less negates some of the versatility virtues evident under the hatchback — an area where Nissan packs some strategic dividers and a dual-level cargo floor along with a removable privacy shade. Rear seatbacks fold conveniently here; you can reach the release buttons from standing outside at the rear.
One more surprising note from the logbook: practically every Nissan comes with a standard or optional audio system that easily bests the systems in comparable Toyotas, Hondas and Subarus in sound quality, volume and ease of use. Audio that you can feel seems to be a Nissan hallmark; the Rogue Sport’s XM and navigation enriched component was a welcome companion during our travels.
Other pluses: a great surround-view camera system, heated power seats and steering wheel, plus remote starting along with the remote access and push-button ignition. On the flip side, this is a Nissan, and some switches are low to the left of the steering wheel out of your normal line of sight.
Refined feeling, easy to drive and live with, the Rogue Sport feels like a rising star in a segment that is becoming very competitive.