A Good Option Among Many Gets a Little Better

2011 Nissan Rogue - Click above for high-res image gallery

We don't envy the hordes of product planners working in the auto world. America's concept of quality transportation seems to shift with the seasons, leaving analysts scrambling to anticipate amorphous market demands while automakers fill barely justifiable voids in their product line. If you need proof, look no further than the scorching hot CUV segment. Buyers have developed a seemingly unquenchable thirst for small, car-based high riders, and nearly every automaker sports at least one tall hatch in their lineup.

Nissan hopped on the small crossover train belately in 2007 when it introduced the Rogue as a 2008 model. The pint-sized 'ute borrowed plenty of styling cues from the likes of the larger Murano and came equipped with an efficient and capable drivetrain built to suit a variety of tastes. But that was three years ago. In order to keep the Rogue as fresh as possible until a full-on next-generation model arrives, the company has rolled out a mildly updated version for 2011. It may not be the front-runner in its class, but the refreshed 2011 Rogue promises to hit all of the same notes that American buyers are singing right now. We spent a week with one to find out.

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Photos copyright ©2010 Zach Bowman / AOL

At first blush, it's clear that the Rogue isn't going to be shattering any boundaries. If you're looking for rule-bending design, you best head across the Nissan showroom to give the Juke a good once over. Instead of trying to rile controversy with its lines, the Rogue simply takes the generic CUV shape and spreads on a light Nissan flavor. While the overall design is slightly rounded, tricks like an upkicked C-Pillar and slightly wrapped headlights give the Rogue a familial flair.

Instead of going hog wild on a completely redesigned fascia for 2011, Nissan's designers simply opted for slight tweaks to the existing mold. Along with a massaged grille, the fascia now wears a subtle crease just below the headlights that's supposed to convey a touch of attitude. Down low, larger fog light openings now wear similar detail work as well.

2011 Nissan Rogue side view2011 Nissan Rogue front view2011 Nissan Rogue rear view

Nissan is planning to market the Rogue as a more mature alternative to the rash of youth-oriented CUVs currently infiltrating the market, and the company has underscored that commitment by decorating the sides of the vehicle with new chrome strips. We aren't typically huge fans of sticking shiny stuff to the exterior of a vehicle, and this instance doesn't do much to change opinions. The new trim simply doesn't do anything for us, especially given that the rest of the Rogue is largely bling-free with the exception of some similarly tacked-on looking door handles. Fortunately, Nissan has also thrown in a new set of stylish 17-inch, bifurcated five-spoke alloys that give the Rogue's design a pulse. It's amazing what a new set of shoes will do.

Of course, if buyers in this segment really craved unique design, something tells us we'd see more attractive European sport wagons being driven off of the lot instead of gangly high-riders. Our guess is that the buyer who wanders onto a Nissan lot in search of a Rogue is there for a few reasons: massive amounts of cargo, a tall seating position and a reasonable price. Particularly on the spacial front, the Rogue delivers admirably. There's a total of 58 cubic feet of storage capacity with the rear seats folded flat and Nissan says you can stow something 8.5 feet long out back.

2011 Nissan Rogue headlight2011 Nissan Rogue grill2011 Nissan Rogue wheel2011 Nissan Rogue taillight

Up front, the Rogue delivers the same quasi-commanding view of the road as most of the small utility cruisers, and Nissan has made sure to throw in plenty of standard convenience options as well. Our tester came in SV trim, which means the cabin was packed with goodies like power mirrors, a rear-view camera system, satellite radio and six-way power adjustable seats as standard equipment. Bluetooth hands-free calling also comes along for the ride, making for a decently well-rounded tech package given what the Rogue costs.

Unfortunately, the interior pleasantries end there. Thanks to bolts of dark cloth and plenty of soulless black hard plastics throughout, light enters the cabin, never to return again. The Rogue could seriously benefit from an infusion of lighter colors, let alone higher quality materials. Even with the optional sunroof in our tester, the Rogue simply felt dreary from behind the wheel.

2011 Nissan Rogue interior2011 Nissan Rogue gauges2011 Nissan Rogue touch screen2011 Nissan Rogue rear cargo space

The good news is the various switches and knobs have a heavy, solid action seemingly at odds with the inexpensive materials scattered elsewhere. This is particularly true when it comes to the steering wheel – a smallish piece that feels good in your hands, despite being nothing fancy to look at. The wheel is loaded with various switches for controlling everything from cruise control to the hands-free calling system, but their locations are easy to memorize in short order.

Each Rogue ships with a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine putting out 170 horsepower and 175 pound-feet of torque. The four-pot is bolted to a CVT complete with an overdrive function and the buyer's choice of either front- or all-wheel drive. Our tester came with its engine kicking at the front tires only, and while a high-riding, low-horsepower CVT machine sounds like a perfect recipe for motoring brain damage, the truth is that Rogue is a decently capable little machine. It handles city traffic, dispatches interstate jaunts and lugs around groceries and a couple of passengers without complaint.

2011 Nissan Rogue engine

Nissan has the benefit of utilizing one of the better CVT units available, and the 'box feels right at home behind the thrifty little four-cylinder in the Rogue. By putting the engine at the right RPM for whatever situation is at hand, cabin noise is kept to a minimum and there always seems to be more power available than the spec sheet would suggest. Throw in the fact that the EPA says that it's good for 22 mpg city and 28 mpg highway and the Rogue begins to look a little more appetizing.

The 2011 Rogue also benefits from a fully-independent suspension, which helps give the CUV a more planted feel while tackling interstate clovers or slaloming the light poles at the local mall parking lot. Buyers are more likely to interpret the setup as feeling like a heavier version of their kid's Sentra, but it's nice to know that riding high doesn't necessarily mean giving up behind-the-wheel tomfoolery.

2011 Nissan Rogue rear 3/4 view

Perhaps the most surprising part about the Rogue is its price tag. Our mid-range SV model came riding fairly close to the vehicle's $23,220 MSRP, though if you're really on a budget, the Rogue is also available in S trim at $20,810. That's not a lot of coin for what you're getting, but unfortunately for Nissan, this segment is loaded with absolute bargain buys. Vehicles like the Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4, Hyundai Tucson and Kia Sportage are all excellent choices, many of which carry top-notch warranties and slimmer price tags than Nissan's offering.

While the 2011 Rogue manages to cover all of the crossover bases, there's very little to differentiate this compact utility from the rest of the crowd. It's nicely sorted suspension and competitive fuel economy are nice selling points to be sure, but they simply aren't enough to give the Rogue an edge over the competition. If Nissan were to give the Rogue a slightly livelier exterior and an interior that doesn't feel like it was designed by someone with photophobia, the 2011 Rogue might be able to carve out a bigger niche for itself. Until then, this high-rider is likely to remain as a backup singer in the CUV rock opera.

Photos copyright ©2010 Zach Bowman / AOL

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