When the diminutive 2008 model-year Rouge debuted in September of 2007, Nissan dealers finally had a vehicle to battle two trendy vehicles from its largest Japanese rivals: the Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V. Toyota began the "cute ute" craze a decade ago when the RAV4 debuted with Honda following a couple years later with CR-V.
Back in the mid 1990s, cute-utes were best described as a compact, four-cylinder vehicle with a sport utility body style, but little off-road capability. After all, cute-utes were built off of compact uni-body car frames, not a ladder-on-frame truck design. Second-row seats folded down, increasing cargo-carrying capacity while delivering better-than-average fuel economy when compared to larger, truck-base sport utilities. Other automakers took notice as more small-to-mid-size challengers arrived including the Mitsubishi Outlander, Hyundai Tucson and Subaru Forester to name just a few. Now Nissan is in the game with the all-new 2008 Rouge.
As the years past, compact cute-utes have grown larger. Toyota last year began offering a six-cylinder engine in the RAV4 along with a third-row seat option. The five-door Rouge measures in as one of the smaller traditional compact crossover/SUVs/wagons available. The trade off is Rouge handles more car-like than competitors thanks in part to four-wheel independent suspension. In some ways, Rouge resembles Toyota's Matrix, a compact five-door wagon with four-cylinder power, although at 182.9 inches in length, Rouge is 11 inches longer than Matrix, which receives a major makeover in the 2009 model year.
Since 1999, Nissan has offered customers, the more off-road oriented, compact five-door Xterra SUV. Now the automakes has a more road-worthy counterpart to showcase at dealers.
"Chicago is strong market for Rouge," according to Eric Anderson, Nissan's North Central Region Vice President who spoke to the Midwest Automotive Media Association in November of 2006. "Nissan is the great performance brand with styling from Japan."
Rouge (a strange name selection because a less-than-flattering connotation) is available with one engine; a 2.5-liter, inline, four-cylinder generating 170 horsepower. Regular, unleaded fuel is required for the 15.9 gallon tank. Mileage estimates for the 2008 Rouge (and remember, starting with 2008 models, an updated testing methodology results in a couple of less miles per gallon than 2007 or earlier estimates) checks in at 22 mpg city and 27 mpg highway for two-wheel drive editions. All-wheel drive models generate one mile per gallon less in both categories. Two trim levels are offered (S and uplevel SL). Both come with the choice of front-wheel or all-wheel drive. Standard is a continuously variable transmission (CVT).
Nissan was one of the first automakers to widely market CVTs, having experimented early and extensively with the technology and has one of the more trouble-free systems available. Instead of a fixed number of speeds or gears that's found in a traditional automatic transmission (four-speed or five-speed automatic), a CVT utilizes an infinite number of ratios thanks to a system of pulleys or belts. It's not unlike transmissions found in snowmobiles. With a CVT, no perceivable shifting of forward gears is felt or heard. This can be a bit unnerving to those unfamiliar with the technology. It makes for a very smooth revving engine, but when passing at lower speeds, Rouge felt sluggish.
The well-equipped Rouge is priced very competitively with rivals. Starting price for a two-wheel-drive S is $19,250 and $20,450 for an all-wheel drive edition. The up-grade SL checks in at $20,670 for front-wheel drive and $21,870 for all-wheel drive. Add $745 for destination charge. The lowest priced four-cylinder, front-wheel drive 2008 RAV4 starts at $21,100 while the four-cylinder exclusive, front-wheel drive 2008 Honda CR-V checks in at $20,700. The only option our S all-wheel drive test car included was splash guards and the total price with destination charge checked in at $21,320. This includes a long list of standard safety features including: anti-lock brakes, side impact airbags, side curtain air bags, brake assist and child safety rear door locks.
Exterior wise, the outside looks modern with a high side belt line and rear-to-front sloping dynamics in place. Four strap-like, body color handles adorn all four side doors. Large, triangular headlight housings flank out the side fenders while the hood curves down fashionably into the checkered grille. The rear hatch, with standard wiper, is hinged at the top so the door opens from the bottom. Built into the rear cargo floor is a long, narrow covered area for stowing tool or other hardware. The temporary spare tire is also stowed under the floor.
Inside, our all-wheel-drive S came with a two-tone interior and most functions are within easy reach of the driver. Both the glove box and center storage unit between the front bucket seats are extra roomy. Three easy-to-grab dials monitor temperature, fan speed and blower direction. Two cup holders are found in front between the bucket seats. To the left side of the cup holders is a molded area to hold a cell phone or ipod. Since the parking brake is foot-operated, there is no center pull lever near the cupholders.
The instrument panel incorporates two large, circular analog gauges and a smaller gauge at the top with fuel-level information. This smaller gauge gets backlit with an orange glow at night, resembling a full moon. The top of the dashboard curves downward, while the four circular air vents protrude out creating a modern, sporty look. Cruise control functions are at 9 o'clock on the steering wheel. A fold-down sunglass holder is near the ceiling lights.
In row two, seatbacks fold flat onto the seats with a 60/40 split after a tab on top of each seat back is pulled and unlocked. Headrests do not have to be removed when folding seatbacks flat. Two adults fit most comfortably in back; three would be a crowd. Two cupholders fold down from the back of the front storage compartment area. Cloth seats are the norm except in the SL all-wheel drive where leather is available. Ceiling grab handles are available above both back side doors and the passenger door. Rouge offers no third-row seating, a wise choice for a vehicle this size.
Seating height is good. Riders don't feel like their riding close to the ground as with some compacts. Head and leg room are adequate. Drivers must be aware of a bigger than expected blind spot on the rear right side created by a small, fixed tri-angular cargo region window.
The available all-wheel drive system automatically changes distribution of torque to the front and rear wheels depending on the driving circumstances. During a recent spat of snow and ice, our all-wheel-drive Rouge gripped the icy mixture with sure-footed ease, providing piece of mind and improved stability. If so desired, drivers can push a 'lock' button found on the lower dashboard to lock the all-wheel drive to better handle conditions on rougher roads, although Rouge is not designed for heavy off-roading.
Rouge fits nicely between smaller wagon-like compacts (i.e. the Toyota Matrix and Pontiac Vibe) and more traditional compact SUVs (Toyota RAV4, Honda CR-V). It's also priced between the two genres. Based on the Nissan Sentra compact platform, Rouge fits nicely in the product mix for Chicago area drivers. Rouge's all-wheel-drive pricing is not much more than two-wheel, front drive versions. Midwesterners should consider this for tackling four-season driving.