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2014 Nissan Rogue: The imp grows up

by: NISSAN MOTOR CORPORATION, INC. - The completely redesigned 2014 Nissan Rogue has a lot going for it.Nissan needs to change the name of its compact crossover from Rogue to Conformist — and that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Rogue suggests a rascal or at least an imp, and the first generation version fit that bill. Although simple and inexpensive, the original Rogue was relatively quick and handled surprisingly well, making it a genuine alternative to more refined competitors, like the Toyota Rav4.

But the completely redesigned 2014 Rogue is following in the path of virtually all other compact crossovers on the market today. It is bigger and more sophisticated than last year's version, even offering an optional third row of seats. Acceleration is still good, especially considering that it is only available with a 2.5-liter inline four-cylinder engine and Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT). But it doesn't feel quite as spunky, perhaps because of the longer wheelbase and more sophisticated ride. The interior is much more sophisticated, with a curved dash, a better integrated entertainment/navigation center, and upgraded materials. And the cloth front seats in our test SV model were especially comfortable.

In other words, the 2014 Rogue is more grown up.

That doesn't mean Nissan's smallest SUV is no longer competitive, however. It very much is, thanks to a starting price of around $23,000 for the front-wheel-drive version and an EPA estimated 28 average miles per gallon, even when equipped with all-wheel-drive. The styling is also more contemporary, with swooping fender lines, a larger grill and LED-equipped headlights.

Another plus is the CVT, which is like an automatic transmission without shift points, as the name suggests. Manufacturers, including Nissan, first debuted them a few years ago because they can be calibrated to increase fuel economy. But many of the early ones also took a lot of the fun out of driving because they were noisy and unresponsive. Nissan's current CVTs have mostly overcome those shortcoming, providing good mileage and decent acceleration without the excessive noise. On a round trip drive between Portland and the Seattle area, our test FWD 2014 Rogue showed over 26 mpg and was fully capable of passing slower freeway traffic without undue racket. And the tire noise on rougher surfaces was much louder than the CVT, which is still not the case with every manufacturer.

We usually don't get to test different versions of the same vehicle back-to-back. But the Seattle area trip was to participate in Mudfest, the annual competition among outdoor activity vehicles organized by the Northwest Automotive Press Association. This year's contest included an AWD version of the new Rogue, which we were able to drive both on paved roads and through a specially-prepared off-road course that included a muddy section. On dry pavement, the AWD Rogue rode a little firmer than the FWD version, but it was not too stiff and handled rough pavement with ease. And the Rogue performed better on the off-road track that some larger and beefier SUVs, largely because it was so light and nimble.

The affordable compact crossover market is incredibly competitive these days. At the 2014 Mudfest, it included the Hyundai Tucson, Mazda CX-5, Subaru XV Crosstrek, Ford Escape, and all-new Jeep Cherokee. The Cherokee won, primarily because it was the trail-rated Trailhawk version equipped with serious off-road components. But I chose the Rogue SV AWD for second place because of its good balance between on- and off-road abilities.

Facts and figures (all models)

• Model tested: 201Rogue.

• Manufacturer: Nissan.

• Class: Compact crossover.

• Layout: Front engine, front- or all-wheel-drive.

• Style: Five-door SUV.

• Engine: 2.5-liter inline 4 (170 hp, 175 lb-ft);

• Transmission: Continuously Variable Transmission.

• EPA estimated city/highway/mileage: 26/33/28 (FWD); 25/32/28 (AWD).

• Price: Beginning at approximately $23,000 ($28,135 as tested).