Nissan has once again joined forces with “Star Wars” and I have to admit it’s having an effect.
From those catchy ads of a Nissan Rogue negotiating a daunting landscape of enemy First Order craft to the Los Angeles debut of seven Nissan vehicles dressed up as “Star Wars”-themed vehicles (alas, they didn’t make it to the Detroit Show), the legendary sci-fi franchise is rubbing off on the mainstream Japanese brand. Maybe it’s Nissan’s funky styling. Maybe it’s that Nissan grilles look like Kylo Ren’s helmet. Or maybe the latest “Last Jedi” sequel is just so dang enjoyable it makes everything it’s associated with look good.
Whatever, the black Nissan Rogue Sport (with Stormtrooper-esque pepper-and-salt interior) that arrived at my garage door in December begged for adventure. I wanted to take it for a spin. I’m not the only one.
After Nissan’s debut partnership with “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” (showcasing Nissan’s Rogue SUV, get it?) last year, brand sales soared 24 percent. The Rogue itself did 400,000 in sales, second only to the best-selling RAV-4 ute. With “Last Jedi” accelerating off the line with glowing reviews and 30 percent faster ticket sales than “Rogue One,” the force is sure to be with Nissan again in 2018.
Despite those wild-looking concept vehicles — behold the Nissan Rogue X-wing! — the Nissan tie-up does not emphasize performance but safety. The ad campaign preaches not horsepower and high-g maneuverability, but omniscient “Intelligent Mobility” features like lane-keep assist and automatic braking.
Yoda: Brake before you see a road hazard, it will.
Power, it has not. Nissan’s compact utes run on four-banger engines and plodding, continually variable-transmissions (CVT for short). I nailed the throttle on the 141-horsepower (11 less than a Subaru Crosstrek, for goodness sake) 2-liter four-cylinder, and it sounded like 141 gerbils grunting in a hamster wheel. Zero-60 doesn’t come in Lightspeed — it comes in Molassespeed.
Indeed, the Sport could use a Hyperdrive upgrade. It lags most of its subcompact class competitors in acceleration. Its 10-second effort is a galaxy behind the perky Kia Soul Turbo (6.5 seconds) I tested last year. Somehow, Rogue Sport doesn’t translate less giddy-up to less thirst. After laboring to 60 mph, the all-wheel drive mule still needs to stop as often as its competitors (27 mpg) to quench its thirst.
The Sport’s strengths lie elsewhere.
Nissan has a well-earned reputation for making taut chassis — Maxima, 370ZX, Altima — and the subcompact Rogue Sport’s wheelbase is nearly a foot shorter than Rogue with which it shares a platform. Throw on all-wheel drive and the Sport is well-suited for Detroit’s annual deep freeze.
Winter is miserable for my rear-wheel drive sports cars, so I put them in hibernation. But when December dumped a half-foot of snow on the ground, my high-riding, four-pawed Nissan was scratching at the garage door to go out.
There are “Star Wars” nerds and there are car nerds. I’m the latter. In summer I’ll make the 60-minute trek to Hell, Michigan’s writhing roads for sports-car testing. This winter I needed only take the Sport as far as the neighborhood school parking lot, abandoned for the holiday break and covered in snow. Safety first: Make sure lots are empty of other cars and pedestrians (local fuzz frown on unsafe lot antics). The lots can be wonderful test grounds for 16-year-old drivers and all-wheel drive vehicles alike.
One of my favorite local haunts sports a small-diameter, curbed island I use for a sort of Gymkhana course — think Ken Block doing doughnuts around a barrel buried in snow. Turn the traction-control off and let the all-wheel drive do the rest. Around and around we went. Keeping the rear end hung out under moderate throttle, I could easily control the Sport’s short wheelbase with minimal steering input. It builds confidence in the car — not to mention your own Jedi abilities — for the inevitable moments when you’ll have to fight weather on, say, the way to Chicago when Lake Michigan lake effect makes I-94 an Olympic bobsled course.
Skywalker: Breathe. Just breathe. Now reach out and ... feel yourself connected to all four wheels.
Enough with the car nerd stuff, you say. How’s the Sport to live with? I’m happy to report its short wheelbase does not compromise interior room, the Sport’s other big asset. Think of the Rogue Sport as a chopped Rogue.
The brand’s popular compact ute packs considerably more cargo space than subcompact Sport, yet the latter’s passenger cabin is about the same size, making it much roomier than Nissan’s quirky, discontinued Juke. The Juke is part of a near bygone era when subcompacts looked like characters from a “Star Wars” cantina screaming for attention. Think the Soul, or long-gone Nissan Cube, or frog-eyed Juke.
The Rogue Sport is recognition — along with competitors Honda HR-V and Chevy Trax and Jeep Renegade — that the subcompact SUV segment is the new mainstream and offers a big sales opportunity with first-time buyers. The Sport (like HR-V and Trax) can easily fit a Wookie behind the wheel — and his furry friends besides.
Nissan is flooding the ute segment with choices. Just as Jeep offers the subcompact Renegade, compact Cherokee and subcompact Compass tweener, Nissan shoe-horns the $22,380 base price Sport between the $25,000 Rogue and the forthcoming, $19,000 subcompact Kicks ute. To justify its place above Kicks, the Rogue Sport gets nifty standard features like satellite radio as well as the aforementioned cabin roominess that other subcompacts lack.
But in the ruthless, survival-of-the-fittest SUV battlescape, the Sport lags cheaper, similarly sized competitors like the HR-V and Trax — both of which offer standard Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone connectivity. In a car priced to appeal to millennials this is no minor oversight, especially as the Nissan’s in-house voice recognition/navigation systems are light years behind today’s sci-fi smartphones.
The challengers keep coming like a wave of TIE fighters. There’s the 2018 Subaru Crosstrek — its attractive, all-new design offering all-wheel drive for $1,000 less. That bargain price used to come with a bargain-basement interior but the Subaru is much improved, boasts smartphone-app connectivity and is as reliable as Tom Brady in the two-minute drill.
Tough crowd. So Nissan brings “Star Wars” to the fight.
Unlike “The Last Jedi,” the new Rogue Sport doesn’t quite live up to the hype. But with its sharp looks, roomy cabin and all-wheel drive it’ll get you to the movie theater through a Michigan blizzard in style.
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-1 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.
Vehicle type: Front-engine, front- and all-wheel drive, five-passenger SUV
Price: $23,745 ($31,245 as tested)
Power plant: 2.0-liter, inline 4-cylinder
Power: 141 horsepower, 147 pound-feet of torque
Transmission: Continuously variable automatic
Performance: 0-60 mph, 10.0 seconds (Car & Driver)
Weight: 3,424 pounds (AWD as tested)
Fuel economy: EPA 24 mpg city/30 mpg highway/27 mpg combined (AWD as tested)
Highs: Roomy; AWD loves snow days
Lows: Molasses-slow; more connectivity, please