Small crossover SUVs are flying out of dealerships these days, showing up in driveways formerly occupied by mid-size sedans and other vehicles. The Nissan Rogue, now in its third model year, is increasingly popular among cost-conscious buyers, while the Toyota RAV4 is one of the top sellers in the class.
The latest Nissan Rogue offers a racier, uniquely-styled alternative to box-on-box crossovers. It's a stylish crossover utility vehicle, with good fuel economy and a considerably nicer interior than the version it succeeded. The latest RAV4 is solidly a compact crossover SUV, with available all-wheel drive and dimensions that stack up right along with the Honda CR-V and Ford Escape, its chief rivals.
Both aim at the heart of the small-SUV segment, with the Toyota having the advantage of longevity and better model recognition--plus the Toyota reputation for quality, and a new hybrid version this year. But the Rogue and the RAV4 get identical ratings in our reviews, so the choice of which is better suited will depend largely on the buyer's preferences and impressions.
These two models are both very popular, yet they’re polar opposites with respect to styling. The Toyota RAV4 plays it safe, with a profile that blends in alongside other affordable compact small crossovers. Up close, it’s far from inspiring, although a refresh for the 2016 model year fine-tunes some details and adds more soft-touch surfaces inside.
Nissan’s Rogue, on the other hand, like the larger Nissan Murano, looks like no other crossover vehicle on the market. Redesigned for 2014, the Rogue offers the flexibility and cargo-hauling capability of a small SUV, but it shares the expressive Nissan design language of upswept window lines, aggressive front ends, and particularly stylized interiors.
The Rogue has a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine that delivers 170 horsepower. With its continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT), it delivers reasonable acceleration, taking around 8 seconds to run from 0-60 mph. Front-wheel-drive is standard, but all-wheel-drive is available for those who want it. The added traction comes at a price, boosting the sticker price and cutting fuel-economy ratings.
The RAV4 does fine with its base 176-horsepower, 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine; a new Hybrid version has 190 net horsepower, a 33-mpg combined EPA rating, and more responsive feel. Four-wheel drive is an option, and there’s even a 4WD Lock mode for predictable traction in snow or mud.
Neither SUV is anywhere near as sporty as the Mazda CX-5, and both prioritize ride over roadholding. Still, the Rogue is the more enjoyable of the pair--and buyers coming from a small sedan may find it more to their liking. The Nissan feels more substantial and damped from road noise, though it allows a bit more engine noise into the cabin.
In SE trim, Toyota's RAV4 gets a slightly stiffer suspension tune that lets it handle like a more nimble sedan. Otherwise, it's predictable, but far from satisfying for more enthusiastic drivers. Ride quality is impressive in either of these models, but we’d probably give the RAV4 our comfort preference for its generally quieter cabin.
Provided you don't need the convenience of a third row, it's a trade-off between these two in interior usability. Both have reasonably spacious back seats, though they aren’t as comfortable as those of a mid-size sedan. Each makes some compromises in contouring and support in the name of flat folding for expanded cargo space.
While the RAV4 offered a small third-row seating option in its last generation, it's now a distant memory. Instead, only the Rogue offers that option, and it's so minimal (and thinly padded) that any family that uses the sixth and seventh seats at all regularly will likely move up to a larger SUV.
The Rogue offer seating that’s neither too high nor too low. The back seat is roomy enough for two adults or three children, and there’s ample cargo room for hauling the trappings of modern life. A low cargo floor also makes loading and removing heavy or bulky items that much easier, adding to the Rogue’s appeal. The Toyota scores well on those fronts too, though, so the choice is something of a wash on interior volume and usability.
As for safety, the Rogue has done relatively well in crash tests; it's already been named an IIHS Top Safety Pick+, but the NHTSA gave the Rogue a four-star overall rating. The RAV4 is stronger on safety. It earns five stars overall from the NHTSA along with the same a Top Safety Pick+ award from the IIHS. Outward visibility in either of these models isn’t ideal, however.
With the Nissan Rogue and Toyota RAV4 getting identical ratings of 7.6 out of 10, your choice comes down to personal preferences. The Rogue gets better scores for styling and performance. If you need a third-row seat (however minimal) but want to stay in the small-SUV category, it's the Nissan again.
On the other hand, the RAV4 does better in safety, has the unbeatable Toyota reputation for quality, and offers the Hybrid version with the best fuel-economy ratings among all variants of both cars. Either model represents an excellent choice, and we’d recommend you drive them back to back before making a purchase decision.