A combination of savvy design, consumer trends, strategic marketing and a little help from the force have made the Nissan Rogue the most popular crossover SUV in the nation so far this year.
Surging sales have turned the Rogue into the fourth best-selling vehicle in the U.S., through the first five months of 2017, a stark illustration of the booming popularity of crossovers. Rogue's rise is likely to be seen again Monday when the auto industry reports June sales.
The vehicle also raised some new hope for Nissan, as Luke Skywalker might say, after Disney’s Lucasfilm unexpectedly announced in 2015 that its first Star Wars spinoff movie would be named Rogue One and launch in 2016.
It was a stroke of good fortune for the Japanese automaker, analysts said. And the company doesn't disagree.
“Sometimes it’s luck, but you have to make it something of it,” said Judy Wheeler, Nissan brand vice president of sales. “And I think that’s what we did. We had the right product.”
Now, Nissan is set to capitalize on the three-row SUV's name identification with a new two-row model dubbed the Rogue Sport, a compact crossover the company sells in foreign markets as the Qashqai.
Just five years ago, when Americans were still obsessed with mid-size sedans, the Rogue ranked as only the 22nd bestselling vehicle in the U.S., according to Autodata Corp. But in the first five months of 2017, Nissan has sold 161,340 Rogues, behind only the Ford F-series, Ram and Chevrolet Silverado pickup trucks.
The Rogue’s leap to sales hyperspace makes it the bestselling non-pickup truck at a time when Americans are flocking into SUVs and crossovers to take advantage of low gasoline prices and roomier design.
Competitive models, including the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4, are also running up the score, swiping market share away from midsize cars that Americans are leaving on behind on showroom floors.
Sales of SUVs and crossovers rose 4.6% to 604,901 vehicles through May, compared to a year earlier, according to Autodata. During the same period, sales of passenger cars declined 9.3% to 584,005.
One factor helping Nissan is discounts, known in the industry as incentives, to convince consumers to make the purchase, Edmunds.com auto analyst Jessica Caldwell said.
“The Nissan Rogue is a good size, it has good packages” and it’s in a hot segment, Caldwell said. “Above all, Nissan is very adamant in growing their sales, so I think there’s probably a lot of price flexibility for the consumer. And they’re going to get a lot of bang for their buck.”
Wheeler rejected the suggestion that Nissan is pursuing more aggressive incentives than its competitors on crossovers.
“People realize that this is the place you need to play to be successful in the U.S. market,” she said. “We’re in a really good position.”
Wheeler said Nissan dealers are desperate for more inventory of the Rogue, which is made at factories in Smyrna, Tenn.; Kyushu, Japan and Busan, South Korea.
“You know you have a hot vehicle when they’re sending you notes and calling, asking you for more production,” she said. “I think it resonates with people because it’s the right car at the right place at the right time.”
Timing, indeed, seems to be on Nissan’s side. When Disney announced the title of the Stars Wars spinoff, Nissan North America marketing boss and former Disney executive Jeremy Tucker was “literally in a planning meeting” for marketing of the Rogue.
“Within an hour we called each other,” he said of his former Disney colleagues. “It was a matter of the stars aligning.”
There was no guarantee the movie would be a hit. In fact, a flop was a legitimate possibility for a franchise that's beloved across the world.
But Nissan decided to embrace it long before critics widely lauded the movie, investing heavily in TV commercials, digital campaigns and auto show exhibits, including a miniature Death Star hanging from the ceiling of the New York Auto Show in April.
Tucker said the Star Wars image for technological sophistication laid the groundwork for Nissan to emphasize the Rogue’s technology, including safety features that appeal to the young families who are the vehicle’s top audience.
“We said, we have our hottest product with the biggest cultural moment,” Tucker said. “Let’s get behind it.”
The next step will be capitalizing on the Rogue Sport, which Nissan expects will appeal primarily to Millennials and singles.
At a starting price of $21,420, the Rogue Sport is $3,000 cheaper than its larger namesake. Sales started a few weeks ago in small quantities as the company ramps up manufacturing. Early results are promising, Wheeler said.
It's for "the younger, urban-based drivers who want the capability of an SUV and the agility and ability to navigate with a smaller footprint,” Tucker said.
Follow USA TODAY reporter Nathan Bomey on Twitter @NathanBomey.