No car works as better proof that the Nissan design department has been experimenting with mind-altering somethings than the 2012 Juke. This small SUV resembles a frog in stance, while the front lights and grille show a mishmash of shapes.
The odd styling may not be to everyone's taste, but it sure makes the Juke easy to find in a parking lot. That virtue aside, I like its looks, its form factor, and its performance tech. The only component I found frustrating was the stereo.
The Juke's small SUV form offers great practicality, with upright seats leading to easy access and a driving position slightly elevated over that of a typical compact car. The Juke's excessive styling narrows the roof toward the hatchback, which also features an incline, limiting useful cargo area. But the rear seats fold down to maximize that space.
Short of an electric drive system, the Juke also boasts one of the most advanced power trains around. The 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine uses a turbo and direct injection to make 188 horsepower and 177 pound-feet of torque, while getting EPA numbers of 27 mpg city and 32 mpg highway. However, the enthusiastic driving encouraged by the Juke tended to keep my fuel economy down at the lower end of this range.
CNET's car came with Nissan's continuously variable transmission (CVT), an option over the base six-speed manual, as well as front-wheel-drive instead of the available all-wheel-drive. Nissan only offers all-wheel-drive with the CVT, an annoying limitation. All-wheel-drive in the Juke also means a more sophisticated rear suspension than on the front-wheel-drive version.
Equipped with front-wheel drive and the CVT, I at first considered CNET's Juke the worst of all worlds. But while buzzing around twisty mountain roads in Sport mode, the CVT redeemed itself, and reminded me that Nissan has the best CVT in the industry.
In everyday driving, the Juke is easy to handle and uncomplicated. The ride quality is better than from many compact cars, but the engine shows a little turbo lag under hard acceleration. The short wheelbase makes for easy maneuvering in the city. The electric power-steering is tuned well, with a little play at center and increasing resistance toward each lock.
What makes the Juke really cool is its D-Mode control. In a little technical wizardry, the little LCD showing climate control and its surrounding buttons turn into drive mode controls at the touch of a button. Literally, button labels and functions change, so that the A/C button becomes the Normal drive mode button.
There is an Eco mode, which has the annoying effect of detuning the accelerator. On the plus side, Eco mode can also reduce the power consumption of the air conditioning, a feature found in very few cars.
But the real fun comes in Sport mode, which sharpens accelerator response, tunes the CVT for higher engine speeds, and tightens the power steering. Much more expensive cars from the likes of BMW and Audi offer similar controls, but nothing in the Juke's price range offers such a comprehensive Sport mode.
Running the Juke over my favorite roads, I had a blast. In Sport mode, the CVT lets the engine run up above 5,000rpm, keeping the power up in the turns and the ensuing straightaways. The suspension tuning allowed a little more lean in the corners than I would have liked, and even with the steering in Sport mode, it exhibited understeer, but the Juke was ultimately very responsive. I delighted in how I could feel the car rotate in the turns, and control it with slight braking even coming around an apex.