With its squat body, bulbous fenders, and round headlights, Nissan's Juke looks like a frog, but there's an athletic prince hiding under its funky exterior. Since the Juke's launch, a rogue group of Nissanites in the European division revealed that hidden prince with the Juke-R, an amalgam of this odd little hatchback and the budget supercar GT-R.
Nissan HQ took note of the enthusiasm, making the 2013 Nissan Juke Nismo more widely available than the custom-order Juke-R.
Nismo, Nissan's in-house tuner group, may have fallen short of recreating the Juke-R's performance, but it did manage to create a wildly fun sports car ready to go up against any hot hatchback, especially at its $22,990 base price.
Unfortunately, Nismo could not overcome the Juke's biggest compromise, that its all-wheel-drive version can only be had with a continuously variable transmission (CVT). A manual transmission with all-wheel drive and the Nismo treatment could have given the Juke the kind of rally cred owned by the Subaru STI and Mitsubishi Evo.
The cabin tech, another low point, suffers from Nissan's current state of schizophrenia, but I'll get to that shortly.
Admitting my own bias, I've been a fan of the Juke since its 2010 launch, and the Nismo version just makes me happier. I like the quirkiness of its looks in the same way I prefer Parker Posey to Nicole Kidman. If you are one of the many who hate the Juke, nothing in this review will confirm your opinion, so go ahead and read about the Galaxy S4 or new Mac Pro.
However, you might want to note that the Juke Nismo squeezes 197 horsepower out of its 1.6-liter engine, thanks to a turbocharger and direct-injection technology. Its steering response tightens up at the touch of a button and, although it's considered a mini-SUV, its roofline is only 3 inches higher than the Ford Focus ST's.
In Nismo trim, the Juke only comes in three colors, white, silver, or black, all with red mirror caps and accents. Eighteen-inch alloy wheels come standard, as does a lowered suspension tuned tighter than the standard Juke. Sport seats, manually adjustable only, feature big side bolsters and synthetic suede.
Nissan loaned CNET the front-wheel-drive, manual-transmission version. The available all-wheel-drive system splits torque 50:50 front and rear, also shifting torque across the rear axle to aid handling. According to Nissan, Nismo also tuned the CVT on that version of the Juke for better sport performance. Nissan's CVTs tend to be excellent, but I'm skeptical about how one would perform in hard cornering.
No Bluetooth audio
Another compromise forced on buyers is the navigation system. The system itself is pretty weak, but the $1,170 package includes a bass-happy Rockford Fosgate audio system, while the system's small LCD works well for showing a music library from either an iOS device or thumbdrive plugged into the USB port. The car I reviewed came equipped with this system. Without navigation, the Juke Nismo would have a simple monochrome radio display, which requires a excessive scrolling through album and artist lists, making it very tedious to select music.
The real kick in the pants is that, although the Juke Nismo comes standard with a hands-free Bluetooth phone system, with or without navigation, it doesn't have Bluetooth audio streaming in any form. That lack will annoy Android users in particular.
Nissan's navigation system, a discrete double-DIN component, sits in the center of the dashboard. A tiny 5-inch touch screen plays host to maps and music libraries. I recently reviewed the new Nissan Sentra, and was not terribly impressed with its navigation offering, but the Juke Nismo's is even worse. With maps stored on an SD card, it should run pretty fast, but instead I found that the maps refreshed slowly, occasionally leaving half the screen blank before it could draw the streets.
The Sentra had a unique Google local search feature, not available on the Juke Nismo's system. The only really redeeming feature here is the traffic data. The system earned a few points with me every time I heard it say my route had been recalculated because of traffic trouble ahead.
Route guidance is very weak on this system, as it shows very minimal turn graphics, and no lane guidance. It would be easy to get lost when navigating complex urban intersections.
I couldn't enter destinations with voice command, either. Voice command only worked with the Bluetooth hands-free phone system. Although there were no buttons to access the phone system on the head unit, hitting the talk button on the steering wheel showed some limited phone screens on the LCD. I couldn't view my phone's contact list on the screen, but I could ask it to place calls by saying a contact's name.
The LCD made it relatively easy to select music or radio stations, but the audio source options were limited. No HD Radio, no Bluetooth streaming, just USB, iOS, and satellite radio as the digital options. The system showed a full music library for iOS devices, but strictly a file and folder format for music stored on a USB drive.
The bright spot, and one of the few reasons to opt for navigation, was the Rockford Fosgate audio system. Using six speakers and a powered sub, it doesn't feature serious audiophile quality, but I found it enjoyable. Because it delivers strong bass without shaking the door panels off, I tended to feed it bass-heavy tracks, such as The xx's first album. Highs and mids were delivered with slightly above-average quality, adding to the listening enjoyment.
One area that was short on audio production was the Juke Nismo's exhaust note. Despite a tuned-up engine and an oilcan-sized exhaust tip, it didn't seem like Nismo trained the Juke to roar. Despite my jabbing the gas pedal, working the direct-injection, turbocharged 1.6-liter engine up to redline, the exhaust note remained gentle.
That doesn't mean the engine didn't have a lot to give. It's the same basic engine used in the standard Juke, but Nismo reprogrammed the software, coaxing another 9 horsepower out of it, bringing the total up to 197 hp. Likewise, torque gets a boost up to 184 pound-feet. Although these aren't huge numbers over the standard Juke, the Nismo version doesn't cost a lot more, either.