Nissan designers don't shy away from controversy. Both the Cube and the Leaf use designs that appeal to the quirky more than the conventional. And so it goes with the 2011 Nissan Juke, a new breed of compact SUV that inspires very mixed reactions.
But judging from concept cars shown at auto shows, compact SUVs will be the newest trend in automotive design. Nissan has just gotten out ahead of everyone else. As a compact SUV, the Juke has the dimensions of an economy car like the Versa, yet sits on 17-inch wheels and a raised suspension, making access easy. It also incorporates one of the most modern gasoline engines available today.
What will throw people off is the bug-eyed front end, fitted with a set of round headlights and another light casing on top of the front fender. From front to rear, the fenders are unduly prominent, making the cab look squashed between them. Even the hatchback has extra curvy elements.
In many ways, Juke designers seem to have taken inspiration from the Mini Cooper S. Although the Juke lacks the Mini's heritage, it is a similarly remarkable design. And it uses a very similar power train, a direct-injection, 1.6-liter turbocharged four-cylinder, good for 188 horsepower and 177 pound-feet of torque. That's 16 more horsepower than the Mini, with the same torque figure.
The result is an aggressive engine ready to spin up and make the Juke jump. In fast launches, the front wheels hop or spin until they can get a grip and shoot the little car forward. The shifter could have a shorter throw, but it offers a good mechanical feel when running through the gears. Heading toward top gear, the shifter always wants to pop into fourth.
But here's where it gets a little unsatisfying. The Juke can be had with front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive, and with a six-speed manual or continuously variable transmission (CVT). Nissan only mates the manual with front-wheel drive, and the CVT with all-wheel drive. So dreams of turning your Juke into a World Rally Car competitor can be laid to rest.
The Juke takes its power-train tech a lot further than most by giving the driver Sport, Normal, and Eco drive modes, features not seen in cars of its price range. Each mode affects engine, steering, and climate control. For example, The Sport mode makes the engine and steering more responsive, but leaves climate control alone. Eco mode detunes engine response and dials down climate control, leaving the steering in normal mode.
Pressing a button labeled D-Mode, above a small LCD at the bottom of the stack, makes the different drive modes available. In Normal drive, the LCD shows a torque graph, in Sport it shows the amount of turbo boost, and in Eco it brings up a bar graph displaying how economically the car is being driven. Another button labeled Drive Info brings up a G-meter on the LCD.
Nissan created different engine programs to achieve the three modes, and also took advantage of the electric power-steering unit, giving it two distinct programs for normal and sport driving. This programming gives the Juke customizable performance that is completely new for cars in the $20,000 range.
But using Sport mode in the Juke drives home a little bit of conventional wisdom, namely that cars handle better when they are lower to the ground. The high ride height of the Juke keeps it from being a track competitor. But it is still fun to drive.
Taking a turn at speed, the Juke feels drift-happy, the high center of gravity wanting to pull all four wheels across the pavement. Too much speed, and it can feel tippy, but Nissan did a good job of screwing down the suspension, eliminating excessive travel. The ride tends more toward rigid than soft.
Steering response is good, and even better in sport mode. With the front-wheel drive and manual transmission, you can slip the shifter into low gear while braking, pull the wheel and feel the tires scramble for grip, then put on the power for a satisfying turn exit.