The Nissan Juke is the latest attempt by an automaker to usurp the Mini Cooper, still the preeminent small urban car. Measuring just 13.5 feet in length, with a total height of just over 5 feet, this sporty and stylish mini-crossover is a blast to drive. And, the curiously responsive 185-horsepower engine provides enough juice for the Juke to make you gasp a little around corners. But the real innovation is that Nissan managed to pack in an engine with 177 lb-ft of torque at around 2,000 – 5,200 RPMs in a small and nimble footprint. For those who prefer the pure thrill of driving over more practical transportation needs, the Juke feels like you’re driving a stock-car at the circus. The only problem: The fun only lasts up until about 45 MPH.
As with any small car, you have to know what you are getting. From the outside, the Juke looks a little odd depending on the angle. From the front, it looks beefy and mean, almost like the close cousin to the Nissan Leaf. Turn to the side, and the Juke takes on a more pronounced small-car look: tall in the front, sloping dramatically to the rear, with a hatchback that’s small enough to be mistaken for a door on other cars. There’s something striking and a bit peculiar about it. During our tests, we had several people stop and ask about the model name. The turn signals, which are located on top of the hood and highly visible when you drive, are also head-turning. Overall, the design borrows a little of the curvatures on the M37x, squishes them down to Mini Cooper size, and then adds some of the Mini Cooper’s flare.
At a base price of around $18,000, this is a sporty small car that has some interesting innovations, starting with the continuously variable transmission, which makes the car feel like it always has power to spare. The CVT is a relatively rare and currently used only in a handful of cars. A Nissan spokesperson explained how it works:
“We use a unique Continuously Variable Transmission that doesn’t actually have gears. It uses a metal belt between two cone-shaped pulleys to transmit power from the engine to the wheels,” says Colin Pricea Nissan spokesperson. “The pulleys can be continuously varied to adjust the effective gear ratio to achieve the acceleration requested by the driver, so the engine will rev to the optimum point in the torque curve, and the engine control unit will then adjust the transmission’s effective gear ratio to make the request from the driver through the accelerator pedal.”
Inside the Juke, you’ll notice right away that Nissan was thinking: trim, elegant, and slightly brazen. There’s a spider-web pattern on the seats, and cloth stitching for accents all around the interior. As with most Nissan and Infiniti models, there is a cocoon feel to the cockpit that just feels right – not too big, not too cramped. (The rear seating is so tight that it’s actually hard to fold yourself into a ball and get in, depending on your size.) For the driver, the position of the steering wheel, shifter, and console is just about perfect, and makes you feel like you have good control.
The center console has two unique buttons: Climate and D-Mode. Ford should learn a lesson here about buttons that feel like they are analog and easy to access, yet actually change depending on whether you press Climate or D-Mode. With Climate, the button changes to show the typical assortment of heating and cooling options. In D-Mode, you can set the Juke to be in Normal mode for driving, Sport (which made the car more responsive but is not as easy on fuel), and Eco mode. Eco mode actually uses some car intelligence to keep you from slamming down on the accelerator.
On the right side, when you press D-Mode, there are more buttons for controlling a few driver feedback options. For example, you can touch a button to see a G-Force indicator. As you drive, a square moves around on the screen – bank a turn hard and the square will move to one side or the other. Hit the accelerator from a dead stop at a crossroads and the square will move to the bottom of the screen. Okay, maybe you are not driving a Corvette Z06, but you can at least pretend you are racing against the other parents to Target.
Handling on the Juke is tight and responsive, not unlike the other small car from Infiniti – the EX35. (We suspect the two cars are built on the same platform.) One unexpected perk is that there is a manual shifter that actually works well – you slide it over to the left and can shift gears manually. The shift knob is large and easy to grip, as though Nissan had manual shifting in mind all along.
The car is not without a few negatives, though. One is that the interior door handles are small and hard to grip, as are the side handles. They appear to be made for 12-year-olds. The Juke has an AWD mode, but the switch is very hard to find at night or in the smothering blanket of a snowstorm (trust us, we know). That said, the AWD does actually grip tightly and we never got stuck.
The sound system is what you might expect from a small car: small sound, okay bass, and a little distorted. Part of the issue is that the sound just has nowhere to go. Interestingly, it sounds better with the doors open. Rear compartment storage is also not roomy in any way – enough for two backpacks and that’s about it.
But no one buys an urban car for ample storage. The car has zip – at least if you tend to drive mostly around town. We had a hard time giving this one back for that reason. Yet, on the open road at 75 MPH on a flat road, the Juke is just another small car that doesn’t let you stretch out at all and feels a tad unsafe. We took a few corners and a fast pace and could have sworn the wheels felt like they were ready for lift-off. Back in the city, we changed our perspective all over again and had even more fun zooming around on side streets.
And that’s really the main summary on the Juke: if you tend to drive in an urban setting and only carry a water bottle and a book with you during the day, get the Juke. It is a fantastic car for driving around town with plenty of torque, and at this small size, gives you the sense that you could set a speed record. We even think the Juke might show up at some sort of desert derby race this summer. For anyone who needs space, drives on highways frequently, or tends to drive with more than one passenger in the car, the Nissan Juke might not be for you.
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