2011 Nissan Juke Review – First Drive

Pretty it's not, but the Nissan Juke has a great personality

2011 Nissan Juke Review – First Drive
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Let’s not ignore the elephant in the room. The Nissan Juke is ugly. On one hand, Nissan should be commended for going out on a limb and not producing yet another two-box crossover. On the other hand, it’s difficult to find a good angle from which to view the Juke at.

FAST FACTS

1. A 1.6L turbocharged direct-injection 4-cylinder makes 188-hp and 177 ft-lbs of torque.

2. Front drive is standard, while Nissan also offers a high-tech AWD setup that distributes power front to rear and side-to-side in the rear.

3. Cargo room is 10.5 cubic feet and expands to 35.9 cu.-ft. with the rear seats folded.

4. Pricing starts at just $18,960 for a front-drive model with a CVT transmission and tops out at $24,550 for an AWD CVT model in top SL trim.

While it does look masculine and assertive, the design is a bizarre pastiche of different shapes and surfaces which are visually jarring. The only possible explanation is that the Nissan stylist responsible for the exterior decided to sketch his vision of what a Suzuki SX4 would look like when crossed with a blowfish.

As our day with the Juke wore on, the initial shock of its styling began to fade, but there is a real danger of this car being perceived as the Son of Aztek. Nissan’s target demographic of “young, urban, connected males,” who are obsessed with signaling their social status with ostentatious Polo shirts may also react negatively to a vehicle that’s “so ugly, bro”.

LOW GRADE INTERIOR, BUT OPTIONAL I-CON SYSTEM IS IMPRESSIVE

The interior is another mixed bag, with some very innovative touches mixed with some equally nasty, cheap hard plastic. The dash betrays the fact that this car was built to a price, with its expanse of black, grainy material that could have come from a Versa, while the center console lacks any useful storage place for iPods, cell phones and assorted gadgets that people carry with them.

While Nissan touts the gearshift surround as being styled like a sport bike’s gas tank, complete with high-gloss paint, the money spent on this neat but useless feature should have gone into a high-quality, soft-touch dashboard, something that the average consumer is much more likely to notice and can be used by dealers as a selling point.

One neat feature is the available I-CON (Integrated Control) system, which allows the driver to change between the HVAC controls and three drive modes. The benefit of this system is that it allows Nissan to eliminate the mess of buttons that plague so many cars on the market today, while avoiding a frustrating, iDrive style knob.

The transition between the two modes is seamless, and seeing the change of labels on what appear to be physical buttons is a novelty that doesn’t wear off quickly. The display screen for the I-CON system is also clear and easy to read, with bright colors and graphics displaying the information.

Here’s how it works: In Climate mode you can adjust the temperature in the cabin using what appear to be buttons on the screen, while in D-Mode the buttons change to different drive settings. The three drive modes (Eco, Normal and Sport) adjust the throttle response, transmission and steering settings to suit the driver.

WHO SAYS CROSSOVERS NEED TO OFFER UTILITY?

The rear seats, unfortunately, are quite cramped, even for someone under 6 feet tall, with little in the way of head or legroom. The seat design itself is rather upright and overly cushioned, and presents itself as an afterthought. For a weekend getaway with your friends it will suffice, but it’s not somewhere you would willingly spend time.

Cargo room is equally minimal (especially for a crossover) with just 10.5 cubic feet behind the cramped rear seats. Folded flat, the increase isn’t significant with a total of 35.9 cu.-ft. Then again, cargo room might not be all that important in this class with the MINI Clubman offering just 33 cu.-ft.

TURBOCHARGED 1.6-LITER DELIVERS AN IMPRESSIVE 188-HP

Where you really want to be in the Juke is in the driver’s seat. For all its crossover pretentions, the Juke is a wonderfully tossable car that would shame many second tier sport coupes, even with its high center of gravity and driving position.

It would be unfair to say that the Juke drives better than it looks – after all, merely moving under its own power would qualify this statement – but the Juke is an impressive vehicle to drive.

The 1.6-liter, 188-horsepower turbocharged four-cylinder engine emits an unpleasant whine, like a child’s toy, but behaves like the 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinders found in cars like the MINI Cooper S or Volkswagen GTI.

On the two-lane back roads outside Vancouver, Canada, where passing areas are few and far between, the Juke squirts in an out of slower traffic and works its way up to extra legal speeds faster than it has any right to. The 6-speed manual, available on front drive models only, isn’t as good as the MINI gearbox, but is enjoyable to use, with crisp throws and a clutch that is easy to modulate around town and provides adequate feedback.

A CVT is also available on FWD or AWD models, and will be fine for most buyers, but it still has the motorboat effect of holding a constant rpm. When combined with the Juke’s whiny engine note, it becomes tiresome fast. The manual mode alleviates some of these concerns, with six “gears” to choose from, and a reasonable facsimile of a throttle blip, but it still pales next to the manual.

HIGH-TECH AWD FOR SUCH A LOW DOLLAR CAR

The Juke is an enthusiastic handler as well, eager to dive into corners, but the limits are noticeably lower than a traditional sporty compact. The Juke FWD and Juke AWD are two different animals, with the front-driver utilizing a torsion beam rear suspension and the AWD model using a multi-link.

Enthusiasts with a penchant for reading the technical columns of car magazines will tell you to go for the AWD model, with the aforementioned suspension and the torque vectoring all-wheel drive system, but this isn’t necessarily the case.

While it’s impressive that you can get the Juke with such a high-tech torque vectoring AWD system that distributes power front to rear and side to side in the back, and it’s true that it only adds an extra 60 lbs of weight, the AWD system does feel a bit unnatural while the stiffer rear springs deliver a slightly less comfortable ride; plus, then you’re stuck with the CVT.

THE COMPETITION

While pricing does start at $18,960 for a front-driver with the CVT, our pick of the range is the manual, FWD model that starts at $20,650 for the mid level SV trim or $22,550 for a fully loaded SL. The Juke’s closest rival, the MINI Countryman, will likely start at this price, if not more, and offer far less power (buyers wishing for a turbocharged engine need to step up to the S model) and equipment (the Juke comes standard with premium features like Bluetooth connectivity, an iPod jack, steering wheel mounted audio controls and cruise control).

On the other hand, the MINI has more interior room (despite having only four seats) better quality materials, and less polarizing styling. As a value proposition alone, it’s hard to justify the Countryman’s extra cost of entry, but the Juke is also worth a look for those who want a sporty compact, but aren’t quite enamored with the idea of a coupe.

Sure, the Juke may not have the outright performance of a Civic Si or Hyundai Genesis Coupe, and buyers of these cars may not be willing to cross-shop the Juke, but the modest trade-off in performance combined with the added utility of the Juke make it an interesting proposition. Nissan lists the Mazda3 Sport and Toyota Matrix as its chief rivals, along with the MINI, and has done an excellent job of besting the two Japanese offerings.

THE VERDICT

As a vehicle for thrifty non-conformists, the Juke succeeds admirably. While not without its aesthetic shortcomings, the driving experience delivers enough thrills to put a smile on anybody’s face.

With a starting price of $18,960, the Juke might even be the rare combination of cheap, fast and reliable, with a dash of practicality thrown in for good measure. The only stumbling block is that rather than being packaged in a sleek, sexy wrapper, it comes to the public in the guise of an awkward, ungainly package that superficial types may write off without justification.

LOVE IT

  • Engine, gearbox, chassis all work well together
  • Innovative center stack allows for complexity without clutter
  • Tremendous value

LEAVE IT

  • Cheap interior materials
  • Cramped rear seat
  • AWD system a letdown
  • Short on cargo room

RELATED READING

2009 MINI Cooper Clubman Review

2010 Mazda Mazda3 5-Door s Grand Touring Review

2010 Mitsubishi Lancer GTS Sportback: First Drive 2009 Suzuki SX4 Crossover

2010 Kia Forte Koup SX Review 2011 Scion tC Review: First Drive

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  • Genki

    I’m guessing you’re not familiar with nissan ATESSA like torque vectoring AWD systems?

  • guest

    Hideous car!

  • Bugnuts14

    Looks like a Vega and a Corvair had sex – B  U  T  T    UGLY

  • Flowerdago

    love the look, love the drive, buying one

  • Bill Foss

    My wife hates it, but It’s my car…she says it looks like a VW Beetle on roids