It’s not pretty, it uses a CVT and like any crossover its middle name is compromise. It might not sound like it, but the Juke is one of the most fun cars to drive in Nissan’s lineup.
|1. A 1.6L turbocharged 4-cylinder makes 188 hp and 177 lb-ft of torque.
2. Front-wheel drive models are available with either a six-speed manual or CVT, while all-wheel drive Jukes come only with a CVT.
3. A wheelbase of just 99.6 inches (less than the Scion FR-S, Volkswagen GTI, MINI Countryman or Ford Focus ST) makes it nimble.
4. With 10.5 cu-ft of trunk space there’s less cargo room than a Mazda2, though it expands to 35.9 cu-ft with the seats down.
It’s a terrible contradiction, but then again the Nissan Juke is a bit of a paradox. It’s a car that no one really asked for, with its sub-compact crossover size, goofy looks, so-so interior and stiff suspension. Yet on the road it’s hard to believe what the Juke is actually accomplishing. It jumps off the line like a sprinter and pushes the limits at every on-ramp. Under its strange sheet metal, the Juke turns out to be something we all want in a car: fun.
Receiving just as many looks from passers by as a Camaro, FR-S or any other sports car, the Juke proves to be an eye-catching, if unconventional looking mode of transportation. It evokes a response, either an emotional one, like love at first sight, or a physical one, like a dry-heave. Either way, the Juke was made to attract attention.
It’s the front of the car that is the hardest to judge. With turn signals that are draped across the hood of the car like an artist’s wayward brushstroke, and huge headlights that impede on the space normally occupied by a grille, the Juke’s front end is a mish-mash of out-there design ideas. From the side, it looks more like the squat crossover it’s meant to be, and it’s easy to mistake the Juke for a coupe with its hidden rear door handles. Finally, the rear features taillights that look peeled right off 370Z.
The interior isn’t as expressive. Our model featured nicely bolstered leather seats, though much of the rest of the cabin is awash in black plastics. Between the driver and the front-seat passenger is an interestingly designed plastic console with motorcycle design cues, painted to match the car’s exterior.
The cabin’s highlight is the available i-CON system, which is cool space saver, using the same buttons on the dash for both HVAC controls and drive mode selectors, flipping from one display to another at the touch of a button.
From the spec sheet, it’s easy to scoff at the Juke, but terms like ‘front-wheel drive,’ ‘continuously variable transmission’ and ‘crossover’ suddenly disappear once the Juke is shown a dancefloor like a curvy back-road. The transmission is responsive, especially in Sport mode, and for those who love to fiddle, the CVT has a functional manual mode too. A six-speed stick is offered, though only on front-drive models.
The transmission works wonderfully with the 1.6-liter turbocharged engine. In normal operation the car is comfortable and eager to get going, but in sport mode it’s all riled up like a teased guard dog. The turbo kicks in with little lag, as you feel all 177 lb-ft of boost come on from as low as 2000 rpm all the way to 5000 rpm.
Our SL test model featured AWD, which can be selected thanks to a little rocker switch to the left of the steering wheel. While zipping around in FWD mode is still enjoyable, the Juke just digs into the pavement when AWD is active. The system seems incapable of giving up, and will shift power around to the wheel that needs it the most, ensuring all 188 hp gets to the ground in one way or another.
The steering in Juke is what’s most eye-opening. In sport mode it’s tight, and along with the vehicle’s short wheelbase, the Juke achieves excellent levels of handling precision. Braking is also quite responsive, helping bring this 3,200 lbs. vehicle down to speed at an acceptable pace.
Driving the car enthusiastically has a dramatic result on our fuel economy. Averaging about 23 mpg in Sport mode with AWD active is well below the EPA’s estimate of 27 mpg, but keeping the car in FWD and ECO mode will help extend the life of the gas-tank. Official fuel economy estimates are set at 25 mpg city and 30 mpg highway for the AWD CVT model, though front-drivers can go as high as 27/32 mpg.
While the Juke is fun to drive, it is a bit compromised. It’s quite stiff and uncomfortable over broken roads, and the cabin gets noisy at highways speeds. Rear seat passengers will complain about the lack of head and leg room, and they should since the Juke can’t compete with many sub-compacts when it comes to back-seat accommodations. Front passengers will also complain about a lack of armrest, which is a separate, dealer-installed accessory. Finally, the driver might feel a little awkward since there is no telescoping steering wheel, which makes it tough to get in the ideal driving position in this oddly proportioned vehicle.
With front-wheel drive models starting at $20,280, the fun comes at an affordable price. Our fully loaded AWD SL model did, however, jump up to $27,730, though that isn’t bad when compared to other cars with about 200 hp.
So far Nissan hasn’t mentioned anything about a hotter Sentra SE-R model coming out, so for the time being the Juke will carry the brand’s flag for sporty cars under $30,000.
Extra capability and ground clearance help make this a sporty vehicle that will be appreciated all year long. However, if you can’t get past the polarizing looks, it’s unlikely this unique drive is for you. That’s a shame since the Juke is everything the sport compact sedan segments offers, and a bit more.