Editor's note: This review was written in January 2011 about the 2011 Nissan Juke. Little of substance has changed with this year's model. To see what's new for 2012, click here, or check out a side-by-side comparison of the two model years.
It seems fitting that Nissan, the automaker behind everything from the toylike Cube to the shield-your-eyes Infiniti QX56, is also responsible for the Juke, a tiny crossover with a turbocharged engine, limited utility and exterior styling that's as bizarre as it gets. This thing fits the automotive landscape like an Idaho farmhand would fit in "Jersey Shore."
The situation, if you will, turns out hit-and-miss.
The Juke is more fun to drive than most small crossovers, but shoppers will have to justify their purchase in the face of a lot of shortcomings.
In ascending order, trim levels for the Juke are the S, SV and SL; click here to compare them. Transmission choices are a six-speed manual or a continuously variable automatic. All-wheel drive comes only with the automatic, a pairing I tested in the Juke SV.
Stylized & Small
The Juke's face is hard to characterize. Fang-shaped parking lamps sit atop the hood; the portals below them appear to have fog lights, but they're actually the headlights. The grille meanders about the midsection, and a plastic garnish underneath houses a row of Swiss-cheese holes, which suffice for the lower air inlet. As you might have guessed, I never did warm up to the look. One passer-by said he loved it, but added it's not the sort of design he thought would age well. Other Cars.com editors' opinions ranged from cold to lukewarm; one editor said his wife likened the face to a Dodge Neon gone horribly wrong.
Sharing its platform with Nissan's Cube and Versa hatchbacks, the Juke is thoroughly compact. Its overall length — 162.4 inches — is about even with a Honda Fit and nearly 7 inches short of the Versa hatch. Size notwithstanding, the Juke has a burlier stance: It's a few inches wider than both those cars, and despite standing just a smidge taller than the Fit and its ilk, the Juke's extended fenders, dark lower cladding and raised rear stance suggest a ruggedness the other cars lack.
Inside, the Juke's inventive design is more impressive than its quality; similar money will fetch richer cabin materials in other vehicles, but the Juke does have some tricks up its sleeve. The center console area is finished in an appealing glossy paint that Nissan says is supposed to mimic a motorcycle's fuel tank. In SV and SL trims, the center controls have nifty, interchangeable backlighting to switch from climate settings to Nissan's Integrated Control system — essentially three drivetrain modes you can toggle among. The center display shows countless informational screens, from a lateral G-meter to your gas mileage history, and the backlit buttons flanking it have an upscale piano-black finish.
A navigation system is standard on the SL; it's an affordable $800 on automatic SV models. It's based on an SD card, though, not a full-fledged hard drive. Experience shows that SD-card-based navigation systems can run a bit slower, and the Juke's 5-inch screen is a bit small. On the plus side, Nissan's system is among the first I've tested with intuitive map scrolling. You swipe the map left or right, much like on a touch-screen smartphone, rather than holding your finger in one corner and waiting for the cursor to move there. Alas, the map has far too few street labels.
Seats & Storage
Crank the standard height-adjustable driver's seat up, and the Juke offers a view of the road that's more akin to a crossover than a small car. The smallish cabin minimizes the distance between you and the windows, and the side mirrors are blessedly large. As bizarre as they look from the outside, the parking lights atop the hood clearly mark where the Juke's corners are; thick C-pillars, conversely, make over-the-shoulder visibility a problem.
It goes downhill from there. The front seats offer little lateral support, and their lower cushions aren't particularly long, so taller adults' thighs will hang out ahead of them. The Juke lacks a center armrest and telescoping steering wheel — two important features widely available in other $20,000 cars. With the seat at a comfortable height for my 5-foot-11 frame, headroom in our moonroof-equipped model was tight. (Lose the moonroof, and you get another much-needed inch of space.) What's more, the driver's seat has limited rearward travel. I moved it all the way back and could have used another inch or so.
Of course, that would make things even tighter for those in back. As it stands, the front seats have a sort of Death Star-garbage-compactor relationship with the rear. Legroom is tight back there — my knees dug into the front seatbacks — and headroom is only adequate. Nissan's compact Sentra sedan has more than 2 inches more legroom in the backseat, and the Versa hatch has nearly 6 inches more. I sat in both cars back-to-back with the Juke at last year's New York auto show, and there's a world of difference. As backseats go, the Juke's is a joke.
So is the cargo area. The crossover's descending roofline and forward-arching hatch remove any chance of having serious cargo space, and the remaining area measures just 10.5 cubic feet. Other tiny crossovers, like the Mini Cooper Countryman and Mitsubishi Outlander Sport, beat the figure: The Countryman has 12.2 cubic feet, and the Outlander Sport has more than 20 cubic feet. Hatchbacks like the Fit and Versa are similarly voluminous. Even with the the Juke's 60/40-split rear seat folded down, its maximum cargo volume of 35.9 cubic feet trails the competition — in some cases by more than 10 cubic feet.
How It Moves
Our all-wheel-drive tester had enough power to reach cruising speeds with little struggle, even with three adult occupants on board. On SV and SL models, the Integrated Control system's three modes — Eco, Normal and Sport — alter the responsiveness of both the accelerator and (if equipped) the CVT automatic.
The drivetrain personality of each was distinct, particularly between the Eco and Sport extremes. In Eco mode, the CVT automatic transitions slowly to the engine's stronger revs, resulting in underwhelming takeoffs when the light turns green. (It does allegedly help gas mileage a bit, but Nissan had no estimates as to how much.) Sport mode hastens the transmission quite a bit; I found it punchy enough, though several editors still deemed it unresponsive — especially given the engine's penchant for brief turbo lag.
The sole engine, a 1.6-liter turbocharged four-cylinder, makes 188 horsepower and 177 pounds-feet of torque. Front-wheel drive trims about 200 pounds off the Juke's curb weight, which should translate to even better performance.
That said, many will find the Juke's ride too harsh. All-wheel-drive models swap the front-drive model's semi-independent, torsion-beam rear suspension for a fully independent setup, but it delivered poorly cushioned response over riddled pavement. Get on the highway, and the chassis picks up nearly everything going on under the car: expansion joints, grooved pavement and more. Combine that with a lot of noise — road, wind, suspension — and the Juke is a fatiguing car to take on an interstate trip.
It didn't need to be this way. Affordable hatchbacks, from the Mazda2 to the Subaru Impreza, offer decent handling and reasonable ride comfort, but the Juke is more one-dimensional. Hard corners do bring noticeable body roll, but it feels less top-heavy than many crossovers. The steering exhibits decent precision, and it's a well-rounded setup. At lower speeds, the wheel turns with light effort; at higher speeds, it settles in with little power assist and good overall tracking. I noticed little difference between the Integrated Control system's modes, which allegedly alter power steering assist levels, too.
The all-wheel-drive system sends more power to the outside wheel during cornering, which theoretically benefits handling balance. That's a pretty advanced feature at this price: Acura and BMW employ the technology on $30,000-plus luxury cars. Alas, temperatures at our Chicago offices hovered below freezing when we had the Juke, so we couldn't toss the car around enough to properly evaluate the all-wheel drive. I did put the Juke through its paces on the snow- and ice-covered streets, though, and the driveline sent power to all four wheels pretty seamlessly, with none of the spinning tires and lagging power transfers I've experienced with some all-wheel-drive systems.
Front-drive CVT models are rated 29 mpg in combined city/highway driving. The stick-shift, front-drive Juke and the all-wheel-drive CVT model both return 27 mpg. Those are impressive figures: The front-drive Juke falls just 1 or 2 mpg short of what many entry-level hatchbacks achieve. Alas, Nissan recommends premium fuel, which diminishes the mileage figures' appeal.
Safety & Features
As of this writing, the Juke has not been crash-tested by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety or the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Standard safety features include six airbags, active head restraints, antilock brakes and an electronic stability system. Click here for a full list.
About $19,000 gets you a front-wheel-drive Juke S. That's in the neighborhood of small crossovers like the Outlander Sport, the Kia Sportage and the Hyundai Tucson. It comes nicely equipped at that price: The CVT automatic, power windows and locks, 17-inch alloy wheels, air conditioning, cruise control and an iPod-compatible stereo with steering-wheel audio controls are all standard.
The better-equipped SV and SL trims have manual transmissions, though the automatic is an affordable $500 on each. All-wheel drive runs another $1,500 — also pretty affordable — but it requires the automatic. Other available features include a navigation system, heated leather seats, a backup camera and a moonroof. The Juke SL comes fully equipped; with an automatic and all-wheel drive, it runs about $25,000.
Juke in the Market
It's clear the Juke wasn't built for mass appeal. It rides too firm for some, and the cabin is too small for many. Driving fun, a few well-executed controls and reasonable value offer some vindication — probably enough to earn the Juke a niche group of buyers.
However, Nissan makes three other hatchbacks or crossovers whose prices overlap the Juke's, and there are literally dozens more alternatives across the industry. Whether the nameplate can garner a few rabid enthusiasts — and establish Nissan's performance heritage among affordable cars — is the automaker's gamble.
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