Even its high-performance RS version can't redeem the 2014 Nissan Juke from being an odd duck, and problems with refinement and crash tests make this mallard sink more than swim.
The latest variant, the 2014 Juke NISMO RS, gives the NISMO version that arrived last year even more power and performance bits. NISMO comes from Nissan Motorsports, the automaker's performance arm, and the RS is the speediest Juke yet. Click here to compare the NISMO RS with the NISMO and the Juke's other trims: S, SV and SL. We tested a stick-shift 2014 Juke NISMO RS alongside seven other sport-compacts as part of Cars.com's $30,000 Cheap Speed Challenge (read it here), and we'll focus on that vehicle in this review. If you want a broader review of the Juke, click here for last year's review, which still applies for the earlier trim levels.
Exterior & Styling
The Juke has been a bizarre-looking car ever since it arrived in October 2010. The NISMO and NISMO RS trims have unique lower bodywork versus the regular Juke, whose optional fog lights sit within a Swiss-cheese framework of circular bumper openings. The NISMO is fromage-free, which improves the look, but it's still a strange brew of fanglike, hood-mounted lights and scattershot bumper openings. Nissan has a visual update for 2015 in the works, and if the European version is any indication (see it here), styling should be more palatable.
Shoppers should also note that the Juke is small. Overall length is just 162.4 inches, which is about even with commuter hatchbacks like the Honda Fit and Nissan's own Versa Note. Small crossovers, ranging from the Ford Escape to the Kia Sportage, are all at least a foot longer. The Juke offers little payoff in tight spaces, though: Its wide, 36.4-foot turning circle puts it even with the bigger crossovers, not the hatchbacks.
How It Drives
Activate Sport mode in the Juke's dash-mounted Integrated Control system — which mainly sharpens accelerator response — and the stick-shift NISMO RS has some initial turbo lag, but it's followed by punchy, immediate power that starts early and stays late along the tachometer. Our test car hit 60 mph in a quick 7.2 seconds and passed the quarter-mile in 15.5 seconds, which was quicker on both counts than most Cheap Speed contenders. It's all thanks to a reprogrammed engine control unit and improved exhaust system, which make the Juke NISMO RS' turbocharged, 1.6-liter four-cylinder crank out 215 horsepower and 210 pounds-feet of torque in models with a six-speed manual. The optional continuously variable automatic transmission drops power to 211 hp and 184 pounds-feet of torque — the same torque figure as the non-RS Juke NISMO (197 hp, 184 pounds-feet of torque). The regular Juke, meanwhile, makes 188 hp and 177 pounds-feet of torque. That begs the question: Is the automatic NISMO RS worthy of the RS nameplate? I think not. Torque matters, and the RS automatic didn't receive any extra.
The NISMO RS' beefier brakes (upgraded brake pads, larger discs up front and vented instead of solid rear discs) enabled a podium finish for braking performance in our comparison test: It took 124.2 feet to stop from 60 mph, a figure bested only by the Volkswagen GTI and Subaru WRX. Those two were the only cars quicker than the Juke NISMO RS in the challenge, too; both hit 60 mph in less than 7 seconds.
So why did the RS finish seventh out of eight cars in the comparison? Because measured tests aren't everything. The RS' manual transmission has long, muddy throws. Rev-matching is a chore, hampered by torpid gas-pedal response and engine revs that hang high for entire seconds after you get off the pedal. Absent the Juke's high-tech, torque-vectoring all-wheel drive, the front-drive RS exhibits resolute understeer on the racetrack, despite an RS-exclusive limited-slip differential, which should mitigate some of it.
The RS, like the NISMO, has a lowered, sport-tuned suspension versus the regular Juke. Even so, it leaned harder into corners than most of the others in the challenge. It's a little better than lesser Jukes, but many drivers will nevertheless deem this too much body roll for a sporty car. Back on the straightaways, anyone who travels long distances should look elsewhere: NISMO or not, the Juke rides firmly, with plenty of road noise and twitchy steering that requires periodic corrections to stay on course.
The Juke's small size makes for a tight interior, where the wraparound cockpit limits knee space. And aside from a few inventive painted accents, the cabin feels as low-budget as a planetary scene on the original "Star Trek." Grainy, hard plastics cover the dashboard and upper doors. The headliner seems like it was formed out of egg-carton material. The steering wheel tilts but doesn't telescope. Rear passengers have modest headroom and cramped legroom, plus crude door cutouts in place of padded armrests. Some may wish Scotty could beam them anywhere else.
The NISMO has deeply bolstered front bucket seats, while the NISMO RS has Recaro buckets. "Bucket" is the operative word, here; they hold you in as well as the rides at Six Flags, but they're also about as comfortable. The tall thigh bolsters, in particular, make getting in and out a callisthenic exercise.
Cargo & Storage
Cargo room behind the rear seats amounts to just 10.5 cubic feet, which is tiny for a hatchback or small SUV. Fold those seats down, and the Juke has 35.9 cubic feet, which is still on the tight side.
Ergonomics & Electronics
The Juke's features, too, seem half-baked. Standard audio includes a CD stereo with steering-wheel audio controls, an auxiliary MP3 jack and iPod-specific connectivity. But you need to step up to an SV model to get a USB port. The standard Bluetooth works your phone, but it doesn't stream audio until you get the optional navigation system, which comes on a piddling 5-inch screen. That's the only way you can get a backup camera, too — a feature that's standard in cars like the Honda Civic. C'mon, Nissan, this is 2014.
From accident-avoidance features to crash tests, the Juke's safety performance is a concern. The car earned top scores in the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's front, side-impact, roof-strength and rear crash tests, but it fared poorly in IIHS' small-overlap frontal test, which simulates hitting a narrow object (like a tree) from the front-left corner of the vehicle. What's more, the Juke lacks more advanced accident-avoidance features — like lane departure, blind spot and forward collision warning systems — that are fast becoming common, even among small cars. Click here for a full list of standard safety features.
Value in Its Class
The Juke S starts around $20,000 including destination charge, and it comes with the CVT. The front-drive SV, NISMO and NISMO RS come with a standard six-speed manual; all other variations, including all-wheel-drive models in any trim, have the automatic. Check all the factory options, and an all-wheel-drive Juke SL runs about $28,300; the NISMO and NISMO RS cost even more, but they lack heated seats or leather — both features available in lesser Jukes.
The Juke is a bit player on the sales front. We wouldn't be surprised if Nissan scuttled this crossover after a single generation. But this is an automaker that seems committed to oddball products, and it's possible we could see a second-generation Juke in a few years. All that does little, though, to broaden the appeal of today's car, which remains a niche vehicle for a specific buyer.
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