Nissan Juke — Interesting and inexpensive

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

After driving more than 100 cars, trucks and sport utilities a year for four decades, it’s hard to find something new, something that stands out as very different.

Perhaps the 2011 Nissan Juke doesn’t fall into the category of “very different,” but it comes darn close and Nissan’s latest effort to build something that stands out from the crowd appears to be a success.

The delightful little 4-door (perhaps a 5-door hatch would be more descriptive) Juke is a winner from its quirky styling to its smile-inducing drivability. We adored it from the minute we sat behind the wheel last summer in Vancouver to the day we had to give it back to the supplier after a couple of weeks of testing on both coasts.

So just what is the Juke? Technically, it’s a small crossover. It has no direct competitors in the compact crossover ranks and may more aptly be compared to the new Mini Countryman at one end of the spectrum and the new Scion tC at the other end. We think it will appeal to all ages, but Nissan has it directed at the younger crowd.

The styling may put you off from the get-go. It’s kind of a love it or hate it thing. One automotive pundit noted that years ago Nissan dubbed its Infiniti FX as the “bionic cheetah.” “Perhaps,” he wrote, “the Juke should be called the ‘bionic frog.’”

Indeed its headlights rise above the fenders for a frog-like profile. Think of a swimming alligator with its eyes above water. Huge wheel bulges and a swept-back roof line also give the Juke some of its unique appearance.

Although it has its downsides — cramped rear-passenger quarters, for instance — once behind the wheel and on the road, the Juke is so downright pleasing we were won over as were some auto scribes who voted in the Texas Truck of the Year competition in which the Juke shocked everyone by winning the Compact Crossover of Texas award against several more traditional competitors. Those Texans sure have a sense of humor.

The heart of the Juke, and the one thing that makes driving it smile-inducing is its 1.6-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder engine making 188 horsepower and 177 pound-feet of torque mated to either a continuously variable transmission (CVT) or a six-speed manual. The power is directed at the front wheels unless you opt for all-wheel drive, available across the three available trim lines, and then torque can be shifted from front to rear and/or left to right as needed for sharper handling; it’s especially good in snow.

Weighing in at just over 3,000 pounds, the Juke is impressively quick off the line, and capable of giving the driver the satisfaction of merging into traffic without the least bit of drama.

The Juke has been measured from 0 to 60 in anywhere from 6.5 seconds to about 7.5 seconds, depending on your magazine of choice. Let’s call it about 7 seconds with the manual and a tick or two more with the automatic.

The manual is a blast to drive, easy to shift and with a good-feeling clutch. But most people will opt for the automatic, and with the automatic comes a range of choices to fit all personalities.

Nissan offers a choice of driving experiences with three settings — Econ, Normal and Sport. The Juke turns a bit soft and lethargic in the Econ mode, but it also yields slightly better fuel economy. Normal seems, well, normal. But Sport is the sweet spot as the suspension tightens up and the throttle response becomes more aggressive. Nissan also provides the sensation of a six-speed automatic with defined shift points in the sport mode.

In our encounter with the Juke in Vancouver and more recently during our stint back in our own testing grounds, we were as impressed with the little vehicle’s road-holding ability and it’s quickness. As a bonus, the Juke’s short wheelbase (99.6 inches) and tight turning radius (36.4 feet) make it a dandy vehicle for negotiating tight spaces.

The downside to enjoyment of the muscular little engine is perhaps a bit less gas mileage than you might expect. But we consider the trade-off well worth it as Juke measured 27 mpg city, 32 mpg highway for the 2WD CVT and 24/31 manual. Mileage drops to 25/30 for all-wheel drive. There is no manual transmission option for AWD.

Another downside is that Nissan recommends higher-priced premium fuel.

The biggest drawback to the Juke is space. But remember this is a small vehicle. Front seat room is excellent, the seats are comfortable and the sight lines are good. The problems arise in back. It’s possible to house two adult passengers, but they will have to negotiate for legroom with those in front; and head room is not in abundance for those with long torsos. Think of the Juke as a personal two-person vehicle that can haul a fair amount of cargo or a vehicle for a small family with mom, pop and two small kids.

If all seats are in use the luggage area is rather slim measured at 10.5 cubic feet, but it will open to 36 cubic feet with the rear seats folded. You’ll have to remove the headrests to assure the seats fold flat.

Nissan has done a good job designing the interior of the Juke with less flamboyance than the exterior. The dashboard has a pleasing look, gauges are well done (although some fade out in bright sunlight); knobs are large and operation of controls is intuitive. Storage up front is also in good supply.

Juke offers considerable standard equipment on the base S trim for $19,710 including destination charge. Equipment includes full power accessories, cruise control, keyless entry, air conditioning, Bluetooth connectivity, a six-speaker stereo with CD player and iPod integration, and steering wheel controls.

Move up to the SV starting at $21,010 and a sunroof, automatic climate control, push button start and the transmission settings come standard. The SL trim starts at $23,300. All-wheel drive adds $1,500 across the lineup, and a CVT adds just $500 in the top two trim levels. Our test vehicle, a front-wheel drive manual-shift SV came in at $21,010.

Juke is responsive, appealing and a bit quirky and that makes us happy.

Base price: $19,710; as driven, $21,010
Engine: 1.6-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder
Horsepower: 188 @ 5.600 rpm
Torque: 177 pound-feet @ 2,000 rpm
Drive: front wheel
Transmission: 6-speed manual
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 99. inches
Length: 162.4 inches
Curb weight: 3,157 pounds
Turning circle: 36.4 feet
Luggage capacity: 10.5 cubic feet
Cargo capacity: 36 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: NA (premium)
EPA rating: 31mpg highway, 24 mpg city
0-60: 7.3 seconds (Edmunds)
Also consider: Mini Countryman, Mitsubishi Outlander Sport, Ford Fiesta hatchback

The Good:
• Great driving dynamics
• All-wheel drive available across the lineup
• Loaded with equipment

The Bad:
• Tight rear-seat accommodations

The Ugly:
• Gas mileage just so-so on premium fuel