NASHVILLE--Just as Nissan North America's national TV commercials begin touting a brand heritage of innovative products, along comes a car to underline the point.
Nissan's new Juke blurs the line on conventional definitions. It is a crossover-slash-sports car and a challenger in the B segment, or subcompact category. The Juke has just a 1.6-liter engine, but it is turbocharged and delivers 188 hp. And although priced under $20,000 to compete with Mini Coopers and the Suzuki SX4, it offers a generous list of features.
The Juke goes on sale in October starting at $19,710, including shipping. The sticker maxes out, fully loaded, at $25,300 with shipping.
The basics: The Juke was conceived as a European product, designed in London and manufactured in England. But Nissan's North American team quickly saw potential for a sporty B-segment crossover on this continent to compete with Mini, BMW, and even Saab. The U.S. version will be imported from Japan.
The vehicle is 6 inches shorter than Nissan's smallest U.S. model, the Versa hatchback, but sits on a wider track with a shorter wheelbase and larger wheels. The product will be pitched squarely at the macho set -- young men who are into sports, women, gaming technology, and nightlife.
The base model is packaged with a navigation system, iPod dock, Bluetooth, remote keyless entry, and 17-inch aluminum alloy wheels. The top model gets heated leather seats, rearview monitor, moonroof, and an audio subwoofer.
Notable features: Masking the Juke's diminutive size are larger-than-normal body features. The back hips bulge and the front wheel wells suggest the biceps of a body builder. The headlights are abnormally long and positioned high along the hood opening, while the fog lights sit deep inside large front bumper caverns.
Inside, the cockpit features an integrated electronics system control that Nissan calls the "I-CON." A single set of dash lights and controls do double duty for two interfaces, changing color to become drive-mode settings in one appearance and climate controls on the other.
But it is the Juke's new engine that steals the show. The vehicle is Nissan's first global application (read: "others to follow") for a 1.6-liter, direct-injection, gasoline turbo aluminum-alloy four-cylinder engine. The powerplant puts out a powerful 188 hp and 177 pounds-feet of torque yet still delivers 27 mpg city/32 highway.
What Nissan says: "This is an aggressive driver's car," says Larry Dominique, Nissan North America vice president for planning for the Americas. "It's really surprising how far we've pushed our B platform. But no other model from the platform takes performance to this level."
Compromises and shortcomings: Not all shoppers are going to embrace the Juke. Segment-blurring can be a double-edged sword. Nissan has packaged a sports-car feel into a utility vehicle; but as a utility vehicle, the Juke is a bit petite. One Nissan planner notes that the vehicle is designed for guys who want cargo space, but not so much cargo space that people call them every weekend to help move furniture.
And although Nissan has created a small-engine/small-vehicle alternative for consumers motivated by fuel economy, the muscular and racy Juke is not likely to tempt many green shoppers.
The market: Small crossovers have taken root rapidly in the market and now are the industry's fourth-largest vehicle segment. The industry sold 801,853 entry-level crossovers in the first eight months of this year, up 11 percent from a year ago
Nissan forecasts 200 percent growth in the category from 2005 to 2014.
The skinny: Nissan thinks the small-crossover market is big enough that it can afford to carve out a nontraditional piece of it for sporty, turbocharged driving.