Nissan designers don't shy away from controversy. Both theand the use designs that appeal to the quirky more than the conventional. And so it goes with the 2011 Nissan Juke, a new breed of compact SUV that inspires very mixed reactions.
But judging from concept cars shown at auto shows, compact SUVs will be the newest trend in automotive design. Nissan has just gotten out ahead of everyone else. As a compact SUV, the Juke has the dimensions of an economy car like the Versa, yet sits on 17-inch wheels and a raised suspension, making access easy. It also incorporates one of the most modern gasoline engines available today.
What will throw people off is the bug-eyed front end, fitted with a set of round headlights and another light casing on top of the front fender. From front to rear, the fenders are unduly prominent, making the cab look squashed between them. Even the hatchback has extra curvy elements.
In many ways, Juke designers seem to have taken inspiration from the Mini Cooper S. Although the Juke lacks the Mini's heritage, it is a similarly remarkable design. And it uses a very similar power train, a direct-injection, 1.6-liter turbocharged four-cylinder, good for 188 horsepower and 177 pound-feet of torque. That's 16 more horsepower than the Mini, with the same torque figure.
The result is an aggressive engine ready to spin up and make the Juke jump. In fast launches, the front wheels hop or spin until they can get a grip and shoot the little car forward. The shifter could have a shorter throw, but it offers a good mechanical feel when running through the gears. Heading toward top gear, the shifter always wants to pop into fourth.
But here's where it gets a little unsatisfying. The Juke can be had with front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive, and with a six-speed manual or continuously variable transmission (CVT). Nissan only mates the manual with front-wheel drive, and the CVT with all-wheel drive. So dreams of turning your Juke into a World Rally Car competitor can be laid to rest.
The Juke takes its power-train tech a lot further than most by giving the driver Sport, Normal, and Eco drive modes, features not seen in cars of its price range. Each mode affects engine, steering, and climate control. For example, The Sport mode makes the engine and steering more responsive, but leaves climate control alone. Eco mode detunes engine response and dials down climate control, leaving the steering in normal mode.
Pressing a button labeled D-Mode, above a small LCD at the bottom of the stack, makes the different drive modes available. In Normal drive, the LCD shows a torque graph, in Sport it shows the amount of turbo boost, and in Eco it brings up a bar graph displaying how economically the car is being driven. Another button labeled Drive Info brings up a G-meter on the LCD.
Nissan created different engine programs to achieve the three modes, and also took advantage of the electric power-steering unit, giving it two distinct programs for normal and sport driving. This programming gives the Juke customizable performance that is completely new for cars in the $20,000 range.
But using Sport mode in the Juke drives home a little bit of conventional wisdom, namely that cars handle better when they are lower to the ground. The high ride height of the Juke keeps it from being a track competitor. But it is still fun to drive.
Taking a turn at speed, the Juke feels drift-happy, the high center of gravity wanting to pull all four wheels across the pavement. Too much speed, and it can feel tippy, but Nissan did a good job of screwing down the suspension, eliminating excessive travel. The ride tends more toward rigid than soft.
Steering response is good, and even better in sport mode. With the front-wheel drive and manual transmission, you can slip the shifter into low gear while braking, pull the wheel and feel the tires scramble for grip, then put on the power for a satisfying turn exit.
In detuned Eco mode, the gas pedal takes extra pressure to get acceleration out of the car. This mode seems best for steady freeway cruising or traffic-congested roadways. However, Eco mode makes it difficult to quickly zip into traffic openings.
EPA ratings for the Juke are 24 mpg city and 31 mpg highway. CNET testing on the front-wheel-drive manual version ended up with 24.9 mpg, with a mix of city and freeway driving using the car's various drive modes. Enthusiastic drivers will find it difficult to stay in the EPA's mileage range, as the Juke's sport mode encourages bad behavior.
A unique and inexpensive car like the Juke seems designed for youth appeal, yet Nissan drops the ball a little when it comes to electronics integration, an area of youth market interest. An iPod cable sits in the glove box and the car comes standard with Bluetooth. But the Bluetooth phone system is not cutting-edge, and the iPod interface is very tedious. Navigation is available, but only in the top SL trim.
The stereo in the SV trim Juke has a big volume dial in the center, a small orange radio display, and a rocker switch for scrolling through lists of artists, albums, or songs on an iPod. A dial would be much better for browsing a connected iPod's music library. The buttons for finding the artist, album, song, and genre categories are not at all intuitive to use, either.
Another less-than-intuitive aspect of the interface is that to play satellite radio you have to hit the Aux button. The Juke also lacks Bluetooth audio streaming, a feature that would go a long way toward satisfying tech-savvy buyers of the car. The dedicated iPod cable plugs into a proprietary port in the glove compartment, so it might be possible to get another cable with a simple USB adapter. The best thing about this stereo is that it appears to be a simple double-DIN unit, making it easily replaceable with a more feature-rich aftermarket stereo.
The stock stereo is very limited in the Juke, a nonbranded system with just six speakers. The audio quality from this system is average, with typical muddy mids and highs that don't stand out with any particular clarity. Bass is definitely not thumping. However, there is an optional Rockford Fosgate subwoofer for the Juke that will at least add some power to music. Again, the audio system would be ripe for a meaningful aftermarket upgrade.
For Bluetooth phone support, the Juke has a simple voice control system, similar to what Nissan has been using for years. The system includes an internal phone book, but you must manually enter contact information--it won't read a paired phone's contact list, nor will it let you voice dial a phone's contacts by name.
The 2011 Nissan Juke earns a very high score for its performance tech. The engine is about as advanced as you will find for a pure gasoline power plant. Add to that the Juke's flexible power steering system, which Nissan takes great advantage of to create a sport mode for the car. The suspension works well, but is not the most technically advanced; still, the Juke gets extra credit for the availability of a torque-vectoring all-wheel-drive system.
The Juke, in SV trim, does not do so well in the area of cabin tech. iPod integration is nice, but the lack of some other more modern audio sources limits the types of devices that work with it. The audio system itself is only average and the Bluetooth phone system is behind the feature curve.
Design is a little mixed for the Juke. It earns points for its unique looks and the practicality of its interior space, but the cabin tech interface brings it down. The rocker switch makes it tedious to scroll through a music library.
|Model||2011 Nissan Juke|
|Power train||Turbocharged direct-injection 1.6-liter, 4-cylinder engine, 6-speed manual transmission|
|EPA fuel economy||24 mpg city/31 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||24.9 mpg|
|Navigation||Flash-based navigation system|
|Bluetooth phone support||Standard|
|Disc player||MP3-compatible single CD|
|MP3 player support||iPod integration|
|Other digital audio||USB drive, Satellite radio, auxiliary input|
|Audio system||6-speaker system|
|Price as tested||$21,580|