2013 Nissan Juke Nismo review: The Juke gets performance tuning

Nissan gave its Juke model the Nismo treatment, resulting in a wildly fun little sports car, capable of running with the hot hatchbacks and doing daily driver duty.

Wayne Cunningham

Wayne Cunningham

Managing Editor / Roadshow

Wayne Cunningham reviews cars and writes about automotive technology for CNET's Roadshow. Prior to the automotive beat, he covered spyware, Web building technologies, and computer hardware. He began covering technology and the Web in 1994 as an editor of The Net magazine.

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9 min read

With its squat body, bulbous fenders, and round headlights, Nissan's Juke looks like a frog, but there's an athletic prince hiding under its funky exterior. Since the Juke's launch, a rogue group of Nissanites in the European division revealed that hidden prince with the Juke-R, an amalgam of this odd little hatchback and the budget supercar GT-R.

2013 Nissan Juke NISMO

2013 Nissan Juke Nismo

The Good

The <b>2013 Nissan Juke Nismo</b>'s 1.6-liter engine generates 197 horsepower and the car's handling is superb. D-Mode changes throttle and steering programs for sport driving.

The Bad

The navigation system's maps refresh slowly and its route guidance offers minimal help. The stereo lacks Bluetooth audio streaming.

The Bottom Line

It may be funny-looking, but in Nismo form the 2013 Nissan Juke is one heck of a fun hatchback, with excellent performance technology. Just budget a little more to replace the cabin electronics.

Nissan HQ took note of the enthusiasm, making the 2013 Nissan Juke Nismo more widely available than the custom-order Juke-R.

Nismo, Nissan's in-house tuner group, may have fallen short of recreating the Juke-R's performance, but it did manage to create a wildly fun sports car ready to go up against any hot hatchback, especially at its $22,990 base price.

Unfortunately, Nismo could not overcome the Juke's biggest compromise, that its all-wheel-drive version can only be had with a continuously variable transmission (CVT). A manual transmission with all-wheel drive and the Nismo treatment could have given the Juke the kind of rally cred owned by the Subaru STI and Mitsubishi Evo.

The cabin tech, another low point, suffers from Nissan's current state of schizophrenia, but I'll get to that shortly.

Nismo gives Nissan Juke a performance edge (pictures)

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Admitting my own bias, I've been a fan of the Juke since its 2010 launch, and the Nismo version just makes me happier. I like the quirkiness of its looks in the same way I prefer Parker Posey to Nicole Kidman. If you are one of the many who hate the Juke, nothing in this review will confirm your opinion, so go ahead and read about the Galaxy S4 or new Mac Pro.

However, you might want to note that the Juke Nismo squeezes 197 horsepower out of its 1.6-liter engine, thanks to a turbocharger and direct-injection technology. Its steering response tightens up at the touch of a button and, although it's considered a mini-SUV, its roofline is only 3 inches higher than the Ford Focus ST's.

2013 Nissan Juke Nismo
Nissan offers the Juke Nismo in three colors, all with these red mirror caps. James Martin/CNET

In Nismo trim, the Juke only comes in three colors, white, silver, or black, all with red mirror caps and accents. Eighteen-inch alloy wheels come standard, as does a lowered suspension tuned tighter than the standard Juke. Sport seats, manually adjustable only, feature big side bolsters and synthetic suede.

Nissan loaned CNET the front-wheel-drive, manual-transmission version. The available all-wheel-drive system splits torque 50:50 front and rear, also shifting torque across the rear axle to aid handling. According to Nissan, Nismo also tuned the CVT on that version of the Juke for better sport performance. Nissan's CVTs tend to be excellent, but I'm skeptical about how one would perform in hard cornering.

No Bluetooth audio
Another compromise forced on buyers is the navigation system. The system itself is pretty weak, but the $1,170 package includes a bass-happy Rockford Fosgate audio system, while the system's small LCD works well for showing a music library from either an iOS device or thumbdrive plugged into the USB port. The car I reviewed came equipped with this system. Without navigation, the Juke Nismo would have a simple monochrome radio display, which requires a excessive scrolling through album and artist lists, making it very tedious to select music.

2013 Nissan Juke Nismo
This is the sort of navigation system that will have you reverting to a smartphone. James Martin/CNET

The real kick in the pants is that, although the Juke Nismo comes standard with a hands-free Bluetooth phone system, with or without navigation, it doesn't have Bluetooth audio streaming in any form. That lack will annoy Android users in particular.

Nissan's navigation system, a discrete double-DIN component, sits in the center of the dashboard. A tiny 5-inch touch screen plays host to maps and music libraries. I recently reviewed the new Nissan Sentra, and was not terribly impressed with its navigation offering, but the Juke Nismo's is even worse. With maps stored on an SD card, it should run pretty fast, but instead I found that the maps refreshed slowly, occasionally leaving half the screen blank before it could draw the streets.

The Sentra had a unique Google local search feature, not available on the Juke Nismo's system. The only really redeeming feature here is the traffic data. The system earned a few points with me every time I heard it say my route had been recalculated because of traffic trouble ahead.

Route guidance is very weak on this system, as it shows very minimal turn graphics, and no lane guidance. It would be easy to get lost when navigating complex urban intersections.

I couldn't enter destinations with voice command, either. Voice command only worked with the Bluetooth hands-free phone system. Although there were no buttons to access the phone system on the head unit, hitting the talk button on the steering wheel showed some limited phone screens on the LCD. I couldn't view my phone's contact list on the screen, but I could ask it to place calls by saying a contact's name.

The LCD made it relatively easy to select music or radio stations, but the audio source options were limited. No HD Radio, no Bluetooth streaming, just USB, iOS, and satellite radio as the digital options. The system showed a full music library for iOS devices, but strictly a file and folder format for music stored on a USB drive.

2013 Nissan Juke Nismo
At least the navigation system's LCD makes it easy to find music on an iOS device. James Martin/CNET

The bright spot, and one of the few reasons to opt for navigation, was the Rockford Fosgate audio system. Using six speakers and a powered sub, it doesn't feature serious audiophile quality, but I found it enjoyable. Because it delivers strong bass without shaking the door panels off, I tended to feed it bass-heavy tracks, such as The xx's first album. Highs and mids were delivered with slightly above-average quality, adding to the listening enjoyment.

Roar-free zone
One area that was short on audio production was the Juke Nismo's exhaust note. Despite a tuned-up engine and an oilcan-sized exhaust tip, it didn't seem like Nismo trained the Juke to roar. Despite my jabbing the gas pedal, working the direct-injection, turbocharged 1.6-liter engine up to redline, the exhaust note remained gentle.

That doesn't mean the engine didn't have a lot to give. It's the same basic engine used in the standard Juke, but Nismo reprogrammed the software, coaxing another 9 horsepower out of it, bringing the total up to 197 hp. Likewise, torque gets a boost up to 184 pound-feet. Although these aren't huge numbers over the standard Juke, the Nismo version doesn't cost a lot more, either.

I like the general configuration of this engine, as it delivers a lot of power from little displacement, making it a good compromise between fun and fuel economy. Mini uses a similar engine in all Cooper S models.

2013 Nissan Juke Nismo
In Sport, the D-Mode screen shows turbo boost, but you can't really pay attention to it while driving. James Martin/CNET

But the Juke Nismo's real secret weapon is D-Mode, a unique feature that lets drivers choose one of three personalities for the car. Below the stereo sits a small screen surrounded by hard buttons. This interface shows and controls the climate control functions. But push the D-Mode button, and not only does the screen change, but the icons on the hard buttons change, lighting up as different labels.

Suddenly, you are presented with Normal, Sport, and Eco driving modes. And buttons on the right actually let you customize, to some small extent, those three driving modes. Each mode applies different parameters to throttle, steering, and climate control. By default, Normal puts all three in normal, Sport switches throttle and steering to performance programs, leaving climate control alone, and Eco detunes throttle and climate control, while keeping steering in its normal setting.

Many cars now have "eco" settings that detune the throttle for better fuel economy, but few reduce climate control power. And sport programs for steering are usually reserved for BMWs and Audis costing twice the price of the Juke Nismo.

Grinning through the turns
While reviewing the Juke Nismo, I couldn't get enough of its performance. The region around San Francisco offers quite a few excellent, twisty roads, many of which see little traffic on a weekday, perfect for this little sportster. Hitting the Sport mode made a big difference in throttle response and tightened the steering response, encouraging me to run full throttle up to a turn, jam on the brakes and downshift, then shuffle the wheel to follow the cornering line.

2013 Nissan Juke Nismo
The Juke Nismo stops to strike a pose while out for a day's driving in the twists. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

BMW M3s and Audi S5s might be more professional through the turns, but the Juke Nismo was hugely fun. It delivered similar cornering response to what I found with the Ford Focus ST. The turning felt very neutral, with negligible understeer, while the car let me try out different performance techniques, such as trail braking, without going haywire.

The suspension held the car flat, making it quickly rotate on the corner apexes and respond quickly to steering input. I could imagine the Juke Nismo doing very well in the tight turns of an autocross course.

The six-speed manual's gate could have been a little tighter, as the shifter felt a little sloppy going through the gears, and the narrow power band made for a lot of shifting. The engine wound up so quickly that, in second gear, I was brushing up against redline in seconds. Third gear could credibly carry the car above 60 mph before the tach required another shift up to fourth.

If you like driving and shifting, the Juke Nismo should be on your shopping list.

With the car in Normal mode, cruising down the freeway at 65 mph, engine speed pushed 3,000rpm in sixth gear, which seems a little high for good fuel economy. However, my average after a week with the car came in at a respectable 28.1 mpg, right in the middle of its estimated EPA fuel economy range.

The normal steering program makes the car a little less twitchy, appropriate for boring freeway miles and suburban traffic, although some people will always crave the quicker steering response.

I found minor turbo lag when accelerating in the Juke Nismo, just a little soft spot when I initially tipped in the gas pedal. But the turbo wasn't so strong that I experienced a sudden rush of acceleration when it spooled up. The car was easily controllable when I had to ease my way along with traffic.

2013 Nissan Juke Nismo
The tires have wide enough sidewalls to mitigate some of the harshness from the suspension tuning. James Martin/CNET

The Nismo tuning has one ill effect for everyday driving -- the ride quality remains sports-car stiff in all situations. On rough sections of the freeway, the seat repeatedly pummeled the back of my head. At lower speeds, the rough stuff wasn't nearly so bad. Nissan's choice of 18-inch Continental ContiSportContact 5 summer tires, which have a good amount of sidewall, helped the general ride quality.

I frequently reverted to Eco mode in traffic or when cruising at speed on the freeway. The climate control felt weaker, and would probably not keep the cabin cool enough during an Arizona summer, but it was fine for the 80-degree highs in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The throttle detuning makes most of the gas pedal travel a soft spot in Eco mode. I'm not really a fan of that sort of enforced economy coaching, but I found it could make me a gentler driver around the city. As the Juke Nismo lacked a hill hold feature, I experimented with Eco mode as a means of making smoother hill starts. Sport mode's sensitive throttle increased the possibility of stalling it as I sat on a 30 degree incline, waiting at a light in a line of cars. Eco mode seemed to be the better choice, making it easier to get some power up while lifting off the clutch.

Fanboys only
As I professed earlier, I am a fan of the Juke, and I especially liked this 2013 Nissan Juke Nismo, especially considering the price. But I don't care for its electronics, and wish Nissan had a coherent vision for its cabin technology that it could use across its model lineup. Given the cost of the navigation package, I would definitely consider skipping that option and going aftermarket, getting a more feature-rich system. However, that would also require putting some money into the audio, so as to equal the Rockford Fosgate system.

The D-Mode settings are what really makes the Juke Nismo unique compared with its hot-hatchback competition. Nothing in this price range offers similar capabilities. The ride quality suffers a little from the Nismo tuning, but the handling gain is worth a little bumpiness.

The Juke Nismo shows some SUV pretensions, but again, it really should be classed with hot hatchbacks, such as the Ford Focus ST and the Mazdaspeed3. It comes up a little short of power when compared with those two, but this class isn't all about the horses. As a fun car with unique looks and a modicum of interior utility, the Juke Nismo is a blast.

Tech specs
Model 2013 Nissan Juke
Trim Nismo FWD
Power train Turbocharged direct-injection 1.6-liter 4-cylinder engine, 6-speed manual transmission
EPA fuel economy 25 mpg city/31 mpg highway
Observed fuel economy 28.4 mpg
Navigation Optional flash memory-based with real-time traffic
Bluetooth phone support Standard
Digital audio sources iOS integration, USB drive, satellite radio, auxiliary input
Audio system Rockford Fosgate 7-speaker system
Driver aids Rearview camera
Base price $22,990
Price as tested $25,195
2013 Nissan Juke NISMO

2013 Nissan Juke Nismo

Score Breakdown

Cabin tech 5Performance tech 8Design 7


See full specs Trim levels NISMOAvailable Engine GasBody style Hatchback