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2013 Nissan Juke Nismo review:

The Juke gets performance tuning

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

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