New Car Reviews

First Drive: 2011 Nissan Juke

Every once in a while, a car comes along that makes you scratch your head a little. Look at the pictures of the 2011 Nissan Juke and stop scratching your head. If you’ve ever complained about all cars looking alike, here’s your big, Nissan-badged can of shutyourmouth.

Nissan tells us that the Juke is designed for “aggressive attention-seekers,” or in other words, youngish dudes who would normally be scouring Craigslist ads for a four-year old BMW 3-Series, or an old Z, or perhaps a used Maxima.

Um, no. If it’s one thing we’re pretty sure of, it’s that twenty-something guys looking at a 3-series aren’t going to be checking out the Juke.

Then, Nissan tell us that the design for the Juke’s taillights was inspired by the 370Z. Fair enough. The painted center console was inspired by a motorcycle gas tank. Yup, got that. The large, round headlights were inspired by rally cars. Okay, if I squint a little, I can see that.

Inspired by this and that and the other thing: that’s a whole lot of inspiration. And yet nobody’s talking about what inspired the whole car. If you ask me, it looks like it was inspired by a frog. Or maybe a crocodile.

And then Nissan talks about how the concept of the Juke is to combine the bottom of an SUV (flared fenders, high ground clearance, big wheels, large wheel gap) with the top of a sports car (the clamshell roof line, high sills, big hips, driving position, and maybe even those 370Z taillights.) This sounds strangely like the BMW X6 and Acura ZDX, except those two cars don’t look like reptiles.

The Juke’s styling comes from Nissan’s European design center, which worked together with the Japanese home studio. Apparently, the North American design center wasn’t involved in the process. And so we can imagine that Nissan’s U.S. team was a little worried about what our market will make of it. They’re predicting modest sales – it should sell somewhere around as many units as the Cube – which hints that perhaps Nissan’s U.S. folks are as skeptical as we are.

Then again, we very much appreciate that they’ve given us the opportunity to drive pre-production Juke mules on the roads around Los Angeles. And after driving the Juke, we’re pretty sure we know why they did: Its appearance is polarizing, but it’s unequivocally a great little car to drive.

Little? Yes. The Juke doesn’t look small – neither in photos nor in person – but it is. It rides on a version of the same global B-segment platform that underpins the Versa and the Cube, and the Juke shares the Cube’s 99.6-inch wheelbase.

It’s within about a half inch of the Suzuki SX4 in every measure, in fact. If it’s one thing the Juke does extremely well, it’s mask its humble subcompact roots by looking dramatically more, um, special.

It’s dramatically more powerful, too. At least compared to Nissan’s other small cars, which use 1.6 and 1.8-liter normally aspirated fours. Making its debut is Nissan’s all-new 1.6-liter turbocharged four-cylinder. Final power ratings aren’t in, but Nissan is saying that this direct-injection engine, which features variable valve timing on both the intake and exhaust cams, produces in excess of 180 hp and 170 lb-ft of torque.

It doesn’t, thankfully, produce an excess of NVH. Our Juke’s CVT did a commendable job of keeping the Hoover noises to a minimum by favoring high-boost, lower-rpm gear ratio selection.

In addition to direct injection and turbocharging, the Juke features one other thing that’s not seen in this class of cars: torque-vectoring all-wheel drive. (Wow, but the strange-looking X6 and ZDX both do! Perhaps this is the future of cars? Weird, tall shapes with torque vectoring rear diffs?)

Available solely with the CVT, the Juke’s AWD system can send up to 50 percent of engine torque to the rear – and all of that torque can, at the system’s command, be sent to one rear wheel. The benefit is, as usual, far better cornering behavior and less apparent understeer.

The Juke will come standard with front wheel drive, and in that configuration, either with the aforementioned CVT or a six-speed manual, which we didn’t have the opportunity to sample. Front-drivers also lose the AWD’s multi-link rear suspension in favor of a torsion beam setup.

Even sending half the torque to the rear wheels, the Juke suffers from considerable torque steer, especially at low speeds and over broken pavement. In its defense, the 1.6 does produce a considerable amount of torque – the Juke feels much quicker than 180 hp suggests. However, that wheel-tug warfare doesn’t bode well for the front-wheel drive version.

In fact, the AWD system features a switch that can lock the system in FWD mode – and doing so changes the Juke’s handling dramatically. Wheelspin is a constant struggle on wet pavement, and in the dry, the Juke’s front wheels scramble for traction any time you’re hustling.

In all-wheel drive mode, though, the Juke is surprisingly good on curvy mountain roads. Body motions are exceptionally well controlled given the car’s tall stance, especially body roll, which was nearly imperceptible from the driver’s seat. A very supportive seat, at that. Steering feel isn’t quite up to, say, Volkswagen levels, but the system is accurate and well weighted. Unfortunately, the tilt wheel doesn’t telescope, and it’s a long reach away, eliminating any chance of the Juke feeling like a sports car from the driver’s seat.

Happily, the brakes didn’t complain at all on the way back down the mountain. And with somewhere north of 3000 lb to contend with, that’s impressive. Cornering grip is great, though the pre-production mule we drove featured V-rated high-performance all seasons that might be more aggressive than the tires on the production version.

The optional upgraded stereo sounds nice, with a thumping, powered Rockford-Fosgate subwoofer in the trunk. Nissan’s navigation system works well, too. Sadly, the Juke’s standard USB and auxiliary audio inputs are out in the open on the dash, meaning you’ll have to disconnect and hide your iPod every time you park the Juke.

The Juke will be available with an optional i-CON system, which is a driver-selectable chassis tuning system like Audi’s Drive Select. It offers three settings that tailor throttle response, steering effort, and CVT behavior. There’s an ECO setting for people who want their Juke to feel like someone ripped out the turbocharger; Normal is for boring people; and Sport not only reduces electric power steering assist and firms up the throttle, but instructs the CVT to perform a pretty nifty imitation of a conventional automatic. It still varies the ratios as you drive, but occasionally fakes a “shift” by changing the ratio suddenly. It may seem like a gimmick – and would probably cost the Juke a small amount of time in a drag race – but it goes a long way to mask the moaning that plagues other CVT cars. (Cube, we’re talking to you.) Everyone we spoke to preferred the Sport mode.

The coolest feature about i-CON, though, is the interface. Press a key and the automatic climate control labels disappear from buttons on the dash and are replaced with chassis control buttons. It almost looks like each button has a mini LCD panel in it to display different label, and it’s one of the most clever ways we’ve seen to add additional controls to the dashboard without creating clutter or requiring overcomplicated joystick controllers.

Despite its raked roofline, the Juke is both spacious and comfortable (if a little narrow) in back, and those rear seats fold completely flat for additional cargo room. At no time does the Juke’s cabin seem like a stripper subcompact – and especially not in our mule, which was outfitted with red-stitched black leather wrapped around the heated seats. The deep, glossy painted center console is a really neat styling element. Outward visibility is great (once you get used to looking past those alligator eyes sticking up out of the hood), but a rear-view camera is available.

Dynamically, the Juke is a big step ahead of its platform mates. It seems to suffer from none of the sensitivity to crosswinds that plagues the Cube, and the huge boost in torque helps keep the revs down, adding to refinement. In fact, the only other gripe we have about the Juke is turbo lag.

The CVT, which admittedly will be the transmission most Jukes will come with, does a brilliant job of masking the lag in normal driving. In fact, if it didn’t have a manual mode, we might have not noticed it on our drive. It won’t be concealed in manual-transmission cars, though, and drivers will need to learn to keep the revs up. The single-scroll turbo takes its sweet time generating boost, especially under 3000 rpm, where pressure is almost completely elusive.

Attempting to get off the line quickly means having patience for a second or so until the boost builds. And at more typical city driving rates of acceleration, the Juke pulls off the line smoothly, but then boost comes on strong around 3000 rpm, tossing your head back just as you’d think the power should start tapering off.

It’s only a minor annoyance with the CVT, and it’s something the engineers can probably fix before the Juke goes into production. We imagine, however, that the front-wheel drive versions will suffer the most – by leaving the line slowly and then spinning the front wheels unexpectedly when the boost comes on.

Which brings us back to the Juke’s stated mission. Despite its playful handling, supportive seats, and Turbo/DI horsepower credentials, we don’t see the Juke as a car for performance-minded enthusiasts. Or “aggressive attention seekers,” for that matter. Especially since the drivetrain configuration that would appeal to that sort of guy – the manual with torque-vectoring all-wheel drive – won’t be available. We see it as a distinctively styled, quick, fun-to-drive alternative to the Suzuki SX4. It might even step in for a Honda CR-V or Toyota RAV-4 when it goes on sale this November. But we definitely won’t be recommending it to any twentysomething young dudes who are considering a used sports coupe.