New Car Reviews

Driven: 2011 Nissan Juke

“I wish someone had warned me how much time I would spend being bored in college.”

It’s rather downbeat, but there’s truth in those words, which a friend said to me the summer before I entered college. By and large, college is a wonderful reminiscence. For many, those four (or more) years are painted with cheery images of welcome week, spring break, and three-day benders. What you don’t remember is how slovenly life was between those events. Recovering from hangovers. Clicking refresh on Facebook. Microwaving things.

As gloomy as the college adage is, it relates-with a bit of modification-to my current situation: I wish someone had warned me how much time I would spend driving crossovers at this job. Don’t get me wrong. Just like college, life at AUTOMOBILE MAGAZINE is fantastic when memory blurs the mundane and embellishes the exceptional. Aston Martins, Porsches, and a single Ferrari. I can die happy. But when life serves up awesome with the intensity of a habanero, you don’t exactly salivate for oatmeal.

Enter the Nissan Juke, a dynamic crossover messiah prophesied by a television commercial that flaunts four-wheel drifts, a dude jumping through a plate-glass window, and a contrived, sexy engine note. The Juke’s styling delivers the good word, too, with angry-eyebrow position lights, aggressively flared fenders, and taillamps that mimic the 370Z’s. The Juke even pulls off the coupelike profile, with well-hidden rear door handles and a pinched back end, better than some of those swoopy-roof sedans.

Salvation from driving monotony comes in the form of a turbocharged 188-hp four-cylinder and optional torque-vectoring all-wheel drive. In length and width, the Juke is similar to the Honda Fit and the Ford Fiesta, but while the latest batch of subcompacts offers heated seats, leather, and navigation, the Juke ups the ante for premium small cars with its hearty powertrain and audacious styling.

If college is inherently boring, college in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula must be really boring. This is a place so remote and so little known that, to the geographically challenged, it often secedes to Canada or disappears from the map altogether. Just three percent of the state’s population lives here, and a single area code covers a land mass that’s larger than Delaware, Rhode Island, and Connecticut combined. So, by U.P. standards, the town of Houghton-with both a Wal-Mart and a Holiday Inn Express-is a thriving metropolis. It is also home to Michigan Technological University, the U.P.’s second-largest college, with almost 7000 students.

Up here, ten hours northwest of Detroit, winter hits hard and refuses to quit. Arctic temperatures are nothing compared to the biting wind and an annual average snowfall of more than 200 inches. So it’s understandable that while Michigan Tech isn’t a party school, it is a drinking school. Sitting inside and slugging beer is one way to wait for the three months of definitely-not-winter. The exception comes every January, when Tech coeds shake off their seasonal affective disorder and embrace their burden of being terminally dressed like the Michelin Man with a monthlong Winter Carnival.

Just one tank into the 542-mile trek north, we realize that the Juke is not exactly a fuel miser. Rated at 25 mpg in the city and 30 mpg on the highway, it has a dubious advantage over larger vehicles like the Chevrolet Equinox (22/32 mpg) and comes nowhere near the efficiency of compact cars like the Hyundai Elantra (29/40 mpg). With the 11.8-gallon tank struggling to yield 200 miles between fill-ups, it’s clear that the Juke is thirstier than its EPA label suggests. We’re driving quickly, but we never would have guessed that the Juke would underdeliver so spectacularly. In more than 1000 miles, we will average just 18 mpg. Premium fuel is recommended.

Helping offset the pain at the pump is the Juke’s reasonable starting price of $19,740. Given our destination and curiosity about the torque-vectoring rear differential, we asked for an all-wheel-drive model, which requires giving up the Juke’s do-it-yourself six-speed gearbox for a continuously variable automatic transmission. For $23,820, our midlevel Juke SV came well equipped with passive entry, automatic climate control, Bluetooth, and a USB port. Our only option was the $800 navigation package that adds a small, five-inch touch screen and upgraded speakers with a Rockford Fosgate subwoofer.

The Juke decks out the compact cabin in style. Both the trim pieces and the center console, which was inspired by a motorcycle fuel tank, are painted in metallic red. Having previously experienced the vinyl-like optional leather, we were happy that the supportive sport buckets were tastefully covered in black cloth with red trim. The leather-wrapped steering wheel feels great to grip but doesn’t telescope.

Nissan has even managed to make the climate controls sexy. Called I-CON (for Integrated Control) by the marketers, the center stack’s lower knobs and buttons serve double duty, controlling the climate system and the driving mode. Tapping the “Climate” or “D-Mode” button alters the illumination and function of the controls while the LCD flips between climate information, an eco rating, torque, or boost. We just wish the audio and navigation controls-tiny buttons and knobs in a bland, bricklike head unit-were given as much attention and real estate.

To the uninitiated, Michigan Tech’s Winter Carnival appears to be a collection of WTF. The schedule lists events like ice bowling, a human dogsled race (won by a team using two car hoods as a sled), the Yooper sprint (participants wear one snowshoe and one cross-country ski), and a beard contest, but the signature is the snow-statue competition with sculptures as tall and well-engineered as the buildings they stand next to.

More than fifty fraternities, sororities, dorms, and clubs compete in either a monthlong manufacturing process or a one-night snow-packing spree. Snow, delivered one pickup load at a time, is mixed with water and pressed into large plywood forms. Machetes butcher the resulting ice blocks into shape, while clothing irons sear texture and detail into an icy finish. This year’s theme revolves around books, so there’s Harry Potter, The Little Engine That Could, and a ten-foot-tall toilet celebrating the childhood tome Everyone Poops. The sculpture that catches our eye, however, has nothing to do with reading. In fact, it’s not so much a snow statue as it is a snow speaker cabinet, measuring roughly twenty feet wide and ten feet tall and holding sixty-eight speakers wired to a 20-kilowatt generator. Photographer A. J. Mueller envisions a shot with partiers, the speaker wall, and the Juke, so he interrupts the students screwing speakers into their plywood cutouts and proposes we bring the Nissan back in a couple hours. “Are you sure you want to do that?” one student asks. “Last year they flipped a car.”

We head off campus to Phi Kappa Tau, one of the three frats that perennially produce the best snow statues. Phi Tau is looking for its fourth consecutive win, and the members estimate they’ve put more than 2800 man-hours into setting their scene from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Based on the scale and the detail, we have no reason to doubt that. A centaur, a minotaur, and a lion, all rendered in frozen water, are larger than life and staged in front of a twenty-eight-foot-tall castle wall. In recent years, though, it’s the elaborate accessories that have put Phi Kappa Tau’s statues at the top. Sometime in the wee hours of the morning, long after we’ve left, a couple dozen glasslike ice props appear on the snow stage: axes, crowns, books, a delicate bow and arrow, and an impossibly intricate chain harnessing polar bears to an ornate chariot.

By 11 p.m., the speaker statue and Ludacris’s “My Chick Bad” have drawn a couple hundred students into a pulsating, bobbing mass of energy. Just what Mueller wanted. We shouldn’t be surprised that college students in Houghton aren’t so different from booze-loving college students at any other university in America. We are, however, amused by the dress code: ski goggles to shield eyes from the blowing snow, CamelBaks for hands-free alcohol consumption, and enough layers to turneveryone into genderless blobs. Those who are much more cavalier about the weather, such as the gorilla and the dragon that pose with the Juke, stay warm with their alcohol-fueled enthusiasm.

We shoot photos for at least twenty minutes and several cops walk by without acknowledging us, but when we move the car for a new angle, we finally draw the attention of three officers in a patrol car. They’re not pleased that our Nissan is parked halfway on the sidewalk and partially in a driveway. It’d be better, they say, if we pulled the car completely onto the sidewalk.

As they retreat into their mobile shelter, one of them calls back, “Oh, and hurry up, because the students are going to flip it.”

Thankfully, our Juke remains right-side up for the remainder of the night, and the next morning we can escape to the snow-covered back roads for some driving fun. The all-wheel-drive system uses electronically controlled clutches in the rear differential to send up to 50 percent of the torque to the rear wheels. Like Acura’s Super Handling All-Wheel Drive, the Juke can also apportion torque between the left and right rear wheels to keep handling more neutral and allow higher cornering speeds. A three-position switch swaps among front-wheel drive, all-wheel drive, or all-wheel drive with torque vectoring. In either four-wheel setting, though, the Juke will still send 100 percent of the torque to the front wheels when cruising straight ahead.

Unfortunately, our Juke isn’t quite as eager to play because of its compromised all-season tires. All-wheel drive, in both standard and torque-vectoring modes, can’t offer much help when the tires don’t have any traction. Accordingly, the Nissan gives a fine demonstration of Newton’s first law — an object in motion stays in motion in the same direction. Which explains how the Juke repeatedly noses into the three-foot-high snowbanks. Drive like a cautious, normal human on snow and the Juke gets by just fine. Slap some winter tires on it, and it would probably be brilliant. But we don’t know that for sure.

On dry pavement, the Juke handles impressively for its crossover height and is far more engaging than anything in the compact crossover class. Cornering is on par with nimble small cars such as the Ford Fiesta and the Mazda 2, with nicely managed body roll and predictable behavior at the limit of grip. Even with the trick differential, though, the Juke still prefers to understeer in hard turns. The torque-vectoring effect is nowhere near as profound as that in more powerful cars that can send more power to the rear, such as the Porsche Cayenne and the Audi S4.

Acceleration is swift but not fast, as 188 hp and 177 lb-ft of torque moving 3200 pounds isn’t exactly a recipe for performance. The real advantage here is the turbocharger that provides a flat torque band for confident passing at speed. In all, it’s a much more enjoyable powertrain than the wheezy four-cylinders in subcompact cars. The Juke can perform that trick, too, though.

Eco mode detunes the gas pedal to make the car feel lifeless and laggy for the first twenty feet at every stoplight until you give up and mash the gas pedal. Sport mode sharpens throttle response, alters transmission behavior, and subtly adjusts the electric power steering, although we find the “normal” steering effort perfectly adequate.

Thanks to the turbocharged torque, the all-wheel-drive Juke’s mandated CVT elicits none of the underpowered, overtaxed feel given off by the Versa, the Cube, or the Sentra. The gearless gearbox makes for smooth and pleasant around-town cruising, and in sport mode the CVT does a nice job mimicking downshifts by jumping to set ratios rather than the usual slow windup. But ultimately, the CVT undermines the Juke’s sporting pretensions by muting the turbocharged character and slowing how quickly the engine revs. From a stop, it hardly feels quick. By comparison, the manual-transmission Juke is a fizzy-bang ball of piss and vinegar, with more pronounced turbo lag and a penchant for spinning the front tires. It may not be a more efficient means of moving forward, but it’s our flavor of fun, eagerly generating obscene demonstrations of power and requiring a touch of finesse to drive it fast.

So Juke buyers are left with a monumental conundrum: traction or enthusiasm. Adding to the frustration is that Nissan stubbornly continues its CVT crusade despite the fact that it has failed to deliver any meaningful fuel-economy advantage over the modern torque-converter automatics and dual-clutch transmissions used by other manufacturers. If we were going to live with a Juke, we’d be buying a front-wheel-drive model along with the stickiest summer tires we could afford.

Manual transmission or not, the Juke occupies a distinct space in the automotive landscape. It’s not as crisp as the more expensive Mini Countryman, and anybody who truly loves driving should stick with a car. The Volkswagen GTI and the Mazdaspeed 3 aren’t a huge financial stretch and deliver quicker acceleration and better handling.

Despite those qualms, the Juke is still a knockout for Nissan, whose mainstream products are so often bland and uninspiring. The Juke, however, trends toward the defining traits of Nissan’s great niche products like the Leaf and the GT-R. It is interesting to look at, packed with technology, value priced, and fun to drive. We hope it’s a harbinger of things to come, as an ounce of the passion that went into the Juke could do wonders to make the Nissan lineup — and the entire crossover segment — more exciting.