The Nissan Juke and Mini Countryman beg to be compared. The small crossovers are so similar in every physical measure and mechanical specification that you could imagine they were born of the same focus group, the same marketing gurus, and the same engineering team. Length, width, and height between the two are all within an inch. Each uses a 1.6-liter turbocharged four-cylinder making about 180 hp. Both cars meter power to the rear wheels through electronically controlled differentials. The only place it seems our two automakers split paths was styling.
The Juke and the Countryman are also notable as the pinnacle of premium small cars. Dimensionally they're similar to the Honda Fit and the Ford Fiesta, but while the newest batch of subcompacts offers heated seats, leather, and navigation, these two up the ante with more powerful engines and unabashed style. In performance and appearance, we found these two crossovers so unexpectedly energetic -- particularly the Juke -- that we had to escape Metro Detroit's flat, straight, and chewed-up roads for our comparison.
Michigan's Upper Peninsula is a land so remote and so little known that, to the geographically challenged, it often secedes to Canada or altogether disappears from the map. Just three percent of the state's population lives here and a single area code covers the land mass that's larger than Delaware, Rhode Island, and Connecticut combined. So by U.P. standards, Houghton, Michigan -- with a Wal-Mart and a Holiday Inn Express -- is a thriving metropolis, yet the surrounding area is exactly what's great about Northern Michigan: unspoiled beauty, small-town amicability, and roads that are actually interesting. It's also the home to Michigan Tech University, where every January 7,000 co-eds shake off their seasonal affective disorder and embrace their burden of being terminally dressed like the Stay-Puft Marshmallow man with a month-long Winter Carnival. Houghton hosts a Rally America race, a vibrant university, and an average of more than 200 inches of snow every year. In other words, it's the perfect place for a pair of surprisingly sporty all-wheel-drive crossovers.
One well equipped, one well optioned
As similar as our two competitors are, there's one big difference: $11,330. That's the price gap between our $35,150 Mini Cooper S Countryman ALL4 and $23,820 Nissan Juke SV AWD. Nissan and Mini both offer front-wheel-drive variants and manual transmissions, but we wanted all-wheel drive for the all-weather traction and performance handling benefits. Making that choice, however, requires giving up the Juke's do-it-yourself gearbox for a continuously variable transmission. Our mid-level Juke SV came well equipped with several standard features that you'lll pay extra for in the Mini, such as passive entry, automatic climate control, Bluetooth, and a USB port. The only option on our tester was the $800 navigation package that adds a small, five-inch touch screen and upgraded speakers with a Rockford Fosgate subwoofer.
Compared to the relatively straightforward Juke, the Countryman is the Burger King of cars. Have it your way with a gazillion possible combinations of colors, decals, interior trim, convenience equipment, and drivetrain hardware. Stepping up to an all-wheel-drive ALL4 model automatically upgrades the 121-hp normally aspirated 1.6-liter to the 188-hp turbocharged unit, and we selected the six-speed automatic to play against the Juke's CVT. Starting price: $28,200. But our Countryman represented the top of the range with every major option save for the new Mini Connected infotainment system. The $6,250 worth of extras included a Harman-Kardon audio system, a dual-pane sunroof, automatic climate control, passive entry, heated front seats, backup sensors, and the sport package. To accommodate our snowy test, Mini replaced the sport package's 18-inch summer rubber with Bridgestone Blizzak LM-60 winter tires. While we asked for season-specific tires from Nissan, the Juke arrived wearing its standard 17-inch Goodyear Eagle RS-A all-seasons.
In contemporary Mini tradition, the Countryman is a stylish, ergonomic train wreck inside. We're happy to see the volume knob is finally located amidst the cluster of audio controls, but the toggle switches and small buttons are difficult to locate and irritating to use. In place of a traditional center console, the Countryman uses a narrow central rail that stretches to the rear seats and allows for accessories like a glasses case, cupholders, and an iPod cradle to be clicked into place, slid fore and aft, swapped between front and rear, or removed completely. It's a fun concept, but the center rail is more whimsy and fashion than function, as is the unnecessarily large emergency brake handle. A more conventional console would provide more storage with better accessibility for the cell phones, iPods, sunglasses, and key fobs that we tote.
The stuff that really matters -- comfort and driving position -- are far less polarizing. The small-diameter steering wheel is nicely sculpted and slightly meatier than the Juke's, encouraging two perfectly placed hands at 9 and 3 o'clock. The standard leatherette seats are soft and well bolstered, the optional $250 armrest is perfectly placed, and the small cabin feels impressively airy thanks to the low and slender center rail, telescoping steering wheel, and upright glass. Despite the fact that there's room for a rear bench, Mini has limited Countryman seating to four, placing buckets in back that are just as comfortable as those up front.
It may not be as distinct as the Countryman's, but the Juke's interior features smart packaging and still packs style with trim pieces and the center console inspired by a motorcycle fuel tank and painted in a metallic red. The leather-wrapped steering wheel is just as good to grip as the Mini's, and we were never bothered by the absence of an armrest. Having experienced the Juke's vinyl-like optional leather, we appreciated the supportive sport buckets wrapped in black cloth with red trim. We were disappointed, however, to discover that the Juke's steering wheel doesn't telescope out for taller drivers. The cabin also feels more cramped with less headroom and rear-seat legroom.
Nissan has done such a good job with the interior of the Juke, they've 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 brick-like head unit -- were given as much thought and real estate.
Something to look at
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 snow shoe and one cross-country ski), and a beard competition, but the signature snow statues are so large and intricate that they alone are worth the nine-hour drive from Detroit.
More than fifty fraternities, sororities, dorms, and clubs compete in either a month-long manufacture or a one-night snow-packing spree, but everyone on campus knows the title belongs to one of the three frats that perennially produce the best statues. The boys of Phi Kappa Tau are looking for their fourth consecutive snow statue win and 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 set in front of a 28-foot-tall castle wall.
The quality in the design and construction of these statues is telling of the engineering degrees that so many Tech students are pursuing. 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 clothes irons sear texture and detail into an icy finish. In recent years, Phi Tau has set its statues apart with elaborate accessories. Sometime in the wee hours of the morning, long after we've left, a couple dozen glass-like 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.
There's no competing with the astounding snow statues, but the Juke and Countryman draw a fair amount of attention as well. Outside the Uphill 41 karaoke bar, a voice from a loud pack of students asks if that's the new Mini. Indeed it is, and wouldn't you say the designers have hit their mark? Brand fanatics may argue that a larger, four-door crossover bastardizes the brand, but we'd say that argument has worn thin in the nine years that the steroidal Cooper has been so successful. The modern Mini brand is about quirky styling and relative size. If it's identifiable as a Mini, it is a Mini. And in that respect, the Countryman fully delivers. The newest Mini reiterates the signatures established by the BMW-designed Cooper with headlights that poke through the clamshell hood and mirrors and a roof that contrast with our Countryman's white paint. Black plastic lower cladding keeps the visual mass to a minimum and a similar glass-to-sheetmetal proportion helps hide the fact that the Countryman is 7.1 inches taller than the Cooper.
In suburban Detroit, the Juke riled up a handful of high schoolers working at the local movie theater who needed help figuring out what it was. But there's no doubt just looking at it that the Juke is sporty, with its angry-eyebrow position lights, aggressively flared fenders, and taillamps that mimic the 370Z's. It also successfully pulls off a coupe-like profile with the well-hidden rear door handles and the sharply sloping roofline. The only details we're uneasy with are the deep-set round headlights and the exceptionally wide grille. Unquestionably, though, the Juke is sportier, more interesting to look at, and better portrays how dynamic these two vehicles are.
Back at Michigan Tech, this year's Winter Carnival theme revolves around books, so there's Harry Potter, "The Little Engine That Could," and a ten-foot-tall toilet celebrating the childhood classic "Everybody Poops." The sculpture that catches our eye, however, has nothing to do with reading. In fact, it's less of a snow statue and more of a snow speaker cabinet, measuring roughly 20 feet wide and 10 feet tall and holding 68 speakers wired to a 20-kilowatt generator. Photographer AJ Mueller envisions shots with partiers, the speaker wall, and one of our cars, so he interrupts a couple students screwing speakers into their plywood cutouts and proposes we bring the Juke back in a couple hours. "Are you sure you want to do that?" one student asks. "Last year they flipped a car."
By 11 pm, the speaker-statue and Ludacris' "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, Michigan, aren't so different from the booze-loving college students at any other university in America. We are, however, amused by the dress code: ski googles to shield eyes from the blowing snow, CamelBaks for handsfree alcohol consumption, and enough layers to turn everyone 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."
Putting the rubber to the snow
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 two all-wheel-drive systems work similarly, as both are capable of sending up to fifty percent of the torque to the rear wheels via electronically controlled clutches in the rear differentials. But while the Countryman has a single clutch pack, the Juke uses two clutch packs and can direct torque independently to each rear wheel, much like Acura's Super-Handling All-Wheel-Drive. By sending more thrust to the outside rear wheel in a turn, torque vectoring keeps handling more neutral and allows higher cornering speeds.
Mini leaves all of the power transfer to the discretion of the car's computers while Nissan gives drivers a three-position switch to choose from 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.
Having found the snowy, slide-happy roads we were looking for, we settle on a single spot to make back-and-forth passes. The Countryman's Blizzaks and well-weighted steering faithfully relay our every intention. A controlled, low-speed drift comes naturally: turn the wheel to get the car changing directions, jab the throttle to break the rear end loose, and stay on it while dialing in countersteer and waiting for the front wheels to bring things back in line.
Unfortunately, the Juke isn't quite as willing to play with 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 was 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 nosed 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 playing field levels, and yet the Mini still pulls ahead. Nissan may have the trick differential, but the Countryman has agility and a more neutral behavior baked into its bones. It also keeps the wheels against the pavement better and yet still dampens bumps -- both mid-corner and in a straight line -- with less severity. That's not to say the Nissan is a slouch, because it isn't. The Juke handles impressively for its crossover height and is far more engaging than anything in the larger compact crossover class. Cornering is on par with nimble small cars like the Ford Fiesta and Mazda 2, with nicely managed body roll and predictable behavior at the limit of grip. It's impressive, but it doesn't have quite the taut, responsive, and inviting feel of the Countryman.
Similar in specs, different in character
Despite their small footprints, these two are definitely not fuel misers. The EPA estimates the Juke's fuel economy at 25 mpg in the city and 30 mpg on the highway, while the Countryman is rated at 23 and 30 mpg, respectively. But in our test of hard and fast driving with a decent bit of idling thrown in the Countryman burned gas at an average of 19 mpg and the Juke coughed up just 18 mpg. Extreme circumstances, yes, but we weren't expecting the cars to underdeliver so spectacularly. We tried the Juke's Eco mode, but that simply 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 throttle. It had no bearing on highway economy and, with its 11.8-gallon tank, the Juke struggled to hit 200 miles between fillups. Both crossovers also feast on premium fuel.
That's the penalty of the potent, small-displacement engines moving these 3200-pound crossovers. Acceleration is swift, though not fast, but the real advantage here is the turbocharger providing a flat torque band that makes for confident passing. The Juke holds a 7-hp advantage at 188 hp to the Countryman's 181 hp and both engines are rated at 177 lb-ft, though the Countryman delivers temporary bursts at 192 lb-ft with overboost capability.
Thanks to the turbocharged torque, the all-wheel-drive Juke's mandated CVT elicits none of the underpowered, overtaxed feel given off by a Versa, Cube, or 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 wind up. 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 energy, 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.
The Mini's six-speed automatic, on the other hand, is perfectly suited to the engine's frisky, punchy character. Much more eager to rev than the Juke, the Countryman feels substantially quicker and turbocharger cues like the audible wastegate add to a more visceral experience. Shifts are quick and crisp, whether the transmission is left to its own devices or directed via the wheel-mounted paddles. In its entirety, the Countryman's powertrain package is just as entertaining as it is in the Cooper S cars.
A matter of money
Without a doubt, the Mini Countryman is the better car to drive. It is more natural in corners, boasts a more energetic powertrain, and feels more connected through its transmission. Is the Mini worth an extra $11,300? No, especially since raising the price with extras does little to enhance the driving experience. But a Countryman free of frivolous options is a well-equipped car that can justify the $4500 premium.
While the Countryman is the winner of this test, we're declaring the Juke a winner, too. Nissan's mainstream products are bland and uninspiring vehicles despite the fact that the company can build great niche cars like the Leaf and the GT-R. The Juke trends more toward those specialty vehicles in its execution -- fun to drive, exciting to look at, loaded with technology, and an incredible value -- but is practical and affordable enough to draw mass appeal. 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 Sentra, Altima, and Murano more compelling.
2011 Mini Cooper S Countryman ALL4
Price: $27,650/$35,150 (base/as tested)
Engine: 16-valve DOHC I-4
Displacement: 1.6 liters (98 cu in)
Horsepower: 181 hp @ 5500 rpm
Torque: 192 lb-ft @ 1600 rpm
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Steering: Electrically assisted
Suspension, front: Strut-type, coil springs
Suspension, rear: Multilink, coil springs
Brakes, F/R: Vented discs/discs, ABS
Tires: Bridgestone Blizzak LM-60
Tire size: 225/45HR-18
L x W x H: 161.8 x 70.4 x 61.5 in
Wheelbase: 102.2 in
Track F/R: 60.0/61.1 in
Weight: 3097 lb
EPA Mileage: 23/30/26 mpg (city/hwy/combined)
2011 Nissan Juke SV AWD
Price: $23,020/$23,820 (base/as tested)
Engine: 16-valve DOHC I-4
Displacement: 1.6 liters (99 cu in)
Horsepower: 188 hp @ 5600 rpm
Torque: 177 lb-ft @ 2000 rpm
Transmission: Continuously variable
Steering: Electrically assisted
Suspension, front: Strut-type, coil springs
Suspension, rear: Multilink, coil springs
Brakes, F/R: Vented discs/discs, ABS
Tires: Goodyear Eagle RS-A
Tire size: 215/55VR-17
L x W x H: 162.4 x 69.5 x 61.8 in
Wheelbase: 99.6 in
Track F/R: 60.0/59.3 in
Weight: 3183 lb
EPA Mileage: 25/30/27 mpg (city/hwy/combined)