More than ever, the automotive world needs weird. Lifeless family sedans are omnipresent, every car is turning into a crossover, and comparing subcompacts is like deciding what flavor of vanilla ice cream is best. Sadly, oddballs are few and far between, which is why we were so excited when Nissan announced the Juke. It didn't really fit into the automaker's lineup, flanked by the Rogue and the 370Z. Because we have a soft spot for nonconformists, we snagged a Juke for a Four Seasons test.
The Juke's playful exterior immediately appealed to us. "I saw Nissan's Qazana concept at the 2009 Geneva motor show and thought the styling would never translate into a production vehicle," recalled associate web editor Evan McCausland. "But, happily, I was wrong." We quickly started flipping through our thesauruses, trying to find synonyms for "cute" and "quirky." From its bulldog stance to its bulging foglights to its tight rear end, the Juke looked funky from every angle. If only it photographed better. Senior web editor Phil Floraday posted a picture of the Juke on our Facebook page, and our fans hated it. They called it grotesque and told us to drive it to a junkyard and leave it there. We concede that a kiss from the fairest maiden couldn't turn the frog-faced Juke into a run-of-the-mill Prince Charming, but we supported our cute-ute's flamboyant design. Well, at least most of us did. New York bureau chief Jamie Kitman: "I applaud this new styling direction but wish Nissan had tried something different still. The Juke's weirdness seems mannered and kind of pointless to me." Kitman probably would have disliked the sheetmetal even more if it were painted any other color. Our graphite blue Nissan looked far better than other Jukes we've seen with different paint schemes.
Our favorite exterior features are the car's headlights, shaped to look like Group B rally-car foglights. They are cool to stare at while standing outside of the car, but we enjoyed them more from the driver's seat. At night, a glow from the raised parking-lamp assemblies that wrap up alongside the hood is visible from the cabin. "I like that you can see the blinkers," noted copy editor Rusty Blackwell. "They remind me of the turn-signal indicators on early-1970s Chrysler products."
The great exterior gives way to a respectable interior. "Its smooth, organic design makes the small cabin feel larger," remarked senior editor Joe Lorio. "The dash is clean and simple, and the controls are all intuitive." Our Juke SV cost $21,640 before we added one option: carpeted floor and cargo mats for $175.Usually cars in that price range are equipped sparsely and feel cheap. "The cloth upholstery is far nicer than the norm, and the cabin doesn't feel like a hard-plastic tomb," continued Lorio. Better yet, SiriusXM satellite radio, keyless ignition, Bluetooth, automatic air-conditioning, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, and a power sunroof all came standard. Interior space was not bad for such a small car, as deputy editor Joe DeMatio pointed out: "To my surprise, the rear seats weren't as miserable as I thought they would be. I could see out, I had plenty of leg and knee room, and my perch was pretty nice." Passengers rarely felt achy or sore when they finally exited the Juke after a long trip, but the same can't be said for drivers. The unsupportive front bucket takes some blame, but the lack of a front center armrest really killed us. Short stints behind the wheel weren't bad, but long hauls down the highway were painful. There was no way to get truly comfortable, which is the main reason the Juke spent most of its time in Michigan; few people were willing to take it on a long trip. There was also the issue of the Juke's cargo capacity, or lack thereof. With 10.5 cubic feet of space behind the second row, the luggage area barely exists -- the smallest subcompact sedans have more room. Plus, bulky baby seats barely fit in the back row. But, hey, Nissan didn't build the Juke for families traveling across the country; it built the Juke for people who are willing to sacrifice functionality for fun. And the Juke was fun.
It sprinted from stoplight to stoplight and did so with bravado. When pulling away from a stop, the four-cylinder engine's 177 lb-ft of torque regularly overwhelmed the front wheels, and its 188 hp made the inner front tire scream in turns, a grin-inducing habit for some but one that others tired of quickly. "While I appreciate the Juke's enthusiasm, I prefer more linear and predictable throttle response," griped senior editor Eric Tingwall. "Fortunately, putting the car in Eco mode means less aggressive tip-in and throttle mapping that's a bit more relaxed." Another solution? More grip. We could have opted for a pricier all-wheel-drive Juke, but it can be had only with a continuously variable automatic transmission. We wanted a manual, leaving us with front-wheel drive. Not dwelling on what might have been, we called our pals at Tire Rack. They suggested a set of Kumho Ecsta 4X high-performance tires. These helped the Juke launch more predictably and corner better but still allowed its torsion-beam rear end to slide through corners when we wanted. DeMatio got out of a Porsche 911 Turbo S cabriolet and into our Juke and claimed not to feel at all slighted in the fun-to-drive department. "The engine and transmission are very charming," he said. We think the transmission would have been more charming with longer gear ratios. The Juke needed nonstop shifting in slow traffic, and sixth gear barely felt different from fifth. That's partly the reason we had to fill up so often. Even though the Juke averaged a reasonabable 26 mpg, its tiny, 13.2-gallon tank emptied incredibly fast. Admittedly, our style of driving probably had a lot to do with that.
In its final few weeks, the Juke showed signs of a worn synchro. The local dealership said it would replace the transmission at no cost (with the approval of a factory technician), but we had to return the car to Nissan before exploring that option. Other than that, the Juke was hassle free over 22,659 miles. Fishing some wayward sticks and leaves out of a noisy blower motor was the most extensive service required. The exterior managed to stay free of dents and scratches, and the interior wore like iron. "The plastics on the dash and doors still look new," observed managing editor of digital platforms Jennifer Misaros. "Even the steering-wheel controls, the finish on which often starts to rub away after a year of heavy use, are in great condition."
More than a peculiar fashion statement, the Juke proved to be an impressively sporty hatchback. It seems consumers like its charisma, too. Juke sales were strong for 2011, and they're even stronger in 2012, on pace to outsell the esteemed 370Z by nearly five to one. We commend Nissan for building -- and Americans for buying -- a fun-to-drive, whimsical car that wears weird well.