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.