Driven: 2011 Nissan Juke

A. J. Mueller

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.

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