Nissan's Nismo brand is going mainstream, and the firm has chosen the Juke as the first model to wear the badge as a high-volume series production model. Positioning the Juke as a standard bearer for its Nismo brand may seem uncomfortable to some - and downright sacrilegious to others - but it makes commercial sense. The company is seeking volume with Nismo, and the Juke represents an inexpensive way to hook a maturing, brand-aware, virtual audience who are maturing into real-car-buying potential customers.
So, while the imagery at the press event is dominated by Skylines and Le Mans and touring car racers, with a PlayStation Gran Turismo booth backdrop, there's scant visual reference to a compact, upright SUV. Yet, for all the Juke's unlikely positioning, there's a general feeling that Nismo has breathed some magic on Nissan's quirkily styled machine. Arguably, Nismo hasn't given it the best chance with the cynical automotive press. The figures are relatively modest: the 1.6-liter direct injection turbocharged DIG-T engine increases in output by a mere 10 hp over the standard 1.6-liter DIG-T Juke. A maximum of 200 hp is pretty far from devilish; underlining that is the fact that the enhanced performance is achieved without any sacrifice to economy.
Nismo's people claim they're not chasing big power outputs - even if they're keen to ascertain our thoughts on a prototype 220-hp version. (It's better, since they're asking.) Instead, Nismo wants to finesse what's already there, making adjustments to the engine management, traction and stability systems, and good old chassis tuning to improve response, agility and - crucially - entertainment value.
Put like that, the Juke isn't a bad place to start, at least among Nissan's volume sellers. In standard form the Juke is surprisingly entertaining, and Nismo's promise does bear some fruit on the road. Developed both by Nismo and Nissan's Cranfield Technical Centre in Britain, the Juke Nismo is offered in two guises in Europe. The first, the car driven here, is the front-wheel-drive version with a manual six-speed gearbox. It is also offered with all-wheel drive and a CVT. That four-wheel-drive model also gets a more sophisticated multilink rear suspension and torque vectoring control. Nissan USA has not as yet confirmed which model or models will be available here. Given the mention of torque vectoring in its press release, though, it's almost certain to be the four-wheel-drive model with the CVT. Experience with the standard car suggests that the CVT will detract from the fun, and not just from a purist driving point of view.
At the Juke Nismo's launch, Nissan also took the opportunity to unveil the forthcoming Nismo 370Z. Nismo's management was resolute in insisting it will only be offered with three pedals and a stick shift. Nissan USA would be good to follow the same strategy with the Juke, not least because the six-speed manual is one of the reasons the Juke is so enjoyable in the first place.
The shift across the gate is accurate and nicely weighted, the only real complaint with the manual being that the sixth ratio feels a bit short for high-speed cruising. That means big revs, and given the 1.6 DIG-T's relative lack of aural charisma, that's a problem. Turn up the stereo or stay off the freeway, and the Juke Nismo's appeal increases markedly. Nismo's suspension changes have stiffened up the Juke: the spring rates are up and the dampers and anti-roll bars have been tuned to increase body and roll control. In the front-wheel-drive car, the spring rates go up 10 percent all round; the all-wheel-drive model's front springs are stiffened up a further 5 percent on top of that.
The result creates some compromises. For the most part, the Juke Nismo delivers a supple, unobtrusive ride, but high-frequency undulations at speed can upset its composure. It's not so apparent on more interesting roads, where the Nismo becomes a whole lot more fun.
It's here that the changes to the steering are apparent--the wheel is still a touch artificial in its weighting but is fairly accurate and quick enough in its response. The Juke Nismo reaches 62 mph in a relatively sedate 7.8 seconds, but it is not sprinting ability that is its forte, it's the ease of its cross-country pace. That's as much due to the ability of the chassis to carry speed as it is the engine's useful urgency in the mid-range, the Juke proving an able and engaging car to drive. Grip and agility impress, and the Juke is more entertaining and capable than its upright stance would have you imagine, even if a conventional hot hatchback would ultimately be quicker.
It isn't particularly quiet about its enhanced sporting ability either, as Nismo's changes include a fairly extroverted body kit that's said to enhance stability without increasing drag. Red pin-striping, red mirror caps, eighteen-inch Nismo alloy wheels, LED daytime running lights, and a roof-mounted spoiler make for a more assertive Juke outside; deeply bolstered sport seats, plentiful red stitching, a red rev counter, an Alcantara steering wheel, and a smattering of Nismo badges complete the interior.
Options are few given the sizeable standard equipment list, but if you're one of those gamers who have come to the Nismo via PlayStation or Xbox, then you might find it difficult to resist the supplementary instrumentation and 'G' read-outs on offer via a Nismo-specific app and dash-mounted iPad Mini. Others might not want a big fingerprint-smeared reflective surface cluttering up the otherwise pleasingly styled dashboard or need the information contained within it. Nor might they want the rather obvious decal pack, which includes an over-the-roof and hood-top stripe as well as striping above the doors.
An anomalous machine in Nismo's lineage yet a seminal one for brand expansion, the amount of fun U.S. customers will be able to have in this Juke depends entirely on which model is imported. We'd suggest Nissan stick with the manual and front-wheel drive and wait for those 20 extra horses.
2013 Nissan Juke Nismo
Engine: 1.6-liter turbocharged four-cylinder
Power: 200 hp @ 6000 rpm
Torque: 184 lb-ft @ 2400-4800rpm
Transmission: 6-speed manual
Tires, f/r: Continental ContiSport Contact5 225/45R-18
Fuel mileage: 34 mpg (EU combined)
Performance (manufacturer's data): 0-62 mph 7.8 seconds, top speed 134 mph