The compact SUV market is one of the quickest-growing segments. Nissan believes that there's room for another, sportier entry, and so we have the 2011 Nissan Juke. More versatile than a Versa, more roadworthy than a Rogue, the 2011 Nissan Juke will carry base prices from $18,960 to $24,550 with a 3-year/36,000 mile basic warranty, a 5-year/60,000 mile powertrain warranty and EPA fuel economy estimates from 24 mpg city/31 mpg highway to 27 mpg city/32 mpg highway. Let's drive.
I've often praised Nissan for its bold design. I don't always love the way Nissan SUVs look, but they are always distinctive. Juke is no exception.
Juke's front end is going to be controversial, if the initial reaction from the automotive press is any indication. I attended a launch event for Juke in Vancouver, British Columbia, along with a score of other journalists, and I heard enthusiastic positive and negative commentary. Nissan's take on the front end is that it is designed to bring to mind a crocodile, with its eyes (headlights) on top, peering ahead. I can see that. On a practical note, high-mounted headlights can improve visibility, so I'm all for them. Juke's sloping roofline and high haunches meet to conspire against headroom and useable cargo space in the back. This is an SUV that leans more toward the "S" part of the equation. Juke conceals its rear door handles high up behind the window, which helps to give more of a coupe impression to the vehicle. I didn't mind this quirky handle placement as much on Juke as I did on stable mates Xterra, Pathfinder and Armada, because Juke's handles are so much lower and easier to access.
Controversial or not, I find myself attracted to the exterior of the Juke. I think there's a little bit of the Rogue, a little bit of Kia Soul, a little bit of Infiniti FX, all mixed in together. Your taste may differ.
In the Driver’s Seat
Inside the Juke, the sporting theme continues. Nissan's designers, working hard to attract a young male buyer, claim motorcycle cockpits as inspiration. There's a clean, form-follows-function aesthetic working inside the cabin. Some of the components, like the center console, look like they were created in a vacuform machine, with taut surfaces stretching over endoskeletons. The dash is rounded and vaguely organically shaped. The most "motorcycle" feature is the instrument cluster, which forms a pod in front of the driver, giving a cocooned feeling to the space. Head and legroom in the front seat is quite good. I shared my test drive with a journalist from Atlanta, who happened to be 6'6" tall. He had no problem getting comfortable behind the wheel, nor did I at a mere 6'2".
Juke's cargo space is quite limited, with 10 cubic feet of luggage space behind the second row, and 35.9 cubic feet behind the front seats. My Standard Poodle would not be able to stand up in the back. He'd muss his 'doo on the headliner, which would greatly distress him.
Nissan has partnered with Bosch on a very smart navigation system for the Juke ($800 option on SV models, included in the SL, not available on base S models). The nav is scaled to the vehicle, with simple basic operation and not a lot of the bells and whistles (like voice control) that make most factory nav systems so pricey. Still not as affordable as a handheld aftermarket unit, the Bosch system makes checking the nav box on an order sheet much less painful.
On the Road
There was a lot of talk about sportiness with the Juke, and the vehicle does its best to deliver. A new-to-Nissan turbocharged 4-cylinder engine, sourced from corporate sibling Renault, lives under the hood, displacing 1.6 liters and producing 188 hp and 177 lb-ft of torque. The high-tech powerplant uses the latest direct-injection technology, which contributes to its impressive power output and fuel economy. A continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) is standard with front-wheel drive and all-wheel drive models; a six-speed manual is available (with a $500 savings) with front-wheel drive SV and SL models. The Juke is a relative flyweight in the SUV world, weighing in at between 2,923 and 3,221 lbs depending on configuration, so the engine and transmission feel very well matched to the vehicle.
Handling in the Juke is closer to Versa than it is to 370z. Interestingly, the all-wheel drive models get 4-wheel independent suspension, while the front-wheel drive models get a torsion bar in the rear -- which means that the rear wheels are mounted to a single axle. Simply put, for most on-road situations, independent rear suspension delivers a smoother ride, and greater control. That said, I didn't notice a big difference between the ride in the two variants. I'd only expect to notice a difference on very rough roads, or in very sporty driving situations, neither of which I explored during my test drive.
So, what do we have here? A sporty SUV with limited sportiness and limited utility. That sounds like a problem, but Juke does have a surfeit of a much more rare, intangible quality: Personality. Nissan believes that young single men are going to buy their new crossover. They might be right -- but I think Juke falls into a much broader category than sporty crossover: the Cute Car.
If you find yourself dreaming of the Juke, you may want to take a look at a few other Cute Cars. The Kia Soul, Nissan Cube and Scion Xb are all quite cute, and deliver a bit more utility than the Juke. The Mini Cooper outscores the Juke on cute and sporty, but lags behind on utility. The Mazda3 5-door wins my personal vote in the cute, sporty and utility categories, and for a few bucks more, the Mazdaspeed3 version kicks everybody else's butt.
Still, my hat is off to Nissan for trying to carve out a niche with a very interesting, segment-stretching product. No SUV can be all things to all people, and there are probably buyers for whom the Juke strikes just the right balance. Just don't tell those young men that their SUVs are "cute." Nobody wants to hear that.