"I think we've got a race on our hands," says Dave Coleman in exactly the exaggerated tone that might fool me if I didn't know him well. "Yeah, this is too close to call," he hollers from the Juke's passenger seat as the little Nissan begins a huge brake-induced slide. He's indulging me and I can sense it, but it doesn't matter now.
The haphazard, chaotic flurry of driving inputs that occur in the next few seconds are sprinkled with equally haphazard hints of brilliance and somehow the little Nissan stays on the road. That we don't crash before the race even occurs is pure dumb luck. But the unlikely success is enough to keep us both pretending that sliding a nearly new, decidedly unmolested car off a gravel road backwards is normal.
It is not.
But this is hardly the first time Coleman has encountered such gravel-induced delusions. Fortunately, today's adventure has nothing to do with rational thinking. The "race" Coleman mentioned is between the very fortunate car we're driving — Inside Line's long-term 2011 Nissan Juke SL AWD — and Coleman's 1971 Datsun 510 rally car — two decidedly absurd adversaries, which hardly belong on the same road, let alone the same test.
But Here We Are
Here's how a dirt showdown like this comes together: Nissan has, during the last 40 years, entertained an on-again off-again commitment to cars which ostensibly offer some low-grip capability and/or manage to be fun to drive — sometimes both. We're not talking about the Skyline GT-R. Not even close. Think downscale. Way downscale.
Forty years ago that car was the humble but elegant Datsun 510, which not only had success in road racing by winning the 1971 and '72 Trans Am Championship for cars under 2.5 liters, but was also a reasonably successful rally car. In 1970 510s finished 1-2 in the longest, toughest rally of the day — the East African Safari Rally at the hands of Edgar Hermann and Joginder Singh. And for the last 41 years, the car has maintained a die-hard following of enthusiasts who show, race and maintain the cars. It is — justifiably — a bit of a legend.
The Juke, however, is not. Nissan introduced the "sport cross" for the 2011 model year and its only victory thus far is being crowned the Head of Homely. It even managed to slip easily under the performance radar of those who usually smell such things out from three counties afar — us included.
Nissan touts the Juke's bizarre combination of size, power and grip-inducing technologies as bits that will dutifully make the car quicker, safer or more fun on paved roads. Because, after all, no one in their right mind drives a brand-new car in the gravel for fun.
In fact, it's the Juke's laundry list of technologies — and the fact that it's a Nissan — that compelled us to organize this comparison. Under its hood resides a turbocharged, direct-injected 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine rated at 188 horsepower and 177 pound-feet of torque. A continuously variable transmission (CVT) with a reasonably effective simulated manual-shift mode directs power to all four wheels when the "AWD" switch on the dash is flipped. The Juke's center differential isn't actually a center differential. It's either locked so that torque is split 50/50 front/rear or it's unlocked, making the Juke front-wheel drive. All in, this little bundle of high-tech ugly weighs 3,170 pounds.
But the magic, the reason this car is actually enjoyable to drive on the gravel, is its torque-vectoring rear differential, which is capable of sending 100 percent of the available torque (50 percent of the total torque) to the outside wheel while cornering. It's like a turning brake that actually accelerates the car rather than slowing it down. And it's more effective than you'd ever imagine.
Coleman's 510 — despite a relatively modern engine — lacks technology to the same extent that it lacks beauty. Sure, it's a rally car and has been fitted with the necessary hardware — a roll cage, shell-style seats and harnesses, rally dampers and springs and a skid plate. Its Rust-oleum paint job is an homage to the Hermann-driven 510 that won the Safari rally — or at least it was 9 years ago when it was applied.
Other, um, aesthetic mods merit mention. Having survived multiple seasons of rallying, the 510 has seen its share of styling tweaks — many of which were executed with trees or large hammers: Coleman doesn't discriminate. During one particularly flail-hardy season he replaced the right front fender three times, completed a wheels-to-wheels roll (not missing the roof) and replaced four steering tie rods. Accordingly, the car's structure has been reinforced with welding and luck. And, remarkably, it's still happy to oblige a beating like this.
Inside, the 510 is an unmitigated disaster of wire, zip ties and rust, proving that speed in the gravel has more to do with what's going on behind the wheel than how tidy you like your work space. Still, there are lots of sharp edges, no dashboard, very little padding and everything that looks like it might cause a tetanus infection probably already has.
Under the hood is a contemporary fuel-injected Nissan SR20DE 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine. For those who care, that's the same engine fitted to the first-generation Nissan Sentra SE-R and NX2000 in the U.S. market. In rear-drive trim it makes about 135 hp. There's also a similarly modern five-speed manual transmission. The whole powertrain was lifted from a Japanese domestic-market S13 Nissan Silvia. Coleman says the entire car weighs 2,300 pounds.
So here's the math: Every horsepower in the Juke is burdened with 16.9 pounds while every horsepower in the 510 is asked to move 17.0 pounds. Sure, the Juke has all-wheel drive, but it's riding on street tires and its driver has to contend with the dreaded CVT — a device known to suck the life out of any reasonably fun car. The 510, meanwhile, has a real manual transmission, a real clutch pedal, a turning brake on the rear wheels and bald rally tires. On paper — and in Coleman's words — this should be a good race.
Coleman opts to go first on the 1.3-mile out-and-back (2.6 miles total) course, which offers a section of tight but flowing turns followed by several long, blind corners leading to a series of high-speed jumps before the turnaround.
Even from the safety of the sidelines it's clear that driving the 510 is, well, challenging. Steering looks particularly difficult. With about 30 degrees of dead rotation on center there isn't exactly a direct connection between car and driver. The brakes have a habit of locking too easily and the power seems obtuse in such a small package. As a result, the 510 rides two eternal rooster tails from start to finish, rarely going straight for more than a few feet at a time.
Over the last half-mile, which is visible from the finish line, Coleman is stringing apexes together like a man possessed. And even though the 510 never actually hooks up, it charges through the finish line with a serious head of steam and enough authentic racecar roar to sex up the video. Over three runs Coleman's times only vary by only 2.3 seconds. His best is 2:49.4.
The turbocharged, factory-fresh Juke is dead silent by comparison. And thanks to its soul-sucking CVT, it leaves the line with the authority of a wounded mule, lacking the ability to even slip a tire. Wood the throttle and there's a long bog while the little four-cylinder builds boost. But with the turbo spooled, things get interesting in a hurry. And the CVT, despite its inability to execute a hard launch, keeps the engine on boil if you work it hard enough.
As with most all-wheel-drive cars that work right, there's a chasm between the limit of grip and the limit of control. In other words, sideways driving rewards with actual speed. But fall off the Juke's oh-so-narrow power band and you'll immediately regret it — probably while you're sliding backwards off the road. In other words, the line between glory and sucking is a fine one.
Despite staying on the road, the Juke is 5 seconds off Coleman's pace after its first run, but it seems like there's more speed to be found. The next run drops 2.2 seconds and exposes even more potential. And finally, with an effort wholly unjustified by the inglorious risk/reward ratio, the Juke magically produces a 2:48.7 — nipping the 510 by 0.7 second. It's not a picture of consistency, but the potential is obvious.
2011 Nissan Juke: 2:48.7
1971 Datsun 510: 2:49.4
The Take Away
It's not fair, you might say. Of course the Juke won — it's benefitting from four decades of automotive technology. Perhaps, but we'd argue that the Juke's 0.7-second advantage is hardly a win in a race contesting 40 years of technological "progress." For all practical purposes, this contest is a wash.
Still, after taking time to reflect on the day in the dirt, two points emerge. First, it's hardly the speed that matters. Ignore the pace, the technology and the times. It's the experience that counts. And both cars offer a potently unexpected experience.
Second, and this is where Nissan gets it right, 40 years might not make the Juke better-looking or significantly quicker, but it's got the most critical component nailed: It's still fun.