If times were better and Nissan could sell you a sports car, the 2011 Nissan Juke might not exist.
The Juke is a new crossover priced right around $20,000. It's based on Nissan-Renault's global B-segment platform architecture, and it's a practical vehicle suitable for carrying beagles and particle-board bookshelves. But there's also an edgier side to the 2011 Nissan Juke. It has a turbocharged, direct-injected 1.6-liter inline-4 that's rated at an estimated 180 horsepower, and the result is some surprising pop off the line.
In another time, an engine this good would be flipped around and installed in an affordable rear-wheel-drive coupe. Unfortunately, we're living in a world where people feel like they can't afford to have that much fun, so Nissan has put its turbo four in this more sensible wrapper instead. Juke sales started last week in Japan; the car will then be rolled out in Europe this August and will appear in the United States this October.
Nissan thinks it can sell 25,000 to 30,000 Jukes annually in the U.S. That's about double last year's sales of the Nissan 370Z.
Of course, you're never going to have the same feelings for the 2011 Nissan Juke that you would for a Z-car, but the Juke is now the most interesting drive in Nissan's small-car lineup by a wide margin.
Oh, Boy, Is It Small
This is what happens when the Europeans are in charge of design. Europe is the primary market for the Nissan Juke (with expected annual sales of 75,000 to 100,000), so Nissan Design Europe made all the big decisions, and the Europeans aren't as corn-fed and full-size as we are, so the Juke isn't big, either.
The 2011 Nissan Juke shares its platform with the Nissan Versa and Cube, and has a 99.6-inch wheelbase like the Cube. The Juke has a wider track than either one, but it's shorter in stature than the Cube (61.8 inches versus 65) and shorter in overall length than the Versa (162.4 inches versus 169.1 inches). Total interior volume is 97.2 cubic feet in the Juke versus 112.5 cubic feet in the Versa and 109.1 cubic feet in the Cube.
Legroom is ample up front and passable in the Juke's backseat, but you'll have your head in the rafters if you're as tall as 6 feet and silly enough to climb in back. Shoulder room is tight as well, apparently because those flared fenders swallow the extra track width while the greenhouse tapers inward. Notably, the 2011 Juke feels more snug than a Mini Countryman or Suzuki SX4, even though it has the same overall footprint.
Ask yourself why you'd bother with a tiny utility vehicle that only has 36 cubic feet of cargo space in the first place. A Versa holds 50 cubic feet, while the refrigerator-box Cube offers a maximum of 58 cubic feet.
Maybe the answer is that you don't actually need more. A Mini Clubman has just less than 33 cubic feet of capacity, while the Countryman (41 cubic feet) and SX4 (43 cubic feet) aren't much roomier. All of these vehicles will take a week's worth of groceries or a weekend's worth of luggage.
But Its Personality Is Big
We can imagine an upstart at Nissan's Sunderland design center in the U.K. painting the Juke's bulges and contours with great, bold brushstrokes in an early design sketch. We bet he was really proud of the result. But such flair tends to rub people the wrong way when it's captured in artificially lit photographs in a studio, so it was no surprise when we could practically hear you retch once the first photographs of the Juke design were released in February. Fortunately, the 2011 Nissan Juke makes a far better impression in person, even if it always appears to be making a muscle.
It has been years since Nissan built a small, affordable car for the U.S. with some actual personality. The Cube and Versa are useful if you need a mobile storage unit, but they're meant for commuting, not driving. The Nissan Juke is up to something else entirely, though, and that's why we're headed for Mulholland Highway.
This is a preproduction example of the car, so the drivetrain tuning is not exactly finalized, the Nissan engineers have warned us. Still, the Juke's 1.6-liter turbo matches up well with this latest version of Nissan's continuously variable transmission (CVT). Compared to the identically sized turbo four available from the Mini family, this engine is tuned to prioritize low- and midrange torque at the expense of high-rpm performance. It's a good trade-off, because a CVT invariably feels more natural when paired with a torquey engine that doesn't need to have its neck wrung during every passing attempt.
Our Juke test car moves out quickly in cutthroat traffic on U.S. Highway 101 and proves fully up to the task of routine pick-and-roll maneuvers. Nissan won't tell us how quick this Juke is, but we're guessing it's getting us to 60 mph in fewer than 8 seconds. Company officials will say they're targeting 30 mpg, and that's for EPA city and highway combined.
You can hear the turbocharger a bit under full-throttle acceleration, but the soundtrack doesn't engage you like that of the Mini Cooper S. Nissan still has time to address this before the U.S. launch, and on the upside, the engine is smooth and feels pretty refined.
The 1.6-liter turbo is one of three engines being offered worldwide in the Nissan Juke. The Europeans will mostly choose the 1.5-liter turbodiesel, while the base engine in Europe and Japan will be a normally aspirated version of the 1.6-liter.
The Art of the Juke
You'll notice we haven't yet made a big stink about whether you can get a manual gearbox in the 2011 Nissan Juke. You can, as a six-speed manual is standard. But we wouldn't get it.
You see, the manual transmission is only available on the front-wheel-drive version of the Nissan Juke, which will be the choice of 10 to 20 percent of Juke buyers who will choose the S model with its sub-$20,000 base price. But we think you'd rather be among the 40 to 50 percent of buyers who will opt for the all-wheel-drive model that comes with the CVT, a combination that is likely to cost another $1,200 to $1,600.
OK, so it's not actually an all-wheel-drive system, but an on-demand four-wheel-drive system that redirects up to 50 percent of engine torque to the rear wheels based on input from a bunch of sensors (steering angle, yaw rate, acceleration, braking). This very simple system dispenses with a center differential and instead connects the spinning driveshaft directly to a rear differential that has a clutch at either side. These clutches make all the difference, as they permit variable distribution of torque through the rear wheels. The result is the kind of torque-vectoring that can improve the cornering behavior of an otherwise clumsy crossover like the Juke.
That's right. This is Honda-style Super-Handling All-Wheel Drive on the cheap, and our thusly equipped Juke gets through the tightest section of Mulholland pretty well. It isn't besieged by understeer like other small Nissans. And company engineers have retuned the electric-assisted power steering, so there's a useful level of effort to the steering action and some indication of which way the standard 17-inch wheels are pointed. The brakes impress us, too, with a firmer pedal feel than you might expect in this price range.
Our 2011 Nissan Juke also has the optional I-CON system, which provides Nissan GT-R-inspired displays for torque, turbo boost, lateral Gs and (of course) mpg, along with Eco, Normal and Sport modes that affect the behavior of the throttle, transmission and steering. We didn't notice much difference between Normal and Sport while driving, although we shot a short video so you can get an idea of how the different I-CON modes and displays work.
How's the Ride?
Another reason to feel good about a Nissan Juke with the torque-vectoring AWD (er, 4WD) system is that it has an independent multilink rear suspension, which car guys always prefer even if the benefits can't always be quantified. In this case, Nissan simply couldn't package the car's 64-pound rear differential (it's a biggie) with the semi-independent torsion beam used for the front-drive Juke.
We've only tried the fully independent setup on the 2011 Nissan Juke, and it's a pretty good compromise. There's noticeably more roll stiffness here than on the Cube and Versa, and the ride quality is still decent. Of course you will hear those P215/55R17 98V Goodyear Eagle RS-As slapping against the concrete slabs, but that's what happens when you put big wheels on an inexpensive car.
As Sweet a Juke as You'll Ever See
You don't really think about how inexpensive the Juke is when you drive it, though. This Juke has a nicely finished interior, and the only thing we'd complain about (OK, apart from the tight quarters) is the lack of a telescoping steering wheel.
As you drive the 2011 Nissan Juke, you also realize that Nissan still knows how to build fun, small cars. When you're in this crossover, it doesn't always have to be about hauling boxes. There's also a level of refinement here that you won't find in the Cube or Versa.
The Juke promises to be a pretty good value, too. Sure, there are other AWD vehicles out for about the same money (Subaru Impreza, Suzuki SX4, Toyota Matrix), but in most cases, you'll have to trade some performance and feature content. Every 2011 Juke gets a USB hookup and Bluetooth as standard equipment, and this SL AWD with its MSRP of about $24,900 car has keyless ignition, navigation and heated leather seats.
On the whole, the 2011 Nissan Juke strikes us as a poor man's Mini Countryman. Its strange face will keep you from being mistaken for the real King Mini, but we never expected Nissan's crossover to pull off a real juke anyway. Here's a lesson from Dante Hall.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.
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