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Published: 06/05/2013 - by Mike Monticello, Road Test Editor
If the 2013 Nissan Juke Nismo proves half as good as the insane, hand-built, $650,000 Juke-R prototype, it has a good chance of making Nismo a household name.
That version of the Juke is a carbon-fiber-bodied exotic with the drivetrain of the GT-R sports car stuffed into it. With all-wheel drive and a twin-turbocharged, 545-horsepower V6, it's a monster performer with an intake whoosh like a high-pitched jet at full song.
Turns out, the new Juke Nismo is a much tamer prospect.
With just 9 extra horsepower, a marginally stiffer suspension and the same transmission choices as the regular Juke, the Nismo version of Nissan's odd little crossover is only a mild makeover. Why the huge chasm between the Juke-R and its more accessible counterpart, the Juke Nismo?
Look in the Mirror
When we asked Hiroshi Tamura, Nismo chief product specialist, about the mild nature of the 2013 Nissan Juke Nismo, he told us, "There simply aren't enough enthusiasts anymore who want to buy serious high-performance versions of vehicles like the Juke, Maxima and Sentra. So we have to make our cars appeal to more people."
But don't get Tamura wrong. Nissan still intends to make serious high-performance vehicles. It just has to start small when it comes to promoting the Nismo brand, its in-house tuning arm.
For instance, the Juke Nismo doesn't have huge horsepower, but it does have a very serious pair of sport seats. On a scale of 1-10, they're an 11. Maybe 11.5. Not only do these gems offer more lateral support than just about any OEM seat on the market, they're also fantastically comfortable, with a soft and grippy covering. Small steps here.
Behind the Wheel
As we point the Juke Nismo out onto the road, the six-speed manual of our front-drive tester couldn't be easier to use. It has a light action and positive gates, but the throws are long for a performance machine.
As in all Jukes, the 1.6-liter turbo direct-injected four-cylinder comes on around 3,000 rpm but happily winds out to the soft rev limiter at 6,700. An ECU remap gives the Juke Nismo its extra 9 hp for a total of 197 and an additional 7 pound-feet of torque for a total of 184 lb-ft.
Does that extra boost make a difference? From a seat-of-the-pants perspective, no, but the Nismo proved to be the quickest Juke we've tested. A 0-60-mph run in 6.9 seconds (6.6 seconds with a 1-foot rollout like at a drag strip) and the quarter-mile in 15.2 seconds at 90.8 mph is nothing to sneer at.
The Scion xB and Kia Soul are boat anchors in comparison, and even the Mini Cooper S Countryman can't keep pace. In fact, the Nismo is only a few clicks off the pace of the more expensive 2013 Ford Focus ST.
On a local twisty road that has racetrack-like curbing, the 2013 Nissan Juke Nismo is a blast as we purposefully run up on the curbs and bounce off. Why? Because we can.
It's a Juke and although the Nismo version has a lower airdam than regular Jukes, it still has plenty of clearance for these types of shenanigans. It does this with slightly more precision than usual, thanks to 10 percent stiffer springs and dampers and a lower ride height. Ride quality? Yep, it's also noticeably more jiggly.
The biggest handling difference comes from the Continental ContiSportContact 5 summer tires, size 225/45R18 front and rear. They provide plenty of predictable grip without a punishing ride. Our instrumented testing showed that grip improved from 0.82g to 0.85g versus the last front-drive Juke we tested, although we've seen 0.84g in a non-Nismo AWD. The steering remains artificial and rather unfeeling, even in Nismo form.
And as we found out on Mulholland Highway, the more we tossed the Juke Nismo from cone to cone on our slalom course, the more the chassis came alive. While AWD Jukes have an independent rear suspension, front-drive versions get a less sophisticated twist-beam rear axle. Both do a reasonable job of keeping the rear end planted, but the lack of a limited-slip front differential means front-drive versions often spin their wheels powering out of turns. There's still plenty of body roll but decent grip, and the Nismo managed a 65.2-mph slalom run before the electronic ninnies halted the fun. That's a full 3.4 mph quicker than our previous best time with the stability control left on.
While some might poke fun at the Juke Nismo's body kit (especially the red mirrors, which stand out, well, like red mirrors on a white car), to the Nissan folk it's no laughing matter. They told us the heavily contoured airdam, deep side skirts and new rear fascia and wing contribute to a 37 percent improvement in downforce, with no sacrifice to the EPA-rated fuel economy of 25 city/31 highway/27 mpg combined, which is the same as the non-Nismo Juke.
We averaged 26.1 mpg over 1,020 miles, including an impressive 32.4 mpg on our 116-mile Edmunds drive route.
Aside from the aforementioned awesome sport seats, an Alcantara steering wheel and a red tachometer, most of the Juke's interior remains its goofy Juke self.
Which is fine, as there's nothing wrong with being different or highly styled. But the I-Con (Integrated Control) system that combines the climate control and the three-mode drive selector can be a nuisance. We don't like that the drive selector always defaults to Normal, and if you're in the drive mode, you can't change the fan speed without switching back to the climate control mode. The optional 5-inch infotainment/back-up camera screen is small by today's standards, and it looks dated even though it's barely a few years old.
Although Nissan says the Nismo will represent the halo vehicle for the Juke line, it's actually not the most expensive model. With a starting price of $23,780 (including $790 destination) for the front-drive six-speed manual (the AWD/CVT combo starts at $26,080), it slots in just below the top Juke SL. Our test vehicle, which had the $1,170 Navigation package with upgraded stereo and rearview camera, came to $25,195, which is competitive for the segment.
Needs More Nismo
The fact that the two best things about the 2013 Nissan Juke Nismo are the front seats tells you a little bit about its priorities. This is not an all-out performance machine by any stretch, although we still like its playful, the-bumpier-the-better personality.
That said, we expected a little more from a vehicle with a Nismo badge on the back. It should come with several degrees of extra performance, across all dynamic aspects, and that's not the case with this Juke. This is a toe in the water for Nismo, not a cannonball.
Given what Mr. Tamura told us about delivering mass appeal, the seriousness of the Juke Nismo shouldn't come as much of a surprise. This is a modest makeover for a modest price. Anything more extreme would have pigeonholed it into niche status.
There's plenty of room for improvement, though. A Juke Nismo R with a slight power boost and a more aggressive tune to the suspension would turn it into a true hot hatch. Seems like a reasonable compromise between the gonzo Juke-R super crossover and the standard model, eh Mr. Tamura?
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
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