Strange motoring in Nissan’s curious Juke
Summit Daily auto writer
Admittedly, the American car-buying public is a lot like the Walmart shopping public, with large-volume and mostly predictable products moving huge numbers.
In recent years, nonconformists have, happily, had a few new options with odd automobiles such as the Nissan Cube, the whole Scion family and the Kia Soul.
Nissan’s relatively new Juke, a small and frankly bizarre blend of light SUV, tiny crossover and efficient sports car, comes along and makes the rest of those cars look positively normal.
With frog-eyed headlamps practically popping out of its bumpers, glassy reptilian turn signals on the hood and a body shape that’s sort of like a Shrinky-Dinked Murano, with Volvo-styled super-curved brake lamps, Juke is indeed a one-of-a-kind machine.
Inside, it’s even more unusual, with a painted transmission channel that looks like a tiny Japanese sportbike has been squashed between the seats, plus motorcycle-inspired instrument clusters.
It’s also optionally equipped with all-wheel drive which can be manually set for more efficient 2WD motoring on dry roads; a 1.6-liter direct injection turbocharged four-cylinder engine is standard, offering a solid 188 horsepower.
I drove the Juke briefly this spring, and and again during a week-long test in August. I’ve read that they’ve sold reasonably well (in the tens of thousands) since their debut.
Who is the Juke aimed at, you might ask? That’s a good question. Built on the same diminutive platform as the Cube and the Versa, Juke is a pretty compact machine – though if you park it next to a Mini Cooper you see that it’s still much more substantial than a microcar.
Its ride height, 99-inch wheelbase and 17-inch tires make it OK for mild offroad jaunts, with a bit of AWD tug to get you over small obstacles, but it’s pretty tightly sprung and not made for serious bashing.
And in a move I see as a bit of the worst of both worlds, it’s normally equipped with a continuously variable transmission, meaning that the tiny engine’s not insubstantial turbo lag is only further accentuated. Overseas, there’s a diesel version and that seems like the Perfect Storm for slack acceleration.
As it is, the CVT Juke does require a solid three-count before it really starts moving, like an old Saab, so you have to be careful when cutting off oncoming traffic at a light.
In motion, there’s loads of power and once you’re cruising, things are fine, but starts can be precipitous. I would hope that the optional six-speed manual might harness the turbo power a little more efficiently.
Do the looks grow on you after a week behind the wheel? Since you can’t actually see the outside of the car while you’re driving, sure, but it’s definitely an acquired taste. The front end looks like a Mazda3 blended with a 1960s dune buggy (with crocodile eye turn signals added for even more fun), and the rear end takes a standard Nissan CUV and tacks on boomerang-shaped lamps practically identical to those on a Volvo C30. And then there’s that tiny motorcycle inside, inexplicable but delightful.
Juke is a comfortable ride, despite its size, with ample leather seating (heated in the front row), and the 60-40 split rear seat flattens to provide a decent 36 cubic feet of cargo room.
In addition to the hooded instrument cluster (which a friend noted looked like it could be closed up like an air vent), Juke also sports an inventive if not slightly befuddling combination air conditioning and performance feedback display dubbed the I-CON.
Press a button and the same control panel switches between the two different modes (and even displays completely different lights and layout), allowing video game-styled information on torque, G-forces and even a few gimmicky stars as rewards for efficient driving.
My week of generalized driving and an I-70 run returned about 25 combined MPG, though it’s rated for 30 MPG highway.
Strange, indeed. But some people like that kind of thing.
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