When Carlos Ghosn took over as CEO, more than a decade ago, Nissan was bleeding cash and a lot of its products were forgettable, me-too copies of various Hondas and Toyotas. Since then Mr. Fix-It—as he became known—has overhauled Nissan from top to bottom. Now Nissans are praised for delivering value-for-dollar and generally fine driving dynamics, and the company makes lustworthy cars for motorheads (the 370Z, the GT-R), Capitalists (the entire Infiniti range) and even eco-philiacs (the all-electric, zero-emissions Leaf).
There’s a dark lining to every silver cloud, though, and for Nissan it’s the urge to build cars for the tattooed hordes whose ball caps have flat brims and who call me “dude.” Thus Nissan also makes the two most unsightly vehicles this side of the former Eastern Bloc: the cube (no capital letter) and this, the JUKE (all capitals). Every time I see it I think of a rhinoceros calf. Then I climb in and drive away and am reminded that rhinos are unexpectedly agile animals. And their babies are actually sort of cute, or at least endearing.
No question that the Juke is right-sized for today’s new reality, at least for drivers who don’t schlep Little League teams around or tow horse boxes. (The Juke is the same length as a Mini Countryman.) These rear seats are tolerable for two adults, so long as they’re not NBA forwards, and you can stash a week’s groceries inside the tailgate without having to fold them down. The back seats, that is. By the way, the Juke does have rear doors; the latches are up there by the windows, where you can’t see them.
Fuel economy that averaged only in the mid-20s was disappointing in a vehicle this size, even with all-wheel drive. (On the interstate we never even came close to the 30 highway MPG claims for the Juke.) All Jukes have a turbocharged 1.6-liter, 4-cylinder engine tuned for 188 horsepower and 177 torques. These numbers make the Juke pretty lively. Dipping into the throttle squirts the car through traffic, while sensors and microprocessors keep a close eye on wheelspin and others kinds of slip & slide. We’ve gotten accustomed to AWD systems that change the division of power between the front and rear wheels as needed, but this Nissan can also “vector” it from side to side, at least at the back wheels.
In hard cornering or acceleration we can feel the car settle down under the grip of the AWD; then the Juke corners nimbly and with less understeer than expected. The steering itself is quick enough to contribute to this deftness. The 2WD Juke is, of course, only pulled around by its front wheels, and it lacks independent suspension at the rear.
A 6-speed manual gearbox is available. The standard automatic transmission is a continuously variable type (no distinct “gears”) with Sport and Eco modes. Nissan says these settings also tweak the steering and throttle behavior. I can’t tell the difference, but the CVT does perform well—certainly better than in some other cars, and there’s no annoying whine as the car accelerates up to cruising speed. Like all Nissans, the Juke has a safety feature that lets the brakes electronically override the throttle if the driver mistakenly pushes both at the same time.
For 2013 Nissan offers three lines of the Juke, which it calls a “sport-cross” vehicle: S, SV and SL. Suggested retail prices start at about $21,00, $22,700 and $25,600, respectively, with shipping, for cars with front-wheel drive and automatic transmissions. Ticking the box for that torque-vectoring AWD adds a grand or so to the price. Naturally, each model level comes with more gizmos, from a pushbutton moonroof to leather trim, Bluetooth and a USB port, push-button starting, stereo and cruise-control switches in the steering wheel and a good deal more. Sport ($1,350) and Navigation ($1,170) packages are also available.
It’s not a joke, it’s a Juke. As the old saying has it, when you’re behind the wheel, the ugly pretty much goes away. And when you’re behind the wheel at night, the orange lights atop the front fenders make you think you’re piloting a shuttlepod from the USS Enterprise.