Yep, the couple in the VW next to us are definitely checking out my Nissan. But I’m not sure if I’m getting smiles of admiration or patronizing snickers.
The $22,260 Nissan Juke is the unlikely union of a sports hatchback and a compact SUV. The result, to say the least, is quirky. My co-rider, a woman in her late 20s, proclaimed it “super cute” and, seeing my hesitation, said, “It’s designed for me, not you.”
The Juke’s dimensions are nearly as confounding as Nissan’s description of it as a “bold urban sport cross.” It’s over five feet tall, yet is a foot-and-a-half shorter than a Toyota Rav4. I can’t quite imagine its claim to seat up to five, and the stowage in the rear is underwhelming.
Perhaps I’m just less willing to follow Nissan on its design perambulations. The last designs I truly loved were the 350Z sports car and first-generation FX SUV, both 2003 model years. They had taut skins over a lean musculature.
Now we get bloated creations like the Murano CrossCabriolet, a convertible SUV so ugly it makes me want to run away crying. (Let me repeat: We’re talking about a convertible SUV.)
We’ll return to the Juke’s design, but I can say that the way it actually drives dispels doubts about its worth. The all-wheel-drive model I tested had a small 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine which was both turbocharged and direct-injected. It summoned 188 horsepower and 177 pound-feet of torque and pushed the Juke down the road with peppy determination.
The AWD system worked wonders on the snow- and ice-slicked roads. It can send additional torque to an outside rear wheel to help cornering, and helps keep the mini-utility stable and flat. It quickly gets up to speed and the continuously variable transmission works especially well in sport mode.
I took it on some curvy downhill lanes and was impressed by the surety of the four-wheel disc brakes. (It helps that the Juke is decently light; 3,183 pounds on my model.) The steering wheel is small, like a race car’s, and firm in feel and response. It proved more fun than a handful of similarly priced sedans I’ve tested of late.
I considered, briefly, running it off-road onto semi-plowed roads, but discretion (and the fear of having to be towed out) dissuaded me. It obviously isn’t made for trail use, even with 17-inch all-season tires.
As dusk fell, I realized the headlamps actually peek above the hood, and you can see their tops from the cockpit, glowing like twin fireflies. Kind of neat, if distracting.
In fact, the exterior itself could be described as insectoid, like a Transformer robot that might shapeshift from a vehicle into a mechanical bug. Round fog lamps thrust out of the grill area below those firefly headlamps, giving it a face.
The sides have a series of odd bulges and swells, like the robot is beginning its transformation, and the rear wheel arches are thick. The rear has fanciful taillights and interesting angles around the window.
Inside, the center console is painted in high-gloss, a delightful detail which makes wonder why carmakers don’t do it more often. (Perhaps they think we’re afraid of color.) Door handles are shiny and sculptural. Overall you get the feeling that somebody had fun making it and you’ll probably have fun inside, too.
Too bad some of the controls, such as those on the steering wheel, are tiny and fussy. The electronics for the side mirrors are tucked into a dark recess on the left of the wheel.
My tester had the navigation package for an additional $800, though the touch screen is puny at five-inches. Those who like video games may get a kick out of information screens like the one which tells you where G-forces are being applied on the car, depending if you’re turning or braking. It’s playful and amusing, but utterly extraneous.
The least expensive Juke starts at $19,000 with front-wheel-drive, climbing up to $24,550 for the AWD SL model. As driven, my tester came to $24,260. Destination is $750.
Say what you will (and I say the looks ultimately aren’t for me), but in the world of small, affordable autos, the Juke sure ain’t boring.
The 2011 Nissan Juke SV AWD CVT at a Glance
Engine: 1.6-liter direct-injected, turbocharged four-
cylinder with 188 horsepower and 177 pound-feet of torque.
Transmission: Continuously variable.
Speed: 0 to 60 mph in about 7.5 seconds.
Gas mileage per gallon: 25 city; 30 highway.
Price as tested: $24,260.
Best feature: Well, it certainly isn’t boring!
Worst feature: Cramped rear.
Target buyer: The small car buyer who likes to stand out.
(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)