The 2013 Nissan Juke leaves a few shoppers smitten — but I'm not one of them.
Our editors' love/hate relationship with Nissan's baby crossover continues. The Juke packs entertaining performance thanks to a punchy, turbocharged four-cylinder and an optional all-wheel-drive system that's as advanced as ones you'll find in cars from Acura and BMW. But beyond that, our praise runs thin.
A NISMO Juke from Nissan's motorsports division joins the lineup for 2013; it makes 9 extra horsepower and comes with a number of other performance modifications. Other changes between the 2012 and 2013 Juke are few; click here to compare them, or here to compare the NISMO with the Juke's other three trim levels — S, SV and SL. We drove an all-wheel-drive Juke SL.
Still an Odd Duck
If weird is your thing, the Juke is water to the parched. Even from an automaker known for the bizarre (see: Cube, Murano CrossCabriolet) the Juke stretches the believable. Those fanglike protrusions atop the hood house parking lights and turn signals — not headlights. The headlights flank the grille farther down. The optional fog lights occupy a Swiss-cheese framework of bumper openings. We've tested a number of Jukes since the car's late-2010 arrival, and it always generates conversation. One editor said it's so ugly, it's cute. I prefer to skip the last two words.
Shoppers should also note that the Juke is small. Overall length is just 162.4 inches, which is about even with commuter hatchbacks like the Honda Fit or Nissan's own Versa Note. Small crossovers, ranging from the Ford Escape to the Kia Sportage, are all at least a foot longer. The Juke offers little payoff in tight spaces, though: Its 36.4-foot turning circle ranks among the bigger crossovers, not the hatchbacks.
The size does make for a tight interior, where the wraparound cockpit limits knee space. And aside from our test car's decent leather upholstery and a few inventive painted accents, the cabin feels as low-budget as a planetary scene on the original "Star Trek." Grainy, hard plastics cover the dashboard and upper doors. The headliner seems like it was formed out of egg-crate material. Rear passengers have modest headroom and cramped legroom, plus crude door cutouts in place of padded armrests. Adults' knees will dig deep into the front seatbacks, where a horizontal crossbar prods their knees. Some may wish Scotty could beam them anywhere else.
The Juke's features, too, seem half-baked. The steering wheel tilts but doesn't telescope. Switches for the optional heated seats sit below the center armrest — an annoying location that you'll have to lift the armrest to access. The standard Bluetooth works your phone, but it doesn't stream audio. C'mon, Nissan — this is 2013.
But a Quick Duck, At Least
The Juke's turbocharged 1.6-liter four-cylinder redeems the experience, as does the available all-wheel drive. The all-wheel drive proactively sends more power toward the outside rear wheels to sharpen midcorner handling and diminish understeer — similar to what BMW's xDrive and Acura's Super-Handling All-Wheel-Drive systems do. The Nissan's nose still pushes, but you can bring the tail around with steady gas through a corner. Still, some drivers will find the body roll to be too much for a sporty car. The NISMO Juke aims to address that with a lowered, sport-tuned suspension, but we have yet to evaluate it.
Nissan also tuned the NISMO Juke to make 197 hp and 184 pounds-feet of torque, versus the standard Juke's 188 hp and 177 pounds-feet of torque. The standard drivetrain provides snappy acceleration, but the optional continuously variable automatic transmission removes some of the fun. Power feels binary; if you can get past the initial turbo lag and wait for the CVT to pick up revs, the Juke scoots. Below that, however, power feels modest. Alas, the CVT is the only transmission available with all-wheel drive. Front-drive SV, SL and NISMO models come standard with a six-speed manual.
EPA-estimated gas mileage is a decent 27/32/29 mpg city/highway/combined with the automatic, or about 2 mpg less with the manual. All-wheel-drive Jukes get an estimated 25/30/27 mpg. Those figures are decent, ranking just ahead of the Mini S Countryman and beating other small SUVs by a wider margin. If mileage is high on your list, however, go with a conventional compact hatchback. Many have combined EPA mileage in the low 30s — and they seldom prefer premium gas, as both the Nissan and Mini do.
On the Juke SV and SL, Nissan's Integrated Control ("I-CON") system has Sport, regular and Eco modes that affect accelerator and transmission response. Sport pegs the CVT into brief, fixed ratios to simulate a conventional, fixed-gear automatic, which gives you the sensation — however contrived — of engine revving. Eco mode, by contrast, relaxes accelerator response to increase gas mileage, but incurs even more lag when pulling around slower traffic. The system purports to change steering feel, too, but I observed little difference between the modes.
All-wheel-drive Jukes have a four-wheel-independent suspension, which improves — in theory — on the front-drive Juke's independent front and semi-independent, torsion-beam rear. Still, anyone who travels long distances should look elsewhere; the Juke rides firmly, with plenty of road noise and twitchy steering that requires periodic corrections to stay on course.
Safety, Features & Pricing
The Juke earned top scores in the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's front, side-impact, roof-strength and rear crash tests, making the model an IIHS Top Safety Pick. IIHS has yet to administer its small-overlap test, however. Standard safety features include six airbags and the required antilock brakes and electronic stability system. Lane departure, blind spot and forward collision warning systems — fast-growing options among newer cars — remain unavailable. The Juke's reliability has been average. The Juke S starts around $20,000 including the destination charge, and it comes well-equipped for that price. Standard features include the CVT, cruise control, air conditioning, 17-inch alloy wheels and a CD stereo with iPod/USB connectivity, steering-wheel audio controls and Bluetooth phone (but not audio streaming) connectivity. The front-drive SV, SL and NISMO come with a standard six-speed manual; all other variations, including all-wheel drive models in any trim, have the automatic.
Check all the factory options and an all-wheel-drive Juke SL runs about $27,000; the NISMO costs a few hundred dollars more, but it lacks heated seats or leather — features included on the Juke SL, alongside a standard navigation system and backup camera, which are optional on the NISMO.
Juke in the Market
The Juke is a bit player. In 2012, Nissan sold about four Rogue SUVs — a model that hasn't recently been redesigned — for every Juke. We wouldn't be surprised if Nissan scuttled this crossover after a single generation.
But this is an automaker that seems committed to oddball products, and it's possible we could see a second-generation Juke in a few years. All that does little to broaden the appeal of today's car, which remains a niche vehicle for a specific buyer.
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