Meet the Juke, Nissan's new controversially-styled small car. The Juke's unusual design is bound to be the car's focal point, and that's a shame, because the rest of the car is no less radical. From the powertrain to the packaging to the control layout, everything about the Juke is a major step ahead for Nissan. I got a chance to take a preview drive, and came away very impressed -- and very excited about Nissan's future.
First Glance: Elephant in the room
It's impossible to talk about the Juke without discussing the styling, so let's get that out of the way. For those who have traveled to Europe, the Juke may not seem that unusual; Nissan pioneered the Juke's bug-eye look (link goes to photo) on the Euro-market Nissan Micra, while the taillights look like they were swiped from Volvo, presumably while the Swedes were sleeping. The unusual front end distracts from some of the more subtle details, like the way the body bulges outwards at the doors. Nissan apparently plans to market the Juke to young men, but I think it's too cute and cuddly -- my money says the Juke will appeal more to women, looking as it does like a big, fuzzy, and slightly malformed stuffed animal.
The Juke is designed to be an ultra-compact crossover, though if you ask me, it's more like a car than a CUV. Though it looks big and beefy in photos, the Juke is actually quite small -- about the same size as a Kia Soul. I like the Juke's dimensions; it's easy to park and easy to thread through crowded city traffic, and the view out of the windshield -- with the flat hood spread out in front and the fender-top parking lights marking the edge of the car -- is a nice contrast compared to most modern cars, where the nose simply drops out of view.
Interior: Strange bedfellows
The Juke offers its driver a pleasantly upright seating position, with big windows and huge side view mirrors that provide excellent visibility. My test car had leather seats and jazzy-looking red paint on the door pulls and center console. Nissan cautioned me that not all the interior bits in my pre-production test car were finalized, but I'm hoping they won't change much -- everything was made of top-quality materials that felt solid and substantial.
The Juke I drove had a fantastic-sounding stereo with a built-in navigation system; it was easy to program, although the screen is rather small. But what really intrigued me was the new I-CON controller, which combines climate controls, powertrain mode switches (Sport, Normal or Eco), and the fuel-economy computer. These sound like strange bedfellows, and if someone described the system to me, I'd say it was a horrible idea -- but having seen it and tried it, I can tell you that it's a simple and logical combination that works beautifully.
The back seat offers plenty of room for both legs and heads, the latter coming courtesy of a stepped roof which dips sharply in the center of the car to accommodate the sunroof. But the back door opening is narrow, which could make getting in and out difficult for the more well-fed among us. Likewise, the cargo bay is a disappointment -- Nissan hasn't announced the capacity, but it looks like around 9 cubic feet, way down in MINI Cooper and Chevy Aveo5 territory. The Juke's trunk is fine for groceries, but don't expect to be able to pack for a long trip or take your Lab to the dog park without folding down the back seats.
On the Road: YEAH BABY!!!
Open the Juke's hood and you'll find a brand-new engine -- a 1.6 liter four-cylinder with direct fuel injection and a turbocharger, a formula being adopted by several automakers as a way to squeeze more power out of less gas. Nissan hasn't announced official fuel economy figures, though they estimate the combined city/highway figure at a lofty 30 MPG. As for power, they're estimating 180+ hp and 170+ lb-ft of torque. I can tell you that I've never driven a 1.6 liter car hustles like the Juke does. My tester had a continuously-variable automatic transmission (CVT), which definitely helped matters. There's a bit of off-the-line lag, but then the CVT allows the engine to jump right into its powerband and the Juke takes off like the world's cutest guided missile. (Nissan will also offer a 6-speed stick.) If all that power is too tempting, all one need do is press the "Eco" button to put the Juke into super-frugal mode, complete with less-aggressive accelerator pedal response.
Speaking of aggression, our press preview took place tantalizingly close to the About.com Top Secret Curvy Test Road, so I took a little unauthorized detour to see how the Juke responded when pushed -- and the Juke loved it. My test car had all-wheel-drive -- the Juke will also come as a front driver -- and as I stormed through the curves, I was amazed that the same company that gave us the dull-driving Cube could turn around and come up with this little gem. The Juke exhibited amazing grip, precise steering, and great balance, all complemented by the eager turbo engine. On the freeway, the Juke rode comfortably, if a bit noisily; I'm sure production models will be quieter. Back in town, the Juke's small size and excellent all-around visibility make it an excellent urban warrior, while its narrow width meant I could park easily and not worry about door dings.
Journey's End: Juke is a little car with a lot to like
I don't think I need to tell you how smitten I am by the new Juke. My lists of likes is long -- good size, excellent visibility, innovative interior, plucky engine, high fun-to-drive factor -- while my list of dislikes is limited to the small trunk and narrow back doors. I even like the styling. Yes, I know it's unusual, but aren't you tired of cars that look so much alike? The Juke may be controversial, but at least it stands out.Would I buy one? I'd like to see the pricing first; Nissan says the Juke will start under $20,000, so my best guess is that the top-of-the-line Juke SL I tested, complete with leather and navigation, will come in around $25-26k. That's not exactly the deal of the century, but nor is it overpriced, especially considering the Juke's high levels of performance, handling, and technology. That said, the Juke's small trunk would take it off my family's short list -- which is a shame, because I really fell in love with the car. Still, I'm not totally disheartened, as what I've seen on the Juke makes me very, very optimistic about Nissan's future. Assuming the technology on the Juke spreads to other Nissan models, I may yet wind up with a Nissan in my garage. -- Aaron Gold