Recent years have seen the introduction of vehicles that defy classification. The BMW X6 and 5 Series Gran Turismo, Honda Accord CrossTour and Acura ZDX come to mind. Do these vehicles represent a different take on the midsize sedan, are they just odd-looking crossovers, or are they crossover coupes? Whatever they are, they represent additional business for their brands. For 2011, Nissan is introducing its own take on the crossover with the Juke. While the Juke is smaller than those vehicles, it also represents what could arguably be called a new segment. Let's take a look at what makes the Juke different and examine nine other things you should know before you buy.
Photos courtesy of Nissan
#10. It carves out a new market niche
The 2011 Nissan Juke could be viewed simply as a small crossover SUV. However, it's much smaller than any other current crossover, unless you count the new MINI Cooper Countryman, which is really more of a car. We view the Juke as a cross between a crossover and a hot hatchback. Let's call it a hot crosshatch. It has the size, peppy engine and dynamic driving character of a hot hatch, and the raised ride height and upright styling of a crossover.
Speaking of styling, the Juke is at best controversial and at worst just plain ugly. Nissan says the unique face was inspired by World Rally Cars. It features three sets of lights, with driving lights perched up top like crocodile eyes, round headlights in the middle and fog lights located below. It looks like a fish you might find swimming in the lake outside of Monty Burns' nuclear plant. Obviously, it's quite odd, but it could catch on as kitschy cool with younger buyers.
#9. It's smaller than you think, inside and out
Compared to the compact Nissan Rogue crossover, the Juke is 20.5 inches shorter overall and it sits 3.5 lower. That makes it the smallest crossover available today. Its 99.6-inch wheelbase is less than one inch longer than that of a Volkswagen New Beetle and its overall length is slightly longer than a Kia Soul. Those dimensions would place it in the realm of subcompact cars.
Inside, the front seat has plenty of room, but the rear seat is best left to children. Rear head room will be tight for anyone 5'10" or taller, and legroom diminishes with anyone taller than average height up front. The rear hatch has 35.9 cubic feet of cargo space, with is certainly useful, but far less than any other crossover, even the new Mini Countryman. By comparison, the Mazda3 hatchback has 43.8 cubic feet of space and the Scion xD has 35.7 cubic feet.
#8. It's offered in three reasonably priced models
Nissan is standardizing its lineup with S, SV and SL models for most vehicles. The 2011 Nissan Juke follows that formula, and each model is offered with front- or all-wheel drive. Among the standard features on the S are cloth upholstery, trip computer, power windows, remote keyless entry, cruise control, Bluetooth wireless cell phone link, AM/FM/CD stereo with auxiliary input jack, and P215/55R17 tires on alloy wheels. The SV model gets Nissan's new I-CON control system (see point number 2), keyless access and starting, XM satellite radio, automatic climate control, and a sunroof. The top-line SL adds leather upholstery, heated front seats, SD card-based navigation system, USB port, rearview camera, Rockford Fosgate audio, fog lights and automatic headlights.
Active safety features consist of antilock brakes with brake assist and electronic brakeforce distribution, traction control, electronic stability control, all-wheel drive, and a tire-pressure monitor. Passive safety features include dual front airbags, front side airbags, curtain side airbags, and active front head restraints.
#7. A sophisticated all-wheel-drive system is offered
The 2011 Nissan Juke boasts an available all-wheel-drive system that is surprisingly sophisticated for a vehicle of this price. During normal driving, this torque-vectoring AWD system runs with 100 percent of the power to the front wheels. Depending on conditions and driving habits, though, up to half of the power can go to the rear wheels. Factors here include wheel slip, hard acceleration or cornering. The system is not only meant to aid slippery road traction, but also to help the Juke rotate through corners. It does so by sending up to 100 percent of the rear axle's power to the outside rear wheel in turns.
The system weighs only 80 pounds, so there isn't much of a handling penalty due to excess weight. It's hard to feel the system work, but it provides the greatest advantage during aggressive cornering. Anything that increases safety and improves handling is a welcome addition.
#6. It marks the debut of a great new engine
Government fuel economy standards are on the rise, and that is sure to spur more downsized engines. If they're at all like the new turbocharged 1.6-liter four-cylinder in the Juke, that's not a bad thing. Developed by Nissan and Renault, this direct-injected four-cylinder makes an impressive 188 horsepower and 177 pound-feet of torque while also delivering outstanding fuel economy.
On the road, the 1.6 is impressive for such a small, efficient powerplant. It feels like an engine at least one liter larger, with plenty of pep from a stop and enough power in reserve to make passing drama free. While there is little, if any, turbo lag, there is some turbo character. Power comes on strongest above 3500 rpm and the engine pulls hard until about 6500 rpm.
#5. It has two likeable transmissions
The Juke is offered with a six-speed manual transmission or a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT). Fuel economy is best with the CVT and front-wheel drive; the EPA estimates are 27 mpg city/32 highway. With front-drive and the manual, the ratings are 24/31 and with all-wheel drive and the CVT they are 25/30.
The Juke's six-speed manual transmission is a fun little stick. It has short throws and positive action, and fits best with the character of the turbo engine during aggressive driving. The CVT isn't quite as fun, but it does work well with the engine. With an infinite number of gear ratios, it can help the engine work at peak efficiency more often. And when the driver wants power, it can peg the revs at the peak of power output until the driver lets off the throttle. When in Sport mode, it also has six preset gear ratios that the driver can access through the gearshift. We'd like steering wheel shift paddles as well.
#4. It's sporty and fun to drive
Though priced low, the Juke isn't a typical passionless econobox. It feels far more like a sporty hot hatch, say a MINI Cooper or Mazda3, than a Toyota Yaris. Despite the raised ride height, the Juke stays impressively flat during cornering. It reacts quickly to steering inputs and tracks well through turns. Thanks to a short wheelbase and a firm, reactive suspension, the vehicle handles quick changes of direction like a linebacker running a cone drill. All-wheel-drive models have an independent rear suspension, but front-drive models don't. The more sophisticated suspension and high-tech AWD system give the AWD models a slight handling advantage, but it's hard to detect.
The independent rear suspension does a better job of improving ride quality, especially on poor roads. It prevents bumps and ruts that affect one wheel from transferring along the axle to the other side of the car. Nonetheless, the Juke's ride will be too firm and busy for some tastes. The steering is also too light and too numb for the Juke's sporty aspirations, though it is fairly direct and firms up nicely in Sport mode.
#3. The interior is unimpressive
Though semi-sporty, the Juke's interior is budget grade. The highlight is the front seats, which are supportive and comfortable whether cloth or leather upholstery is chosen. Aside from a slightly padded cloth covering on the door armrests, there isn't a soft-touch surface to be found. The dashboard and door panels are made of hard plastics. Nissan even skimped on the center console-there isn't one, even in the SL model. The good news is the plastics all fit together well, the controls are clearly marked and easy to reach, and the interior is surprisingly quiet on the highway.
#2. It has a cool new control interface
We also like Nissan's new I-CON system, short for Integrated CONtrol. The system uses the same six buttons for the climate controls and a drive mode selector. Select "AIR CON" mode and those six buttons become standard climate controls. Choose the "D-MODE" and those buttons control Normal, Sport and Eco drive mode settings, as well as information about those settings. The Eco mode has an Eco graph that awards stars based on driving efficiency, and another button gives fuel economy in various intervals. The Sport mode has a graphic boost gauge, and the Normal mode has a graphic torque display. A separate Drive Info button displays an hour meter, a trip odometer, and a g force grid. All these displays are cool, but none of the graphics are defined with information such as g forces or turbo PSI. All in all, I-CON is a cool system, but graphic values would improve its usefulness.
#1. It's a fun and kitschy entry-level value
The 2011 Nissan Juke is more fun to drive than any economy car, while also offering a great new engine that combines pep with frugal fuel economy. The interior has the room of a subcompact hatchback, not a crossover SUV, making it somewhat useful but not overly spacious. The available all-wheel-drive system is surprisingly sophisticated for a vehicle at this price point and it adds a measure of slippery road security. With its odd design, the Juke will appeal to young buyers who want to make a personal statement. No matter what you think about the looks, though, the Juke's performance is pleasantly engaging and its price is easy to swallow.
You may also be interested in...
Nissan Issues Check, Apology for 2011 Nissan Juke AWD Fuel Capacity Issue
Nissan Juke: Nissan's MPG Secret Weapon
Nissan Juke Dodges Awkward Styling for Big Sales
Nissan Juke: The New Face of Nissan
Nissan Cube, Juke Latest New Cars to Offer Vinyl Graphics
Autobytel Fast Five: Best MPG SUVs for 2012