Nissan Juke - mini ute, major cool

This crazy bug-looking mini-crossover pulled up in front of the United terminal at the airport, looking like a vision with its California plates and West Coast style. Its design draws from motorcycles and rally cars, but is most remembered by the big yellow mantis eyes that are visible from the helm. Four doors, Beetle shell, and a bit of Z DNA throw us to a future where utes are mini and Jukes are cool. I hopped in.

When the Juke was introduced at Rockefeller Center last March, one had to wonder if Nissan had unplugged from the Leaf’s grid and rolled too far off the trail. The company was aiming to lure youth with a cool car that crosses the all-road performance and fun of a European rally car with the screaming delight of a motorcycle. If commentary while driving the Juke is any indication, the car is as likely to attract as many fun-loving empty nesters as avant garde college kids.

Crossing the illuminated “Juke-lit” kick plates takes passengers to a world of two-wheelers and technology. Elements like the two-coat pained center console that was designed to remind us of a fuel tank, matching bits on the doors, hooded instrument binnacle, and piano black gloss around the center controls brings in motorcycle style. Bolstered two-tone sport seats, gear selector high up like in a race car, and push button ignition (with passive entry) would comfort performance drivers. A rear view camera, in-dash navigation, real-time traffic monitoring, power moonroof, automatic climate control, and 60/40 split/fold rear seats add convenience. Heated leather seats would only make a better perch from which to sling this shot down the road.
Revving more like a motorcycle than a motorcar, the 1.6-litre Direct Injection DOHC four-cylinder, fortified by a turbo, generates 188 horsepower and 177 lb.-ft. of torque. Front-drive models are available with a six-speed manual transmission, but all-wheel-drive funsters like our test car come standard with a continuously-variable (CVT) automatic. A manual shift mode simulates shift points so the CVT behaves less like a weedeater and more like a Getrag-6. Getting major bang for minor buck, the little turbo banger turns in 25/30-MPG city/hwy.

Juke’s rally car heritage can be found in the way its four wheels act as electronically-enabled stabilizers. Nissan’s “torque-vectoring” all-wheel-drive can shift power between the front and rear axles, as well as side to side between the rear wheels depending on where the system detects the most friction.

Controlled through a cool screen in the console, there are also three different throttle, transmission, and steering response settings. “Normal” is used for everyday driving and lets the CVT move through its range at will. “Eco” mode reduces throttle sensitivity to conserve fuel. My favorite, “Sport” mode, quickens the steering, moves the CVT through pre-set gear ratios as in a typical automatic transmission, and makes the throttle much more sensitive. Punch the gas, and the car reacts. Put it into a corner and a big curve-eating grin comes across your face.

The Juke torque-vectored its way through winter’s anger with skill, never putting a wheel wrong even when old ladies in old cars were kissing face with ditches and fast food restaurant dumpsters. Powertrain migrations could easily be confused with a Subaru’s in the way they masterfully make use of every bit of friction to move the car in one’s intended direction. Besides poor weather performance, the AWD system helps control understeer on dry pavement, giving the Juke remarkable balance. When AWD can’t hold its own, four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes, stability control, and grippy 17” sport tire-tread alloys stabilize rapid demons.

Wearing snow shoes or track shoes, good on slippery streets, and a real star with torque vectoring AWD on the slinky twisties, the Juke is a pro. Like an automotive Johnny Weir, it is a little flamboyant in its look, but brings game and is the consummate professional on the fly. Impressed, I get out. With an as tested price of $24,260, competitors include the Mini Countryman, Subaru Impreza, and Jeep Compass.

2011 Nissan Juke SV
Five-passenger, AWD Crossover.
Powertrain: 188-HP 1.6-litre T4,
CVT auto trans.
Suspension f/r: Ind./Ind.
Wheels: 17”/17” f/r.
Brakes: disc/disc fr/rr with ABS.
Must-have features: Cool performance.
Manufacturing: Japan.
Fuel economy: 25/30-MPG city/hwy.
As-tested price: $24,260.

By Casey Williams - MyCarData