Juking around

Nissan’s funky crossover offers more than eye-catching style

June 15, 2011
by Tony Whitney

One thing Nissan’s sporty (and interestingly named) Juke crossover utility vehicle (CUV) doesn’t lack is panache. It turns heads everywhere because, like this automaker’s rather curious Cube model, it’s a clear result of “out of the box” thinking. It just doesn’t look much like anything else out there.

It’s not weird and quirky by any stretch of the imagination—just different and innovative with its bulging wheel arches, bug-eyed headlight nacelles and not-a-straight-line-anywhere sculpturing. The running and turn signal lighting is little more than a glazed pair of “streaks” atop the hood and obviously make use of the latest projector beam technology.

Clearly, the styling is aimed to appeal to younger buyers and this is being achieved, but fleet operators with businesses that are high on design and fashion should take a close look at it too. According to figures released by analyst JD Power, 56.2 percent of Juke buyers are women.

Original the Juke may be, but it competes in one of Canada’s most intensively-contested market segments. CUV rivals include the Chevrolet Equinox, Ford Escape, Honda CR-V, Hyundai Tucson, Mitsubishi RVR, Subaru Forester, Toyota RAV4, VW Tiguan and maybe even a couple more. The Juke will have to fight hard to establish a solid spot among adversaries like these. To add to the identity confusion in this market, some of these products (including the Juke) are beginning to be termed “subcompact urban crossovers”.

The vehicle is based heavily on a concept model shown a couple of years back at the Geneva auto show called “Quazana”. This name, thankfully, was shelved, but the vehicle seems very close to the prototype, at least to look at.

The styling is bold to say the least, but there is a functionality about many aspects of this vehicle. The massive integral front bumper, which is very much a part of this new Nissan’s identity, has enough clearance to avoid scraping those overly-high concrete marker slabs strip mall architects insist on placing at every parking spot. The same applies to the rear, though this should not be considered any kind of off roader with massive ground clearance. Nissan has other products for that role.

Spacious and practical
It’s a practical rig and though it looks trim and compact, it seems to have lots of room everywhere. The carpeted cargo area is much larger than it seems at first glance—especially with the rear seats folded flat. Under the cargo area there’s a deep recess with lots of room in it and this is very useful when there are four occupants on board.

There is a rear cargo cover, but it is not very well conceived and turned out to be fiddly to remove and replace. It has to be removed for bulky loads, so it’s something a Juke owner might have to do fairly often.

Once the cover is out of the way, there’s room for surprisingly bulky packages. The profile of the rear window, which is almost bulbous, helps here too. It doesn’t intrude into the cargo area as with many products in this class. While on this topic, the rear of the Juke looks very trim and attractive, possibly even better than the more radically-styled front.

Pioneering powerplant
The Juke is the first Nissan in North America to make use of the company’s new 188-horsepower, 1.6-litre, four-cylinder, turbocharged and direct injected aluminum powerplant. This is a lively and advanced little unit and seems perfect for the Juke. Look at its spec sheet in any detail and you might think it’s been developed for racing, but it’s very economical too and a pleasure to have under the hood.

Buyers have a choice of 6-speed manual or CVT (continuously variable) transmissions and the CVT might turn out to be the most popular option. After all, a six-speed transmission with a small engine seems like technological overkill.

There are six Juke variants, depending on trim level and all have air conditioning, power windows and locks and a trip computer. All Jukes also have electric power-assisted steering, electronic stability control, traction control and anti-lock brakes (all discs)—nice to get on a vehicle that starts at under $20,000. The basic Juke has front-wheel drive; all-wheel drive is available, but it will push up the price quite a bit. Even so, most fleet buyers with weather challenges to deal with would opt for the AWD regardless of cost.

Nissan matched the Juke’s innovative exterior with something similar inside. It’s quite a feast for the eyes of high-tech fans, but everything works well and the layout is very good. The fit and finish inside and out, incidentally, is on a par with more expensive Nissan vehicles and a step ahead of some class rivals. There’s a great audio setup and an excellent compact navigation system, though this nav unit is expensive. It’s a $2,600 option, the same price as the one in an upscale Nissan 370Z sports car!

One younger enthusiast who checked out the Juke said that he’d order a basic Juke and buy one of the stand-alone GPS systems which can be had for as little as $200 at retailers like Costco. Automakers probably need to spend a little time developing less expensive navigation systems for products like this.

The available climate control system is an interesting piece of design work and involves the use of a centrally-located LCD screen, which is also used for other functions, including fuel economy reminders. We judged this system to be a solid step forward in automotive control design and with the low cost of electronics these days, it probably didn’t add too much to the overall price of this vehicle.

The upper end sound systems in this product have iPod USB hookups, but not the entry level model. Many lower-end vehicles have iPod connections as standard because the youth market wants this feature and doesn’t expect to pay extra for it. The climate control system, which works in conjunction with a neat LCD screen on the dash, is especially worthy of praise.

All Jukes have Bluetooth mobile phone compatibility, which should please fleet managers. It’s always surprising to check out an otherwise well-equipped vehicle and find that to get Bluetooth, you have to move further up the model range and even, in some cases, opt for an expensive navigation system package.

Driving beyond expectation
The Juke is fun to drive, handles well and has plenty of pickup for a vehicle with a small four-cylinder engine. The ride is supple, but comfortable and freeway cruising is quiet and reasonably free of tire and wind noise. It’s easy to get in and out of thanks to large doors that swing wide and adult passengers in the rear seat won’t complain much, even on fairly long trips. Interestingly, the handles to the rear doors are cleverly concealed in such a way that at first glance, the Juke looks like a two-door vehicle.

We liked the fact that the front seats have good bolster support both around the back and at thigh level. The steering wheel is just the right diameter and thickness and on upmarket versions, it carries many controls that you’d normally have to stretch to the central console for.

It’s a very cool design that should have appeal for all kinds of people, not just the much-coveted youth market. Nissan has long had a little more design flair than most of its competitors (this goes for the upscale Infiniti models too) and it really shows with the Juke. But a well-optioned Juke can become expensive and there are probably better buys around for the seriously thrifty, like the Kia Soul, for example, if AWD isn’t a necessity.

For the buyer wanting to combine high style with compactness, people and cargo space, operating economy and practicality, the new Nissan Juke might just be out there on its own.