2011 Nissan Juke

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I like small, quick cars and am drawn to ‘funky’ designs like the charming new Fiat 500 and the stylish Mini, but I have to admit I’m not sure about the Juke.   Car designers have to gingerly walk a tightrope, carefully balancing between winning buyer approval or risk forever being memorialized for penning industrial art disasters like the Pontiac Aztek, and the Juke’s design is certainly polarizing.

Nissan’s all-new-for 2011 Juke is a brave styling effort to roll out something completely different.  It’s styling is quirky, to put it mildly.  Oblong headlights with wedge-shaped turn signal/side light housings that bulge atop the hood/fender crease, and smile-shaped front grille give the Juke a cartoon-like face.  Combined with sheetmetal that bulges prominently at the front and rear fenders and a severely truncated rear hatch line, the Juke has compelled a few observers to describe it as ‘frog-like’.

Courageous styling continues inside the cabin.  On top of the dashboard is an ‘eyebrow’ over the main gauges, and the centrestack suggests the Juke is aimed squarely at the X-Box generation – it looks like a boom box.  (Despite style not to my taste, the controls are all very legible and easy to understand.)  Rounding off this unusual styling exercise is the console, which has the shape of a motorcycle’s gas tank.

Unlike Subaru’s excellent full time all-wheel-drive system, Nissan has fitted the Juke SL AWD with three ways to deliver power to the road:  2WD (two-wheel drive, for dry pavement), AWD-V (for paved or slippery roads) and AWD (for slippery roads.)  The owner’s manual doesn’t describe clearly the difference between AWD-V and AWD modes, but cautions against certain operations when in AWD.  (We surmise from this warning that in AWD, a differential may be locked.)

Further adding to the ‘tunability’ of the Juke are three Drive modes that electronically change the ‘feel’ of the car:  Normal (the default on start up), Sport and ECO.  Depending on the mode selected, the engine, transmission (CVT) and steering are programmed to have different characteristics, with throttle response (and acceleration) the most obvious difference when toggling through the settings.

I was hoping the Juke was going to be a bargain basement Subaru WRX, but that’s not the case.  The 188 horsepower turbocharged Juke has remarkably entertaining straight-line acceleration, but this is no high performance rally wagon.  Indeed, the suspension is sporting and handling is responsive, but the Juke falls short in delivering that integrated, fun feel that price point competitors such as the Mazda3 Sport and Volkswagen Golf do so well.

Our demo unit was equipped with a continuously-variable automatic transmission, which I’m a huge fan of.  I like their smoothness and superior fuel efficiency.  We put the Juke AWD through a short series of hard acceleration tests on a packed snow covered parking lot, and the Senor Frog wasn’t always happy.

In AWD-V (Normal mode), foot to the floor acceleration from a standing start results in rapid acceleration – at first; then the car’s electronic controls harshly rein in the car’s power, causing a noticeable pause while trying to regain control, then whoooosh, they unleash the turbo again until things get frantic, then power is cut again as the electronics attempt to control things again.  Similar, erratic, power on-power off antics occur when in ECO mode.  But switch to Sport mode and the Juke’s electronic controls work much more smoothly, allowing rapid acceleration without the electronically induced hystrionics.

The CVT transmission puts another dampener on a driver’s sporting use.  Although manual shifting is possible with six gears available, the transmission doesn’t allow the driver to hold the revs anywhere near the 6500 rpm redline, upshifting on its own accord well before 6000 rpm.

Manufacturers have made terrific strides in build quality lately (the new Fiat 500 and Kia Sportage for example have been impressive), but our demo vehicle was disappointing.  Some plastic switches (like those for the map/overhead lights) feel flimsy, and our Juke came with mysterious creaks from the dash/A-piller and headliner.

Despite these shortcomings, the Nissan Juke can be an attractive package for those who are charmed by its funky style, need a practical hauler, want lively acceleration with good fuel economy in a city-friendly compact size.  (Second row seats fold flat, unlike some competitors, our tester returned 9.8l/100 km in city driving with acceleration tests, and the Juke is some 3.0 in. shorter than the VW Golf.)  Sportier alternatives are the aforementioned wagon/hatchbacks, Mazda3 Sport ($26,625, automatic trans.), Subaru Impreza Sport $$25,795 automatic trans.), and Volkswagen Golf (Sportline, automatic trans. $25,300).

Vehicle: 2011 Nissan Juke SL AWD Transmission:  Automatic CVT -continuously variable, selectable all-wheel-drive with Sport mode
Type of vehicle: Compact crossover suv Tire Size:  215/55R17 Michelin Pilot Alpin winter
Engine: 1.6-litre DOHC turbocharged 4-cylinder Price:  $26,648
Power: 188 hp at 5600 r.p.m.177 lb-ft at 2000 r.p.m. Fuel Consumption rating L/100km:  8.0 city/6.6 hwy.  As-tested:  9.8 combined.

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