You have to give Nissan credit — the carmaker isn't afraid to think outside the box when it comes to design. To wit: the Seussian-looking Cube and the Murano CrossCabriolet SUV convertible. The most recent addition to that mix is the Juke crossover, which was introduced as a 2011 model. We finally got our chance to try one with the new Juke Nismo.
Appearance: Like those other Nissans we've mentioned, the funky Juke can invoke a love-it-or-hate-it reaction. (Lyra's young son blurted: "Ugh, that's an ugly car.") It's certainly unusual and striking. For example, the protruding lamps on the hood are for the parking lights and turn signals. The headlights are below the hood lamps and flank the grille. Then our tester, the Nismo trim, sports a six-pack of LED daylight running lights on each side beneath the grille. Aside from the strange lighting layout, Nissan's compact crossover has an athletic look — Peter likens it to an animal ready to pounce — that includes large fender flares, a sloping roofline and L-shaped taillights. The Nismo adds a body kit that includes a functional hatch-top spoiler, air dam and side skirts. Unlike the regular Juke, the Nismo comes in only three colors: black, white and gray. Another touch: red mirrors and red-accent body lines. The package is set off by two-tone, 10-spoke alloy wheels with performance tires and a chrome exhaust tip.
Performance: The Nismo is the sport version of an already-sporty crossover. You'd think there would be a lot more power, right? Well, you'll have to make do with wringing 9 more horses (for 197) out of the 1.6-liter turbo direct-injected 4-cylinder. Still, we found it to be a fun and rev-happy 197, with strong acceleration, taut handling, a smooth-shifting 6-speed manual shifter (the throws are a tad long, though) and good steering feedback. The Nismo-tuned suspension gives you a lower and stiffer ride. For being a tall and small vehicle, there's minimal lean. The ride reminded Lyra of a Mini Cooper.
Interior: For a small crossover, the cabin is relatively roomy up front, with decent headroom and legroom. The Juke seats five, but four is more realistic. Our tester had model-specific upgrades such as "Nismo" seat embroidering, red interior stitching, including on the thick Alcantara-covered steering wheel and shifter knob. Other Nismo details: The tach glows red, while the speedometer glows blue. Nice. The Juke's controls are mostly simple and in easy reach, with backlit buttons that glow red. The Juke's I-Con system handles A/C and drive modes (Normal, Sport, Eco). There is an optional navigation system, but the 5-inch LCD screen is on the too-small side. Perhaps the best feature of the interior is the Nismo's faux-suede front bucket seats, which are as comfortable and supportive as some seats found in high-end sports cars.
Our 3 favorites
Hidden handle: Rear door latch is a nice touch, reminiscent of some of the competition.
Sport seats: They may be the best you'll find in this price range.
Nismo: The body kit, red accents and aggressive stance.
Affordable: So much fun for a reasonable price (Nismo starting price is $22,990).
Handling: Sport-tuned suspension and steering assist.
Race-inspired: Red leather "tape" to mark the top of the steering wheel. (Just like in a race car.)
The bottom line: Do you like to stand out in a crowd or parking lot? If so, the Juke, especially the Nismo, is for you. Don't expect a lot of cargo room or all-out performance from the Nismo, but it has fun to spare.