If you're in the market for an interesting, cheap car, your choices are pretty limited. Most everything with an MSRP below $20k these days is about as much fun as kissing your sister. Sober. So what's the budget-limited car guy to do? Buy a ragged-out Mustang GT? Sure, that's one option. But if you're a delightful nonconformist with a taste for the bizarre, perhaps you should steer your rear to a Nissan dealer. First, let's make one thing clear. The Juke has styling that you either love or hate. Not much middle ground, for sure. Personally, I think the styling is a little bizarre and derivative all at the same time, but it's better than every rolling Ambien out there for preventing boredom. The front end looks like a tugboat, the back end looks like a Volvo V50, and viewed in profile from the side it's like a pregnant GT-R. Personally I think it's a design that's a lot more cohesive looking in person than it is in photos; the interplay of all the angles and concave surfaces make it a vehicle that really draws your eyes. How could it look better? Easy. Drop it 2" and give it some good wheels. Damnjdm did a photoshop rendering of a Juke slammed on some puke-green TE37's, and it looks boss as hell. A black Juke with deep-dish TE37's, a good drop, and some yellow covers over the headlights, and you've got a mean looking car. So aesthetically, the Juke has got some serious potential. Thankfully, Nissan didn't cheap out and all versions of the Juke have attractive 17" alloy wheels. What's really weird? Those plastic slivers on the top of the fenders aren't headlights; the giant round lights in the bumper are. Still, neat styling details abound: like the lower front valence with three random round holes punched in it, the hidden rear door handles (an idea probably jacked from the Alfa Romeo 156 wagon, but Nissan will probably swear it's from the old-school Pathfinder), the organic-looking taillights (which look like Volvo), the bulbous front fenders (Mazda RX-8?) - the list goes on and on. Nissan even says the side-glass is supposed to resemble the visor of a race helmet - I don't really see it, though. But styling is a pretty clear-cut issue; you probably like it or you don't, and me telling you about it isn't going to change your mind. So let's move on. What's it like inside, and what's it like to drive? The Juke's interior is a mixture of great success and disappointing failure. Still, for the price point this car sells at, it's pretty darn nice. On the plus side: It's an interesting design. The center console is styled to remind of a motorcycle's gas tank and center section, and those deep cupholders will take a large cup of coffee like a champ. The "motorcycle fairing" (I don't get it; Nissan doesn't even make bikes) cover over the gauge pod does a good job of protecting the instruments from sun wash-out, which is always a pet peeve of mine. The steering wheel looks like the same one they put in the 370Z, without the leather. On the other hand, there are some downsides. The Juke is mostly Versa (aka Renault Clio/Modus) underneath, which means it's not an especially large car inside. Now, I"m a big dude, but this car strikes me as remarkably tiny. There's not much spare room for things like elbows and knees in the Juke - it's all very snug. Especially the back seat; which could induced a claustraphobia-based panic attack in a matter of minutes for large people. The quality of minor switchgear (like the map light switches, mirror switches, that sort of thing) feels very lowest-bidder, and some controls are pretty tiny. Yours truly, wondering where you keep your head at if you're a back-seat passenger. "Sitting behind myself" planted my knees pretty firmly in the back of the front seats. However, much like a New Beetle (a vehicle this car has a lot of characteristics in common with, as I'll discuss later) the roofline gives the Juke a huge amount of front headroom and almost none in the back. There's a hatchback, but not a lot of space unless you fold the rear seats down. Being a vehicle aimed at 20-somethings, it's got a lot of tech goodies standard and available. There's an aux-in port on the front of the head unit, Bluetooth phone pairing, available navigation, a 6-speaker Rockford Fosgate stereo with a built-in subwoofer, a USB port for iPod integration as well as other devices, satellite radio, etc. Even base models get an aux and USB port, which is nice. Upper level SL's get heated leather seats, among other goodies. Base-model interiors (like the S I drove) can be a bit gray and drab, but the uplevel SL gets a little funky, especially if you get a red one. You also get a nifty "drive selector) control on upper levels than changes engine and transmission characteristics as well as electronic climate control. What's more interesting than the styling, though, is the drivetrain. The Juke is a fairly unconventional car. The Juke has a brand-new motor not yet in any other Nissans or Renaults, and it's probably the best part about the Juke. Displacing only 1.6L, the MR16DDT is packed full of cool technology. All aluminum, gasoline direct injection with a single small turbocharger and air-to-air intercooler, there's also twin independent variable cam timing, sodium-filled exhaust valves, and a relatively high 9.5:1 compression ratio. It spools out 188 horsepower and 177 lb-ft of torque, and the power delivery is remarkably punchy on the low-end. Turbo lag is there, but just enough so you know it's got a compressor, then the torque kicks in and the Juke scoots off a lot faster than you'd expect. The performance claim is a 6.8 second 0-60 time for a CVT FWD model - I didn't bring a stopwatch, but it's certainly not slow. And consider what kind of engines other manufacturers give you in this price range: Scion's 2.5L Camry 4, VW's 2.0L 8v and 2.5L 20v, Honda's 1.8L and 1.5L R motors - again, surprising technology for the price range. What's really weird is the transmission and drivetrain choices. You have a choice between a six-speed manual or a CVT, and front-wheel drive or electronic torque-vectoring AWD. However, before you ask, no you cannot get it with a manual and AWD. Have a minute to cry to yourself. Want a stick? FWD only. Want AWD? CVT only. Hey, at least the turbo motor is standard. Also, if you get a FWD Juke, it's got a solid rear axle. If it's AWD, it's 5-link independent. I'd imagine the Juke factory is a bit of a mess, than - considering in other countries there are three other engine choices! Still, the model I drove (A FWD CVT) seems like the worst of the powertrain choices. You don't get to row your own, and it won't do donuts in the snow. But it's not without merit - Exhibit A, merging onto the highway. Plant the gas down an onramp and the motor snaps up to about 3,000 rpm, the turbo spools and there's enough power to bring out a bit of torque steer. The motor continues to hold around 4,000 rpm as the gearing compensates, and all of a sudden you're up to 80. Passing power is this car's forte; it'll squirt past slower traffic with surprising quickness. It's no Mazda 2.3 DISI-Turbo (Speed3) motor, but for the size of the car it's spot-on. It reminds me quite a bit of the twin-scroll turbo Cooper S motor, which is pretty heavy praise. Downsides to the powertrain? Well, it's noisy. 1.6L is a pretty small motor, and pulling out makes the CVT shift it up to pretty high rpm's and stay there for a while. Road noise is quiet, but there's a lot of buzzing coming from the engine. The CVT has "gears", basically 6 preset ratios, which is slightly less useful than having an extra elbow. It won't take off in second, or downshift more than it feels is prudent, or upshift into top gear at low speeds, and there's not much engine braking to speak of. The Juke is actually a lot faster if you just leave it in "D" and floor it, chugging up to peak power RPM and staying there. Forcing a CVT to act like a planetary-gear automatic is silly. Why include a gearbox that's supposed to be more efficient than having gear ratios... then give it gear ratios? Still, I would imagine this engine with a larger turbocharger and a good tune would be quite wicked. It makes me hope for a 6MT FWD Versa SE-R with this engine. The ride is pretty good, too. 17" wheels and tires mean it doesn't really soak up irregularities like a Cadillac, but it's well controlled and there's a lot less roll than you'd expect. It's closer to hot hatch than mini SUV, but it can be a bit harsh as a result. Brakes are strong, but I wasn't driving the car on the track, and I doubt many will anyhow. So, the Juke is not perfect, but it's kinda fun. It's cramped, strange looking, a bit cheap, and perhaps searching for a purpose. On the other hand, it's unique, fun to drive, relatively efficient, packed with cool tech, and reasonably priced. What I see it as, really, is the replacement for the New Beetle. That sounds pretty odd, but it's trying to do now what the new Beetle tried to do in 1998. Back then, retro was the cool thing - so it provided something delightfully retro, based on pedestrian underpinnings, with not a whole lot of practicality or logical reason to buy it besides "it was cool." It was a runaway success for a few years. Nissan is going after young people that are tired of driving Corollas and used Buicks and Scions and all that - giving people a little taste of everything that's hot today (CUV's, hot hatches, high-tech gadgets, rally reps, sport bikes) at a reasonable price. At that, it succeeds. From more objective measures, I'm not so sure. Still, besides the "divisive" styling, it's hard to see why the Juke won't sell well. Nissan dealers seem to be having trouble keeping them in stock, so maybe I'm looking for real depth in a market that people don't really even care. If you like it, by all means get one. If you don't, then by all means get something else. Like a Cube!
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