2011 Nissan Juke SL AWD

Review and photos by
Chris Chase, Autos.ca

The Nissan Juke is the latest new vehicle that aims to combine sporty driving dynamics with four-door practicality and all-wheel drive traction. It’s in the same vein, if at a much different price point, as the Acura ZDX and the one that started it all, the BMW X6.

2011 Nissan Juke SL AWD

2011 Nissan Juke SL AWD

Those two luxury models are odd enough in their execution, but like Matthew Good says in his song, The Future is X-Rated, “Things just keep getting weirder and weirder.”

The Juke is based on a subcompact platform, shared by Nissan and its parent company Renault, that also underpins the Cube, Versa and Leaf. That’s not so strange, but the Juke’s calling card is its whacked-out styling, which incorporates elements borrowed from the Mixim concept car, a high-performance electric coupe shown at the Frankfurt Auto Show in 2007.

Unlike the Mixim concept, the Juke is not electric (though some onlookers made faces like they were being tasered); instead, it’s powered by a direct fuel injected and turbocharged 1.6-litre four-cylinder engine that makes 188 horsepower and 177 lb-ft of torque. Transmission choices are a six-speed manual or continuously variable transmission (CVT) in front-wheel drive versions, while choosing all-wheel drive gets you no choice but the CVT.

The all-wheel drive setup is unique in this price range (MSRPs start at just under $20,000 and the top-line SL AWD, as my tester was kitted out, comes in under $27,000 to start) in that its “torque vectoring” ability can shuttle power to the outside rear wheel in corners to improve the car’s handling. It’s similar to Acura’s Super Handling (SH) AWD, but at a more accessible price.

The best part is that it works. Tackle a curve like a highway on-ramp with your right foot deep in the throttle and you can feel the rear end pushing the car through the corner, helping to negate the understeer that is the more common trait of most front-wheel drive-based vehicles when presented with a challenging turn. One trick, though, is to turn the stability control off first; otherwise, it and the rear differential fight each other, the diff trying to do its job, and the stability program assuming that dark times are surely nigh and therefore shutting down the party.

As Editor Greg Wilson said in his first drive of the Juke, it’s really a shame this trick all-wheel drive system can’t be combined with a manual transmission. The CVT is a decent one, as in other Nissans, and works unobtrusively in normal driving, but it encourages the droning engine note so common when accelerating at wider throttle openings.

However, that annoyance can be mitigated by using the Integrated Control (I-CON) system, which will call up three different drive-train control settings. There’s Normal, naturally, as well as “Eco” and “Sport.” You can guess that Eco dials back throttle response to encourage fuel-efficient driving, but it turns the Juke into a slug. Sport mode, though, sharpens throttle response and the CVT’s behaviour for more satisfying performance; with this setting engaged, the Juke will respond to aggressive driving by shifting through six “gear” ratios, instead of running in variable mode, which makes the Juke far more entertaining to charge around in. You can also shift through these ratios yourself by moving the shift lever into the ubiquitous manual shift gate.

The engine is perky, but I’d hesitate to call the Juke fast; I’m inclined to blame the CVT’s usual trick of masking a motor’s potential. The 177 lb-ft of torque peaks at a low 2,000 rpm, so off-the-line performance is impressive; there’s some turbo lag, however, and the turbo’s tendency to spool up a second or two after the fact can make the Juke tough to drive smoothly in stop-and-go situations.

As befits a car with sporting intentions, the Juke’s ride is a hard one. I really wish carmakers would get over this notion that a stiff suspension automatically equals sporty, because it doesn’t. Not that I think the Juke should ride like grandpa’s ’95 Buick Century, but the spring rates could stand to be dialled back a long way without wrecking this car’s sporting personality.

The interior presents a far more conventional appearance than the outside, which is almost a disappointment considering how “Plan 9 From Outer Space” the thing looks from the front. Still, conventional analog gauges in Nissan’s usual white-on-black scheme are easy to read.

The climate control buttons and knobs do double duty with the I-CON drive mode system, and shuffling between the two is as easy as touching one of the buttons just above the main controls. SL models get automatic temperature control. My tester had the $2,600 navigation option, which replaces the Juke’s standard stereo with a combo navi-stereo head unit that incorporates a back-up camera. It sounds good and the navi display is quite nice, but the buttons and knobs are small.

The Juke is a small vehicle, and its 2,530 mm (99.6 in.) wheelbase and 1,765 mm (69.5 in.) dictate a snug interior, especially in back, where you’ll find less leg- and headroom than in a Versa, which rides on a three-inch-longer wheelbase. Getting in and out of the rear requires care, unless you want to hit your head on the doorframe, which takes a dive down along with the tapered rear roofline. That same design element takes a chunk out of cargo space too. At 297 litres (10.5 cu. ft.) with the rear seats up, and 1,017 litres (35.9 cu. ft.) with them folded, the Juke offers less trunk space than a Versa hatch, with its 504 litres seats up, and 1,427 when folded.

The Juke’s Natural Resources Canada fuel consumption ratings are 8.0/6.6 L/100 km (city/highway); my tester averaged a hair below 12 L/100 km in city driving, though cold weather was a factor.

My test car’s price came to $29,248 including the as-mentioned navigation package, which also includes leather seating, six upgraded speakers, subwoofer, satellite radio and a USB input port.

After a week behind the wheel, I resigned myself to the hard ride, got used to the tight interior and actually began to like the Juke, but its front-end styling, which I’d politely describe as incongruous, never grew on me. (The back end, on the other hand, is sharp, with its 370Z-inspired taillights and short overhang.) I do hope the torque vectoring all-wheel drive system makes its way to other Nissan and Infiniti models, because it’d be a nice addition to a sport sedan like the G37x.

The Juke certainly makes a statement, and I don’t doubt that it will appeal to a significant group of crossover shoppers. One thing’s for sure, though: the Juke makes standing out from the crowd a whole lot less expensive.

Pricing: 2011 Nissan Juke SL AWD

Base price: $26,648

Options: $2,600 (Leather Navi package of leather seats, navigation system, satellite radio, rear-view monitor, USB connectivity, Rockford Fosgate audio system with subwoofer and upgraded speakers)

A/C tax: $100

Freight: $1,560

Price as tested: $30,808

Crash test results

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)

Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS)

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