Lively performance; sporty handling; comfortable seats.
Polarizing styling; limited headroom in rear seat; too much hard plastic in cabin.
Infiniti described the design of its original FX-series crossover as a "Bionic Cheetah." We can only imagine Nissan's design dictum for the 2011 Nissan Juke was "Bionic Frog." Though certainly distinctive, the result has drawn its share of comments. But like many controversial designs including the Kia Soul, Nissan Cube and Scion xB, the new Juke has its fans, and they are quick to point out the Nissan's muscular, coupelike profile and its sporty driving dynamics.
One may rightly wonder what in the world the Juke would compete against. In this small pond of a segment, we'd see its chief rival being the even shorter but similarly sporty Mini Cooper Clubman S that also offers an enjoyable drive and some measure of practicality within a very small footprint. There's also the Clubman's upcoming rugged brother, the Mini Countryman, which features all-wheel drive (also available on the Juke). But at an estimated $30,000, the Countryman is a lot more money than the 2011 Nissan Juke, which carries a price tag that ranges from between $20,000 and $25,000, depending on equipment.
On the other end of the spending spectrum are the sub-$20,000 Ford Fiesta, Kia Soul, Mazda 2 and Scion xB, but although they are similarly small and funky, apart from the xB they don't come close to the Juke in terms of performance, and none offers the option of AWD.
To nobody's surprise, the 2011 Nissan Juke is targeted toward a young demographic. And once they take it for a spin, these hipsters might discover (as we did) that under the skin this frog is actually a fun-loving prince. Unexpectedly quick and agile, the Juke is much harder to joke about once you've spent some quality time with it.
The Juke has got some juice. Behind the Juke's big smile and below its bugged-out eyes beats a turbocharged 1.6-liter inline-4 that cranks out a healthy 188 horsepower and 177 pound-feet of torque. A continuously variable transmission (CVT) with manual-shift capability is standard in the price-leader Juke S, the trim level that we tested.
Give the command to hop to it and after a slight hesitation out of the blocks the Juke moves out strongly, and so strongly that the steering wheel wriggles a bit with torque steer as the car lunges ahead. The energetic little four-cylinder feels more like a larger, non-turbocharged engine, and we mean that in a good way. There's power across a broad range of rpm and not much whine from the turbo as it spools up (though a few of us like to hear more of it). At the test track the 2011 Nissan Juke sprinted to 60 mph in just 7.3 seconds and ran down the quarter-mile in 15.5 seconds — downright quick for a small crossover.
The combination of the inline-4 and the CVT gearbox is expectedly smooth, the first example of an engine this small that seems happy to work with a CVT. Part of the reason might be the CVT's ability to step down into alternate ratios for a quick burst of acceleration. The CVT also features manual-shift capability, which lets you hold a gear (sorry, "ratio") in order to keep the power on tap.
The Juke's braking performance was about average. The pedal provided a linear action with a pleasingly firm feel. At the test track the Juke came to a halt from 60 mph in 123 feet, a respectable number. For comparison a Cooper Clubman we tested posted a stopping distance of only 112 feet, while a Scion xB did the task in 124 feet.
As impressed as we were with the Juke's performance, we were disappointed by its fuel economy. Though official EPA estimates were not yet available as of this test, Nissan estimates 27 city and 32 highway mpg. We averaged just about 22 mpg. Granted, we had the Juke for just one weekend and it spent a fair amount of time in freeway traffic.
Cut the Juke loose on a twisty road and it is in its element, happily bounding from corner to corner. The well-weighted steering and buttoned-down suspension provide crisp response and sure tracking as you turn into a corner, while the big tires hang in there as you push it harder. Not bad from a car that looks like a frog. Running the Juke through the slalom, our track-testing jockey enthused that the Nissan was willing to be chucked between the cones.
Up front, the 2011 Nissan Juke provides surprisingly firm, well-bolstered seats. The driver seat is height-adjustable and the steering wheel tilts but doesn't telescope. Despite the minimal available adjustments, most staffers could find an ideal driving position. Shorter folks appreciated the ability to have a higher, more commanding view of the road that comes with utility-style vehicles like this one.
The backseats are also well-shaped and are high enough to provide good leg support even for taller passengers. But those over about 5-feet-9 might find headroom limited due to the Juke's sloping roof line.
Over broken pavement, the Juke's firmer underpinnings still manage to minimize the jolt of sharper impacts, and provide an agreeable balance between handling prowess and ride comfort. While cruising at higher freeway speeds, road and wind noise are noticeable, though not loud enough to be intrusive.
As we've mentioned, the Juke's seating position affords good sight lines out the front. The rising beltline, sloping roof line, cheeky C-pillars and smallish rear window make parallel parking a bit of a challenge, though the small size of the Juke helps.
Simple and familiar control layouts make acclimating to the 2011 Nissan Juke easy. The climate control has the familiar three knobs, while the wipers and lights are worked via the likewise time-tested stalks. The audio system also features steering-wheel-mounted controls and the iPod integration (the hook-up is located inside the glovebox) is intuitive. Sound quality from our base Juke's system was fairly clean at medium volumes, but cranking it up revealed muddy bass and not much separation.
A couple of shallow, open compartments at the front and rear of the center console give you a place to stash your parking cards and perhaps a small energy bar. The cupholders located between them are generously sized and in addition to your iced coffee are good for holding a cell phone and wallet.
In terms of cargo space, the Juke's styling costs it some functionality. With the rear seats up, there's about 10 cubic feet of cargo space available, but it's useful only for shorter items due to the tapering roof. That said, it still accommodated our golf bag and carry-on travel case (with barely a few inches to spare). Flip the seats down and you'll have 36 cubes, about 3 cubes more than a Mini Clubman or about twice as much space as a large sedan's trunk.
It is possible to put a rear-facing child seat in back, but only if the front passenger is no taller than about 5 feet 6. Of course, placing it facing the front allows a lot more room up front.
Design/Fit and Finish
Yes, the 2011 Nissan Juke's geo-amphibious front end will certainly polarize onlookers, but the profile struck us as unquestionably cool with its aggressive bulges around the wheels and tapering greenhouse. Along with the latter, the hidden rear door handles give this four-door crossover a sporty coupelike silhouette. Moving to the rear, it looks as if the Juke's taillights were swiped from a Volvo C30, but otherwise it's a totally unique look astern.
Inside the Juke, the cabin is a bit more restrained and harmonious, with pleasingly rounded forms, such as the dash top and the door release levers. Silver accents brighten things up but hard plastics abound. Though tasteful graining reduces some of the cheapness factor of said plastics, we wish Nissan had spent a few bucks padding the hard door armrests — up front they're thinly covered in cloth while in back they're naked.
Who should consider this vehicle
Those who enjoy a responsive little car and aren't afraid of looking different from the masses may find the 2011 Nissan Juke greatly appealing. And so might those who live in congested urban areas where parking spots are at a premium. The Juke, at 15 inches shorter than a Civic sedan, will fit into a lot of curbside spaces that most cars will have to pass up.