GET OFF THE ROAD — Nissan Juke

Even in a cool climate for car buying, crossover utility vehicles remain a hot destination. So many buyers have migrated from traditional sport utility vehicles to these car-based alternatives that crossovers are currently the fourth largest segment in the auto industry.
Where most crossovers emphasize function, Nissan’s new 2011 Juke puts the accent on fun. For evidence of this drivers need look no further than their feet.
Stomp on the gas pedal with authority and Juke responds in a way that’s far more sporty than sensible. The main reason is the motor: a 1.6-liter direct injection, turbocharged four-cylinder. Rated at 188 horsepower with 177 lb.-ft. of torque, the lively, turbo four can be linked to either a Continuously Variable Transmission or a six-speed manual.
The stick shift gives a definite boost to Juke’s sporting quotient. Though not as engaging as the manual, the CVT works well too, particularly in Sport mode. EPA estimates for fuel economy are 27 miles per gallon city; 32 mpg highway (FWD CVT); 25/30 mpg (AWD CVT); 24/31 (FWD manual). These are decent numbers, considering the amount of fun and function in the turbo Juke.
The new Nissan is offered in base S, mid-level SV and top rung SL trims with prices ranging from $18,960 to $24,550 (plus $750 destination).
Juke is not designed for hard core off-roading, though light trail work is easily within its reach. The torque vectoring AWD system has the capacity to channel power not only front to back, but also side to side across the rear axle as needed, to maximize grip. Traction is improved on wet or dry roads, and really, the only drawback I see with the AWD system is that it isn’t offered with the manual transmission — a disappointment, for shift-it-yourself enthusiasts.
SV and SL models are equipped with a drive mode selector that allows the driver to choose between Eco, Normal and Sport modes. Each setting carries different mapping for transmission, throttle and gearing. In sport mode, for example, Juke holds gears longer between shifts, the gas pedal is more sensitive to input, and the suspension and steering tighten up for more spirited response.
Juke is built on a modified version of Nissan’s “B” platform, fitted with an independent strut front suspension. Front drive models match this with a torsion bar rear suspension, while AWD Jukes get a multi-link setup in back. Both versions pack a stabilizer bar, and both prove very agile.
Standard Vehicle Dynamic Control with Traction Control helps keep the crossover heading where you point it. The electronic power steering has a comfortable heft. When the turbo kicks in, the 1.6-liter four comes on with a rush. It creates some torque steer in the process, so drivers are advised to get a good grip on the wheel before pouring on the power.
The center console takes center stage inside. The design of the console’s forward section echoes the shape of a motorcycle’s gas tank. The driver’s straight ahead view features a set of deep-set dials for speedometer and tach, with a wedge-like insert in between. An external shade shields the readouts from sunlight washout. Wide, C-pillars cast a blind spot on the driver’s 3/4 rear view, though the outside mirrors are big enough to compensate. The layout of switchgear is generally easy to reach and operate. However, on models fitted with the optional navigation system, the control buttons for sound system and nav are a small target to hit in a moving vehicle.
Front seats are comfortable, though Nissan doesn’t include inboard armrests for driver or front passenger. The front row will hold 6-foot tall occupants easily, but rear seats run short of legroom if those passengers are similarly sized. Cargo space with back seats in place is 10.5 cubic feet. Folding down the rear seats reveals almost 36 cubic feet of storage space. Nissan says that a set of golf clubs fit east/west in back.
Juke takes a non-traditional approach to the large and growing market for compact crossovers. Its trim dimensions, supple chassis and responsive engine lend it an agile, athletic feel. Nissan is betting that this, combined with the car’s styling, will resonate with Juke’s target market of 18-34 year old males. Few could argue Juke’s fun to drive factor. That may be the key to its success, as it’s a quality that’s traditionally in short supply in this segment. — Dan Lyons, Motor Matters

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