The Nissan Juke is a fun car to drive, in a jaunty, engaging way. Its modestly-sized engine is strong, made more powerful and efficient with direct gasoline injection, and acceleration is good. Its ride is fairly compliant but a bit bouncy, and that translates to some side-to-side body movement. Yet its steering response can be sharp, and it sticks to the pavement nicely. The NISMO performance-tuned variant, expected for 2013, offers genuine promise for enthusiast drivers.
The 1.6-liter turbocharged engine isn't new, but this is its first use in the United States. It accelerates convincingly up to 6400 rpm, where the rev limiter gently chokes the engine. Nissan claims that the full 177 foot-pounds of torque is available at 2000 rpm, and we trust they have charts from an engine dynamometer that say so. But there's a lot lost in the translation to the seat of a driver's pants, for example through the transmission. All we know is that when you floor it and watch the tach climb, you feel the strongest surge at about 3500 rpm. And when you floor it in a high gear at 2000 rpm, it feels like the torque stayed back there on the dyno bench.
This discrepancy is more pronounced with the CVT automatic. The six-speed manual still delivers the best acceleration, once you have the right gear. Yet the manual has its drawbacks. For one thing, there's torque steer (a sideways tug on the steering wheel) that doesn't exist with the CVT model under hard acceleration. For another, there's more noise, vibration and harshness in the Juke when a driver is working up and down through the gears with the manual.
We're still impressed by the responsiveness of the CVT. Technically, a CVT does not shift in steps like a conventional transmission, because its power transfer ratio varies constantly, keeping an optimum level for the engine and road speed. Yet the Juke CVT has six defined ranges, like speeds, and each can be selected manually. That makes a big difference in a small, lively car.
In a vehicle with a relatively short wheelbase, the cabin is going to feel the bumps more. In the Juke, you maybe feel them a little bit more than that. They're not sharp or harsh, but they are plentiful, and that translates into something the feels like sway or movement of the body. We'd call it a bit of flop more than discomfort. And still the Juke steers nicely in most circumstances, with accuracy and quick response, and It hugs every bit of the road. Its tires have a nice, large footprint for a car its size, and that has something to do with it.
The I-CON system, standard in all but the base Juke S, gives you three modes: Sport, Normal and Eco. Each mode changes the settings for steering effort and throttle (how much power for a given dip of the pedal). There's a noticeable performance difference between modes, especially with the CVT automatic, because with it I-CON changes the transmission's behavior as well.
Sport mode makes the gas pedal more responsive to movement, changes ranges in transmission more readily and makes the steering feel sharper. In Eco mode, the gas pedal is less responsive, the transmission works to optimize fuel economy rather than acceleration, and the sharp cornering gets duller. Don't expect immediate acceleration on a freeway in Eco mode, although you could hum along at 65 mph with the cruise control set, no worries. And if you're lightfooting it around town, Eco mode is great.
We didn't have a chance to test the traction in ice and snow, but we like the way the all-wheel drive works. Experience suggests that it will be a boon in sloppy conditions. The Juke's all-wheel drive is torque vectoring, meaning that it not only shifts power between the front and rear wheels, but also between the left or right wheels, as needed. This system can actually help rotate the vehicle through a curve and keep it tracking on the path determined by the steering.
There are paybacks with the all-wheel drive, of course. The Juke AWD has a smaller fuel tank than FWD models, because the all-wheel-drive mechanicals occupy some of the space used by the standard gas tank (11.8 gallons vs. the front-drive model's 13.2-gallon tank). Thus, the all-wheel-drive models have a shorter range.
They also get lower mileage. The AWD Juke is government-rated at 25 mpg City and 30 Highway, which is about what we got; closer to 25, actually, in the real world. That's not bad for all-wheel drive, and comparable to the similarly capable Mini Cooper Countryman. The FWD Juke is rated at 27 City, 32 Highway with the CVT. That's less than Nissan's Versa hatchback (28/34 mpg), and substantially less than one of Juke's obvious competitors, the Kia Soul (29/36).