Back in 1989 I spent some time blasting along the unpaved roads of the Southwest in a 1988 Toyota Celica All-Trac Turbo. A frequent thought: “What this thing really needs is more ground clearance.” That same year Pontiac displayed a sports car / SUV crossover as a concept. The Stinger was never produced, but it lingered within memories at GM and eventually provided some inspiration for both the Vibe and Aztek. Neither came close to the Stinger. Both lacked the chassis dynamics to fulfill the mission I had in mind.
And so it fell to Nissan to field the first compact crossover with the spirit of a sports car. Is the JUKE worth the two-decade wait?
Inside the JUKE, the distinctive styling continues, with a center console shaped and finished to resemble the fuel tank of a motorcycle. Matching trim can be found on the door-mounted armrests. These bits are available in red; in the silver of the tested car they don’t stand out nearly as much. Another sporty touch: the floating hood over the instruments. Other design elements don’t work as well. Nissan’s odd long-term affection for orange LCDs continues with much of the instrument panel lighting (though thankfully not the main instruments), and the graphics on the center stack’s multi-function display recall the excesses of the mid-1980s. Some of them might prove useful, or at least entertaining—screens include a boost gauge, a far too easily pegged two-dimensional G-meter, and fuel economy logging—but the screen is mounted just barely above the shifter, so far too low to be safely viewed while driving. The patterned light gray low-knap velour upholstery looks out of place inside such a painfully hip vehicle. It also starts looking dirty within seconds of cleaning it. Black and red/black upholstery are also offered—get one of those.
If you have to ask whether you’ll fit inside the JUKE, you can’t. Well, maybe you can. There’s enough legroom and headroom for drivers up to 6-2, maybe 6-3. But room for shoulders and hips is in short supply. The interior is compact to begin with, and the highly styled center console takes up the space some drivers like to place their right knee (I drive with my legs fairly straight, so this didn’t affect me). In back, though I’m only 5-9 my head brushes the headliner and my legs graze the front seatback (when the former is also positioned where I like it). With a tall driver in the front seat, the rear is best reserved for those 5-6 and under. No one in my five-person family is large, though, so we all fit without a hitch.
The JUKE’s front seats feel comfortable in casual driving; I found nothing to complain about in this area. Get jiggy with the JUKE, though, and their lack of lateral support quickly becomes evident. The seat’s bolsters, small to begin with, are spaced too widely for a slender driver. You sit crossover high not far from a relatively upright windshield. Add in the tight interior and the aforementioned high-mounted turn signals, and the view forward is like that in nothing else, and very much in keeping with the extroverted styling. The rear side windows are small, so while the view from the rear seat is open to the front it’s limo-like to the side. The cargo area is also compact—even a MINI Countryman can haul significantly more stuff. Still, I was able to squeeze in a mountain bike after removing its front wheel and folding the second row (the front seats had to be moved forward a bit to let the rear headrests by).
The JUKE’s consistency of character continues with the driving experience. A turbocharged and direct-injected 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine doesn’t put out much power below 3,500 rpm, but with the manual transmission responds quickly and rockets the 2,828-pound JUKE forward once past that mark, feeling like it’s kicking out well over the stated 188 horsepower. This engine is smooth and loves to rev, letting loose a loud sport bike-like “wreeeeeeee” as it does so. Turbo lag isn’t evident, just a lack of power at low rpm. This engine deserves a second home in a Miata-like sports car.
In addition to the six-speed manual, a CVT which can mimic a manually-shiftable six-speed automatic is also offered. The CVT blunts the engine’s pep considerably. The manual is much more fun, even if the lever’s action isn’t the slickest.
Fuel economy is quite good—as long as you don’t make heavy use of the turbo. The trip computer reported high 20s in both casual driving around town and on the highway (with a cruising speed of in the 70s). So the EPA ratings of 27/32 seem about right. Hypermiling the JUKE in the suburbs I managed 33.3. Doing the opposite I observed high teens.
Front-wheel-drive rocketships have well-known limitations, and the JUKE could serve as a poster child for the lot. Accelerate hard in a straight line, and the car pulls one way then the other—yes, it’s torque steer. Get on the gas in the mid-turn, and the inside front wheel far too easily loses traction. Traverse even the smallest bump or uneven expansion joint within said turn and all those horses are churning air. The obvious solution (aside from a better-designed suspension): all-wheel-drive. The available system even includes torque vectoring, to enable a little throttle-induced oversteer. But there’s a problem: all-wheel-drive is only offered with the CVT. Nissan should also offer it with the manual, perhaps even make it standard with the turbocharged engine. For those not into performance driving, and so not in need of more traction, a lesser engine would serve well enough. For those who want to replicate the responses of a weaker engine, “Eco” mode is a button tap away.
The JUKE also handles like it looks, with quick steering via a small diameter wheel and a willingness to turn. Dipping into the throttle tightens the car’s line. The small crossover is endearingly frisky when you’re in the mood to play, effectively melding the character of a compact crossover with that of a sports car. Put in the simplest terms, it’s a lot of fun, the sort of fun all small cars should be but fewer and fewer actually are.
This said, steering feel could be better. Hitting the “Sport” button in the center console (which must be done anew each time the car is started) firms up the steering, most noticeably at highway speeds, but it never communicates much of what’s going on at the contact patches. Between this and a suspension that feels a little jumpy, confidence wasn’t inspired. I never quite felt one with the car. The MINI Countryman, though less overtly sporty, does better here.
To replicate my time in the Celica, I visited my favorite local unpaved road in the JUKE. This also served to reveal how the chassis behaves as the tires’ limits are reached at much lower speeds than on pavement. With the JUKE this road revealed a tendency for the rear end to go light and drift wide in turns even while lightly accelerating. Though not too difficult to catch with a touch of opposite lock, this tendency to oversteer even without lifting off the throttle is uncommon among current cars and a bit of a shock the first time it occurred. While not too many people will be JUKING dirt roads, wet and snowy roads are another matter. The standard stability control has its work cut out for it with enthusiastic but inexperienced drivers.
The JUKE rides like the tallish, short wheelbase, firmly sprung car it is. And because Nissan’s suspension engineers haven’t yet figured out how to combine a smooth ride with sporty handling. To their credit, unlike the sportiest Nissans the JUKE doesn’t ride harshly. It just reacts a little sharply to road imperfections and feels jiggly on all but the smoothest surfaces. But it does feel solid, and body motions are well-controlled. On the highway, there’s a moderate amount of noise from the exhaust, air, and road surface. While still much quieter than the subcompacts of decades past (and my Mazda Protege5), by current standards the JUKE borders on noisy. If you’re sensitive to a jiggly, noisy ride, the JUKE will likely start to annoy once you’re done with hooning and ready to cruise.
If you want a performance-oriented compact crossover, you typically have two choices in North America: the JUKE or the MINI Countryman. With its storied European pedigree, a similarly-equipped MINI will set you back $5,310 more than the JUKE SV’s $21,640 base price. (The difference was close to six large earlier, but Nissan has raised prices a couple of times—for a total bump of $620.) Adjust for the MINI’s additional features using TrueDelta’s car price comparison tool and the Nissan’s advantage remains nearly $4,000. Just beware the gunmetal wheels on the tested car: they’ll set you back nearly an extra grand.
Ultimately, the JUKE is at least as much sports car as crossover. It’s highly styled and—a rarity these days—drives even sportier than it looks. It reeks personality. The flipside: the JUKE’s not terribly practical or even easy to live with. But we have no shortage of practical, dull-to-drive crossovers, if that’s what you’re looking for. Nissan itself will gladly sell you a cube or a Rogue. If, instead, you’ve been seeking a sports car with a little extra ground clearance, the JUKE is one of two choices, and the least expensive by a substantial margin. Just beware of torque steer (until Nissan sees the light and offers AWD with the manual) and of the rear end’s tricks on slippery surfaces.
Nissan provided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of gas for this review.
Michael Karesh operates TrueDelta, an online source of automotive pricing and reliability data.