“I want a car,” I told Derek, “with a manual transmission. To take to Sebring. For the TrackGuys thing.”
“I’ll see what I can do,” the man said. And he did.
Be careful what you wish for, right?
It was a fairly ambitious plan: fly to Orlando, drive to Sebring, coach there with the TrackGuys, drive to Vero Beach, play some music, drive back, coach a second day, drive to Tampa, jump in the water, fly to Malaysia to run a time trial on the Sepang Formula One circuit. Normally I’d rent a Camry for track use as is my preference, but this being Florida and all I decided a little more style might be in order. Enter the Juke, in a shade of goldish yellow somewhat reminiscent of the unloved “bladder infection” Phoenix Yellow found on the E46 M3. The wheels, trim, and interior were all black. Under the Orlando sun, they all quickly became hot enough to melt Wolverine’s claws.
That led to Juke Surprise #1: the A/C was really strong for a car this size. It helps that the little Nissan has virtually no interior space. I only had one fellow-traveler for this segment of the trip: noted attorney/troublemaker/wedding singer Kat King. She had her airplane roll-on and a big Kate Spade purse. I had two beat-up carry-on Tumi totes, my jumbo Waterfield Mambo laptop cargo thing , and a 1991 Ovation Collectors’ Edition acoustic guitar in a hard case. With the rear seats folded and some innovative stacking, everything fit. Barely. As in don’t-recline-your-seat-to-nap-between-track-sessions barely. The Juke just manages to squeak past my Porsche 993 for cargo-area honors.
It’s a small car. You understand that, because you’ve seen them on the road. And it looks odd, we don’t need to belabor that, this ain’t no Vellum Venom and I won’t change your mind on the car either way. Now hear this: on the road, the Juke works. It works very well, in all the ways you want a car to work well. Stereo: Excellent. Controls: Legible! And fun, thanks to the odd center-stack configuration that allows you to control the HVAC or the “sport mode”. Visibility: Outstanding to the front, with visible corners, and not abysmal to the back — although if your Juke has the reversing camera, you’ll use it. The six-speed is long and light of throw and the clutch is a bit grabby for my tastes. It’s good enough and in this day and age it’s worth some gratitude to Nissan for offering it.
The CUV driving position is a help in mild traffic and while negotiating various toll plazas/ATMs/drive-throughs. The seats are outstanding for long drives, and I tested that with four two-plus-hour sessions behind the wheel. As a way for two people to get around the city and down the freeway, the Juke is almost faultless. The engine has enough power for passing situations. Around town, it feels positively burly. I’d sure have liked to have seen this drivetrain in the the previous Versa. Call it the Versa SE-R GT-R Spec V or something just to make the basement-dwelling otaku break their fingers complaining to the Internet.
Back to the Juke. It feels premium when you’re bopping around town in it, which is just as well because it costs premium money. You can spend $27,000 on a FWD Juke pretty easily. For that kind of money, you can get a V-6 Mustang that will rip the Juke’s lungs out and back over them while playing “Radar Love” on the Shaker 500 sound system. But this is ridiculous, because nobody compares a Juke to Mustangs.
Where were we? Oh yes, I was taking the Juke to Sebring for a Mustang-centric trackday. The TrackGuys, led by head instructor Jeff Lacina, operate open-lapping events in Texas and Florida for a crowd that mostly consists of Ford fanatics with superchargers and rollcages and Hoosier tires and sometimes all of the above. I had my doubts when I arrived there and saw the crowd because a lot of Mustang owners tend to be fairly Stone Age in their approach to everything from hygiene to on-track courtesy but this group was virtually beyond reproach in all regards. The event was run with considerable attention to safety and driver development. I was proud and pleased to join their group of captive instructors for the weekend.
TrackGuys is recommended almost without reservation. I say “almost” for a couple of reasons. The first is that the the instructors’ meeting was concluded with a prayer that was in no way non-denominational. The second is that there’s a fairly serious flag ceremony complete with a recognition of veterans at the event and featuring Lacina belting out “America The Beautiful” in a robust baritone. I like that sort of stuff; although I was born in Brooklyn to educated, reasonably progressive parents I’m a bit of a redneck in many ways and my only regret concerning the religious and patriotic content was that Lacina wouldn’t let me sing the National Anthem myself and do the Whitney warble. Bearded, Teva-shod, Subaru-driving Trotsky-ites, however, and I know you’re out there, should consider themselves warned; this ain’t the place to start talking about progressive politics, checking privilege, or disrespecting: the risen Christ, the United States Army Special Forces, the modular 4.6-liter Ford V-8, or any potential combination thereof. Lacina and his co-owner, Dell Hughes, are both approximately as large and strong as lowland gorillas and are not to be trifled with.
Naturally, one of the first things I did when I got there was trifle with them, by sneaking an extra passenger into the Juke and running it around Sebring like a Ring taxi. I was flagged on the second lap. I came in very contritely. Lacina agreed to not beat me to death. I agreed not to do it again unless I thought he wasn’t looking.
How was the Juke on-track? Well, compared to the 600-wheel-horsepower Terminator Cobras and American-Iron-prep S197s it was a rolling chicane. Against intermediate-level drivers in stock Mustang GTs, it made a pretty good account of itself. Turn One is a blind romp across broken concrete and here you can pitch the Juke up on three wheels with a strong dose of trail-braking. It will wag the tail but it won’t threaten you with any seriousness. The high-mount driving position doesn’t feel too bad on-track. It pleases me greatly to note that it’s more pleasant and competent in pretty much every non-measurable way than, say, a Porsche Cayenne Turbo S, even if it doesn’t demolish the quarter-mile or have twenty hydraulic pistons to squeeze massive Brembo rotors. The brakes, as a matter of fact, require some looking after or there will be consequences…
Steering’s good even if it’s a bit remote. You can place the car pretty accurately and you can feel the curbs fight back against the tires. The Juke has oversized rolling stock which imparts an odd sense of inertia to it. The above-mentioned Camry SE definitely feels more flingable in that sense. Sharp left-right transitions are accompanied by a tiny frisson of is it gonna roll and guess what, it’s not going to roll, I tried pretty hard to get it up on two wheels and honestly there isn’t enough grip from the Goodyears to make it happen, even with the short wheelbase. In fact, you can really lean on the front tires more than you really should. It’s exceptionally quick through “Sunset Bend”, turn 17, because you can trust your ability to rotate the car with strong on-off motions of the throttle. Just fly by the corner worker at full throttle, stomp the brake, let it slide a bit, then lean on that outside wheel. When you see the front straight, lift quickly to rotate again then floor the gas and let the primitive comp-u-traction pull you to the exit. The turbo engine is remarkably heat-resistant, too. It’s just a really sound design in that respect.
Unfortuantely, the Juke has one major flaw as a track rat. Well, one flaw besides being a CUV, you know. It’s possible to turn off the ESC, but the traction control and various systems still try to intervene at times. Over the course of ten or fifteen laps spent chasing a normally aspirated New Edge Cobra and screaming “GET OVER HERE!” in your helmet like Scorpion the Mortal Kombat ninja, the brakes will overheat from this. When that happens, the ABS light will come on and the DSC light will come on and other various lights will come on. And then you will not have ABS. But you won’t know that until you smoke all four tires at 100+ miles per hour and put the Juke way sideways on a floating magic carpet of expensive rubber dust. This will have your full attention and the full attention of the two passengers you managed to sneak past the flaggers. And that means playtime is over.
On the way from Sebring to Vero Beach, we got somewhat lost and found ourselves with the needle past “E” and no gas stations on Google Maps within thirty-plus miles as the crow flew. That’s Central Florida for you. The only option was to keep looking until we found something. Nearly fifty miles later we found someone who stumbled out of their house trailer, took a padlock off an old mechanical pump, and dispensed two gallons of mystery fuel in exchange for a round ten dollars. That took the Juke all the way to the ocean, where I unpacked the Ovation, faced the waves, and played The Lumineers:
Be in my eye
Be in my heart
Be in my eye… ay-ay-ay
Be in my heart
Late in the evening, as the Juke rolled silent and strong back across the swamplands, with Kat nearly asleep and the moon visible in the glass panel, with the center stack glowing white in non-sporty mode and Kenny Garrett playing “Equinox” through the iPod, I realized that I was about as content as I’d be in, say, a 3-Series BMW coupe. The Juke feels special pretty much all the time. It’s a contrived kind of special, it’s an in-your-face kind of special, but it’s still special. Recommended, with two caveats: watch the dash lights on-track and don’t expect anyone else to understand, okay?