No, it’s not a joke. Nissan’s new urban warrior is really called the Juke. And while the edgy crossover vehicle’s design proposition seems dubious on paper, the in-the-metal reality is certainly fascinating, if only because there isn’t anything else quite like it. Which is exactly the point. By DEON SCHOEMAN.
So-called crossover cars are nothing new. They fuse seemingly incompatible functions into a single, usually unconventional vehicle in an effort to pique the interest of a jaded motoring public, while also boosting versatility and, thereby, value.
That sounds like a good idea – in theory. The reality is that too many crossover vehicles end up as Jacks of all trades, but masters of none, which inevitably leads to disappointed customers and a blotted copybook for the brand.
Nissan is no stranger to the crossover scene. Its larger-than-life Murano has all the presence and pretentions of a gung-ho 4×4. But it also offers the comfort of a luxury car, and the space and versatility of an estate.
Besides, its true habitat is the urban jungle, where the extra ground clearance and all-wheel drive allow effortless pavement hopping, while the fold-down seats and wide-opening tailgate make short work of accommodating the proceeds of a morning’s retail therapy.
Nissan’s latest crossover, however, makes the Murano seem somewhat conventional. It’s called the Juke and it tries to squeeze SUV attitude and sports car dynamics into a subcompact format.
If that seems like an impossibly tall order, you’d be right. But the Juke is not some oddball flight of fantasy, nor an off-the-wall show concept. It’s a fully-fledged production model that has already taken Europe by storm. The big question is whether it will be able to repeat that success on local soil.
You’ll either love or hate the Juke’s styling, but it’s certainly an eye-catching little machine. The lower half is all gung-ho SUV, complete with big wheels, wide tracks and a raised stance.
Above the waistline, however, things get a little sportier and edgier, with a coupé-like sloping roofline and slim window apertures stylistically culled from the 350Z sports car. Because all of this has been shoe-horned into a small car footprint, the Juke is all quirky curves and pronounced contours.
The result isn’t pretty by normal aesthetic standards. But it does attract loads of attention. In traffic, you can see windows opening, necks craning and fingers pointing. Park it and you’ll soon have dozens of cellphone cameras clicking away.
And yes, the shape, the profile and the presence of the Juke tend to tease the eye. The longer you look at it, the more you like it – or at least I did. The very fact that it’s unconventional becomes its biggest drawcard.
While some of the off-beat attributes are continued inside the Juke, the overall impression is much more conventional. Most apparent is the painted centre console, which seems frivolous at first, but adds some welcome colour to the otherwise sombre hues.
Depending on model, upholstery is in cloth or leather, while there’s an almost motorcycle-like simplicity to the instrument binnacle, with its large, clear analogue dials flanking a crisp LCD readout. Sculpted seats offer loads of support.
The fascia is also home to an innovative status indicator that provides a host of scrollable information, linked to a driving mode selector offering a choice of Normal, Eco or Sport modes. Each mode offers a different setting for steering assistance, throttle response and engine mapping.
Depending on mode, the display will show a turbo boost graphic (in Sport), a torque delivery graphic (in Normal) and fuel consumption (in Eco). Problem is, the display is located low-down on the centre console, and you have to take your eyes off the road to monitor it.
That aside, though, the ergonomics are well thought out, allowing an intuitive relationship between car and driver.
Decent packaging means there’s enough room for both front and rear occupants, although the narrow side glass apertures can make the rear accommodation seem a little claustrophobic.
The boot is adequate, with a concealed, tray-like storage space under the boot floor that may be okay for bits and pieces, but actually robs the boot of truly usable cargo space.
In technical terms, the Juke comes in two flavours, with a choice of two petrol engines: a normally aspirated 1600cc four-potter, and a more advanced direct-injection, turbocharged 1.6-litre unit.
The latter was the engine powering the version under scrutiny here, and is credited with quite astounding output figures of 140kW and 240Nm, and drives the front wheels via a six-speed manual gearbox.
While the Juke is offered in all-wheel drive form abroad, the local range is exclusively front wheel-driven, which is probably the more sensible option anyway. Suspension is pretty straightforward with an independent, MacPherson strut-type layout up front and a torsion beam axle at the rear.
With so much power and torque on tap, you’d expect the Juke to live up to its sporty promise, and the figures certainly confirm this. The zero-to-100km/h dash is completed in eight seconds flat, while top speed is 215km/h.
But what the data doesn’t tell you is how peaky the engine is, and how hard you have to work to extract those dynamics. There’s a fair amount of lag below 2,500rpm, which means you need to keep the engine on song if you want to keep it in the power band.
Expect to make full use of the slick six-speed gearbox to achieve this, and to still be surprised when the engine’s full potential kicks in. The boy racer driving style required to make full use of the Juke’s performance potential won’t be to everyone’s taste and can be irritating in town use.
Given its short wheelbase and wide tracks, the Juke always feels agile. Steering response is crisp and precise, if a little overassisted, and the raised seating position allows a commanding view – one of the key attractions of all SUVs.
The result is a car that’s zippy and fun to drive. The feel-good factor is strong, and the fact that the Juke is so compact also makes it easy to squeeze into tight parking spaces.
Don’t take its SUV capabilities too seriously, though – at 180mm, this top-end Juke’s ride height is only slightly more elevated than that of a normal car and the tyres are better suited to tar than dirt.
Not that I believe anyone would really venture off the beaten track in the Juke. It’s an urban warrior through and through and, while it will cope with gravel roads, it’s much more comfortable dealing with pavements and potholes than rocks and sand.
The Nissan Juke is a brave little car. It takes a seemingly incongruous combination of attributes and fuses them into a single vehicle that always surprises, and mostly delights and convinces.
It stands out from the crowd and it’s fun to drive. But it also has versatility and impressive build quality on its side.
Oh yes, I almost forgot: ‘juke’ is an American football term for sidestepping – quite apt for a distinctive compact crossover that has found a niche, and has neatly sidestepped the competition in the process. DM
Nissan Juke 1.6 DIG-T Tekna
In-line four-cylinder, 1,618cc, turbocharged
140kW @ 5,600rpm
240Nm @ 5,000rpm
R258,800 (including leather)
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