VANCOUVER, British Columbia, Canada - Scrutinize Nissan's new Juke compact crossover vehicle, and it's hard to believe that it sits atop the company's B-platform - also used for the subcompact Versa hatchback and sedan. Some notable changes have been made, of course. Still, while both are capable and appealing vehicles, it's hard to fathom the relationship betweeen them.
For the Juke, Nissan promises urban versatility with a compact footprint. In price, it sits at the bottom rung of the sport/crossover group. Nissan says the Juke has no direct competitors, though prospective buyers are expected to cross-shop such vehicles as the Mazda3, BMW's Mini, Toyota Matrix, Scion tC coupe, and Suzuki SX4. Except for their similar dimensions, that's quite a broad selection of possible rivals.
"This is an authentic vehicle," said marketing vice-president Jon Brancheau, acknowledging the presumption that young folks are more eager for authenticity than older shoppers. The curious name for the new model describes the vehicle's ability to dodge obstacles. Public-relations director Scott Vazin added that Juke is a football term, signifying the abilitiy to dodge back and forth.
Vazin acknowledged more negative connotations associated with the word. In the 1960 film The Fugitive Kind, for instance, Carol Cutrere (portrayed by a young Joanne Woodward) likes to "go jukin" as often as possible, She's referring to the practice, especially in the American south, of nightly visits to the local roadhouses for long sessions of drinking and dancing to the rousing tunes emanating from the jukebox.
Nissan touts the "European flair" of the Juke, placing it in the "crossover hot hatch" category in an attempt to capture the auto-buying dollars of youthful males. Styling, too, has a decidedly masculine aura, described as "purposeful." Headlights, dubbed as "daring," define the front end, according to Nissan. Boomerang-shape taillamps bring up the rear.
Built on a short (99.6-inch) wheelbase, the Juke is 162.4 inches long overall and 61.8 inches high. Track widths (distance between left and right wheels) are 3 inches greater than those on the Versa, and front and rear suspensions have been revised. Inside, the console is said to be motorcycle-inspired, with a high-mounted shift lever. Cargo volume is 35.9 cubic feet (with the rear seat folded).
Offered in S, SV, or SL trim, all Juke models hold the same turbocharged 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine, delivering 188 horsepower and 177 pound-feet of torque. With an Xtronic continuously variable transmission (CVT) and front-wheel drive, the Juke gets a fuel-economy estimate of 27 mpg in city driving and 32 mpg on the highway. A six-speed manual gearbox is available only with front-drive, on the S model. Advanced Torque Vectoring all-wheel drive, standard on all Jukes, provides a front/rear and side-to-side split.
Handling with a rather light feel overall, the Juke qualifies as spirited, in the light-footed, athletic sense of that word. That light steering feel is appealing, especially for a small crossover SUV, but it enhances the general sensation of spirit more than specifically providing tenacious roadholding. Though the Juke can hit occasional bumps and holes somewhat hard, the ride is sufficiently smooth most of the time, and seldom troubling. On smooth highways, it's quite nice; with little commotion transmitted to occupants.
Engine response is exceptionally quick to reach higher rpm, intensifying the sporty nature of the Juke, but it can take the first-time driver by surprise. Fans of ardent, high-revving acceleration should be pleased. With manual shift, the clutch may be a trifle touchy; but again, that's something to get used to rather rapidly. The manual gearbox is a little more vague than some other stick shifts; so it's not always easy to be sure which gear it's in.
Sounds from the turbocharged engine are more noticeable in a Juke equipped with the CVT than with manual shift. Performance, as expected, is a bit more limited as well. The driver can select Normal, Sport or Eco mode; and it makes quites a difference. When slowing down in Sport mode, engne revs often shoot upward, not down as one might assume. Nissan says this is a normal phenomenon for Sport mode, and it can be enjoyable for a while. But the unexpected engine reactions also can get old in a hurry. Many drivers are likely to keep the CVT-fitted Juke in Normal most of the time; or better yet for fuel-efficiency, in Eco.
Front seats feel a bit cocoon-like, with highly satisfying support as well as ample room and comfort. Side bolstering is noticeable, but not intrusive. A low-mounted console display shows helpful details of the driving experience, once you determine how to change the screen's content. The back seat is short on headroom for any of the three passengers, though legroom is acceptable. The center spot is seriously hard, unpleasant for anything more than a brief outing.
Juke sales began in October, with a starting price of $18,960 (plus $750 destination charge) for an S model with CVT and front-drive. Topping the line, an SL with CVT and AWD stickers for $24,550. Six airbags and 17-inch alloy wheels are standard. Heated, leather-appointed seats are available.
Especially when viewed from the front, the Juke draws plenty of attention, with a front-end that comes across as youthfully masculine - just right for the Juke's target audience. Aged 18 to 34 (and especially, the 25-29 year olds), the typical Juke buyer likes women, sports, and gaming, according to Nissan's marketers. Shouldn't be hard to find quite a few who qualify on that score.
Nissan is "focused on becoming the most trusted, growing car company in America," said marketer Brancheau, launching nine new models in the next two years: Small crossovers are projected to grow more than 200 percent over the 2005-14 decade, he advised. Already, they're the fourth largest segment.
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