2011 Nissan Juke

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Lots of spunky compact runabouts out there. The inexpensive ones, though, are usually on the slow side – and the ones that aren’t (slow) are (expensive).

Except the extremely cool Nissan Juke.

It has a turbo’d and direct-injected engine and close to 190 hp – standard, for just over $19k. You can add a performance-calibrated AWD system, too – and still be three grand-plus under the next-closest thing (a new Mini Countryman S ALL4).

The juke’s got other things going for it, too – but that’s a pretty good start.

WHAT IT IS

The Juke is a compact-sized, five-door hatchback that doesn’t exactly fit any single category. It has elements of crossover SUV (the available AWD system), aspects of an urban “box” car (snarky styling) sport sedan (turbocharged engine, six-speed manual transmission, driver-adjustable throttle tip-in/steering) and an almost-economy car price tag, plus economy-car fuel economy.

Few, if any, competitors exist that package all these things in one vehicle – and have a sticker price that starts at $19,750.

The earlier mentioned Mini Countryman is similarly sized and can be comparably fitted out but starts at $21,650 – without its optional turbo engine or AWD. With those items, the Mini Countryman’s MSRP jumps to $26,950.

A top of the line Juke SL with AWD carries an MSRP of $23,200.

WHAT’S NEW FOR 2011

The Juke’s a new model for Nissan.

WHAT’S GOOD

Standard high-power turbo/direct-injected 1.6 liter engine.

Available driver-selectable AWD with multiple modes.

No other car gives you similar equipment for similar bucks.

Conversation-starter styling.

WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD

Conversation starter styling.

Cut roofline cuts down on headroom.

Six-speed manual transmission not available with AWD.

UNDER THE HOOD

The Juke has just one engine – a 1.6 liter four that’s the same size as the engine used in its economy car DNA donor (the Nissan Versa) but much-modified to produce a very healthy 188 hp. The little engine is direct-injected and turbocharged to provide on-demand power but good fuel economy (27 city/32 highway for the FWD/six-speed version) when power’s not being demanded.

Depending on the transmission – you can choose either a six-speed manual or Continuously Variable (CVT) automatic – and FWD or AWD – the Juke is capable of getting to 60 in about 7.3-7.4 seconds.

The 2011 Mini Countryman, meanwhile, also comes standard with a 1.6 liter engine and six-speed manual transmission – but it’s not turbocharged (unless you pay extra for it) and makes only 121 hp. So equipped, the standard-issue Countryman needs about 10 seconds to heave itself to 60 – making it one of the slowest new cars on the market. You can add a turbo to the Mini’s 1.6 liter engine and even things up (well, almost) to 181 hp but even then, the Mini can’t catch the Juke 0-60 (it needs about 7.5-7.6 seconds, depending on whether it’s FWD or AWD).

And you’ll be out of pocket about $5,000 more to upgrade the Mini to the turbo version of its 1.6 liter engine vs. what you’d pay for the standard-issue (and already turbo’d) Juke.

ON THE ROAD

“Juke joint” is a synonym for honky-tonk bar; a place that’s hip and fun and potentially wild. The four-wheeled Juke lives up to its name – unlike some embarrassingly over-named cars whose names I won’t mention. Well, ok. I will mention them. Well, one, just for fun: Dodge Nitro – available in Heat, Detonator and Shock trims. Please.

Anyhow.

The Juke will jump when you need to jam. Close to 200 hp in a reasonable weight (just under 3,000 lbs.) package will usually do that and when the power is served up boosted, it’s usually even more enjoyable, which is exactly the case here. Also, either transmission works equally well with the little turbo engine – including the optional CVT (mandatory if you choose AWD). The turbo helps the Juke’s engine produce almost as much torque (177 lbs.-ft.) as it does horsepower and at lower engine speed (2,000 RPM) which results in a very everyday (stop and go traffic) drivable car that’s also a fun car to drive fast when the road opens up a little.

For some perspective, let’s take another look at the price-equivalent Mini Countryman, with its not-turbocharged 1.6 liter engine. It not only makes 67 fewer hp, its torque output is much lower (114 lbs.-ft.) and you have to spin that poor little engine to 4,250 RPM to access it. The Mini is cute and has many appealing qualities but every day driving in traffic – and trying to pass anything, anytime – with that sad little 1.6 liter engine sans turbo is not among them. Yes, the turbo S ALL4 version of the Countryman catches up to the Juke (well, almost) but the price difference is so big a side-by-side comparison’s not really fair.

And besides, the much-less-expensive Nissan still outperforms the turbocharged Mini.

The Juke also has some aces to play in the handling department. The optional AWD system, for example, is very much unlike the typical AWD systems in most competitor models. For openers, it’s part-time or full-time, at the touch of a button. Being able to operate in FWD when you don’t need AWD has two advantages over “always on” AWD systems. One, you don’t burn as much gas because there’s less inertia to overcome when the AWD is off. Maybe not a huge difference, but even 1 MPG matters when gas costs $4 per gallon. Second, you are probably reducing wear and tear on components, which could extend their useful service life as well as lower down-the-road maintenance costs.

But there’s more than practicality to the deal. The Juke’s AWD system features what Nissan calls Torque Vectoring, which means the unit can route torque to individual wheels as driving conditions demand – for example, the outside rear wheel in a high-speed cornering situation. This much-improves maximum high-speed handling grip as well as predictability in a high-speed cornering situation. The Nissan system is similar to the performance-minded AWD systems used in pioneer AWD performance cars like the Subaru WRX – but here again, the Juke offers it for much less dinero.

You can also toggle between the more aggressive Torque Vectoring mode and regular AWD (which is better for snow driving vs. high-speed dry weather driving).

AT THE CURB

You either like it – or you don’t. The angry toad front end – with its huge driving light “eyes” set wide and low; its lizard-like main headlight array squatting almost on top of the front fenders… the chopped/slicked-back roofline. The pontoon fenders… You won’t lose this one in a parking lot – and there’s no mistaking it for anything else on the road.

Interesting details include high-mount back door openers and interior trim covers painted body color. It’s not retro – just different.

Which I think is cool. Of course, opinions differ.

Functionally,though, there are a few objective downsides to this vehicle – most notably backseat room and specifically backseat legroom. The Juke’s 32.1 inches is pretty tight (compare this to the 38 inches you get in the Versa – the car from which the Juke was spawned). Headroom’s also tight – 36.7 inches – which is the price you (or backseat riders, anyhow) pay for that snarky-looking slanted roofline.

The Mini Countryman is better here – but not by all that much. It has 33.8 inches of rear seat legroom and 37.5 inches of rear seat headroom. Front seat headroom specs are about the same in both the Mini and the Juke: 39.6 inches of headroom for the Nissan vs. 39.9 for the Mini – but the Juke pulls ahead on front seat legroom with a commanding two inch lead: 321 inches vs. 40.4 for the Mini.

As far as total cargo capacity (second row seats folded) the Mini has more space – 41.3 cubic feet vs. 35.9 for the Nissan. But it’s not a game-changer difference – while (again) the yawing price difference between these tow vehicles is.

THE REST

The Juke has several unusual surprise and delight features you won’t find in competitors, including an optionally available driver-adjustable throttle calibration system (with display) very similar to the system used in Nissan’s GT-R supercar. With this system the driver can adjust other driveline parameters as well, including steering effort and (CVT-equipped Jukes) the shift action of the transmission.

Although this is a modestly (or rather, very competitively) priced car, it neither looks it nor feels it. It definitely doesn’t drive it.

You can order up a top-of-the-line Juke SL with the fancy Torque-Vectoring AWD system, heated leather seats, chrome/body-colored interior trim pieces, accent lighting (including illuminated sill plates), Nissan’s latest-gen GPS/navigation system, keyless ignition, premium Rockford Fosgate audio, rear spoiler – and more – and still be just over $25k, sticker.

That same money won’t quite buy you a mid-trim Mini S with FWD. The AWD-equipped Mini S ALL4 starts at $26,950 – and it’s easy to price one up to $30k out the door.

That’s a lot of mozzarella!

THE BOTTOM LINE

Other than its love-it-or-hate-it looks, there’s very little not to like about the Juke, if you’re in the market for something that’s got pizazz, performance- and price – going for it.

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