2012 Nissan Juke

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Lots of spunky compact runabouts out there. The inexpensive ones, though – like the $14k-ish to start Kia Soul – are usually on the slow-ish side. And the ones that aren’t slow – like the turbocharged Mini Cooper Countryman S – which starts at $25,350 for the FWD version are – expensive.

Then there’s Nissan’s Juke.

It comes standard with a high-performance turbocharged and direct-injected engine – and close to 190 hp –  for just under $20k. You can add a performance-calibrated “torque vectoring” AWD system, too – a feature not available at all with Kia’s Soul –  and still be looking at less than $22k, sticker.

That’s also about $5,000 less than you’d pay for an AWD-equipped Mini Cooper Countryman S ($27,050)

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 of vehicle. It has elements of crossover SUV, aspects of an urban “box” car (snarky styling) sport sedan performance (turbocharged engine, six-speed manual transmission, driver-adjustable throttle tip-in/steering)  an almost-economy car price tag – and almost economy car fuel economy (as much as 32 highway).

Few, if any, competitors exist that package all these things in one vehicle – and have a sticker price that starts at $19,990.

The Kia Soul is similar in size and pugnacity – and at $14,400 to start, is considerably less expensive. But it’s also considerably less powerful (the standard  engine in the $14k-ish base model makes just 138 hp; the optional engine in the $19k-ish  version only manages 164) and doesn’t offer AWD at all.

The earlier mentioned Mini Countryman is similarly sized and can be comparably fitted out – but it starts at $21,750 – without its optional (and Juke-equivalent) 181 hp turbo engine – or AWD. With those items, the Mini Countryman’s MSRP jumps to $27,050

That’s easily $3,000 more than a top of the line Juke SL with AWD ($23,930).

WHAT’S NEW FOR 2012

The Juke was introduced as an all-new model last year, so the ’12 receives no significant updates or changes.

WHAT’S GOOD

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

Available driver-selectable AWD with multiple modes.

Conversation-starter styling.

Not-bad gas mileage.

WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD

Conversation starter looks.

Low, slant-back roofline cuts down on headroom.

Six-speed manual transmission not available with AWD.

Some fussiness with the electronics (more on this below).

UNDER THE HOOD

The Juke comes with a 1.6 liter four that’s the same size as the standard 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 – the Juke is capable of getting to 60 in about 7.3-7.4 seconds.

This a lot quicker than the standard-engined Kia Soul (9-plus seconds to 60) and also quicker than the optional-engined Soul – which is solidly in the mid-high eights.

The 2012 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 in non-turbo form 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 of course 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 $3-5k more, relative to the cost of the Juke, to upgrade the Mini to the turbo version of its 1.6 liter engine.

The Juke, as mentioned above, also offers AWD for much less coin than it costs in the Cooper. And of course, AWD is not available at all in the Kia. 

There’s a graphic display in the instrument cluster that tells you where the power’s  being routed as you drive. You can also select Normal, Sport and Eco modes via buttons located on the lower portion of the center stack. Each setting is accompanied by a different graphic display, too – including turbo boost, torque output of the engine and (in Eco mode) a bar graph showing in real time how your driving is affecting your MPGs.

ON THE ROAD

A “Juke joint” is a honky-tonk bar; a place that’s hip and fun – and potentially wild. The four-wheeled, horned toad-looking 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 standard (and 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. Now, 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.

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” full-time AWD systems: 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 coin.

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).

Forward visibility is excellent, visibility to the side is good – and your rearview view is adequate. The up-high ride height helps you see more – and better, too.

AT THE CURB 

You either like it – or you don’t.

The horned toad front end – with its huge driving light “eyes” set wide and low; its lizard-like main headlight slits mounted 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. The overall effect is different. Really different.

Which I think is cool.

Of course, opinions differ.

Functionally, though, there are a few objective downsides to this vehicle’s layout – most notably backseat room and specifically backseat head and legroom. The Juke’s 32.1 inches of rear seat legroom  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 stylish 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: 42.1 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 two vehicles is.

THE REST

The Juke has several unusual 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. There’s also a G-meter (comes up when you’re in Sport mode) that displays lateral acceleration in bar graph form.

Although this is a modestly 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 performance-minded 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 Countryman S with FWD. The AWD-equipped Mini S ALL4 starts at $27,050 – and it’s easy to price one up to $30k out the door. The Mini’s an appealing – and fun – car, But not an inexpensive car.

The Kia does cost less – and it’s also a fun – and interesting – car. But it’s not quick – and it can’t touch the Juke’s handling capabilities.

Ok, the nits:

The bar graph displays are neat but convey only general info. For example, the “torque output curve.” It’s a literal curve, graphically displayed – but there are no actual numbers for such things as RPMs or torque produced at a given RPM. Ditto the G-meter display. It shows lateral acceleration – but it’s not scaled with numbers so you don’t really know how many G’s you’re just pulled.

Another minor thing: The climate control doesn’t allow any inputs for a moment or two when you first start up the car. You can’t immediately turn the fan to high, for instance. You must  wait until the computer boots up. On a hot day, the moment or two this takes can be – is – annoying. Also that it resets itself every time the engine is turned off – so that when you turn it back on, you have to re-enter the temperature you want, fan speed and so on.

THE BOTTOM LINE

If you’re in the market for something that’s got personality, performance – and price – going for it, the Juke’s hard not to like.

Throw it in the Woods?

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27 COMMENTS

  1. Just wanted to let you know that several of your posts were very helpful in our recent new car shopping. I am not a car person or mechanically inclined, yet I find listening to you both informative and entertaining. (I heard you first on the Tom Woods show) My husband is an electrical engineer suspicious of all car salespeople and generally impatient with car websites, but he was appreciated yours.

    I ended up getting a 2015 Nissan Juke SV and am delighted with it. I was going to try to post a photo of it, but don’t see a way to do that. After raising 7 kids while driving a Suburban for 25 years, it is quite a change!

  2. Boy, this thing is hideous! Only way I’d own one is if someone gave it to me, for nothing. I could think of a lot better cars for $20K.

    • The styling is definitely polarizing!

      But – where else can you buy a turbocharged, high-performance (torque-vectoring) AWD-equipped car for about $20k?

      • Nissan deserves some dubious credit.

        I mean I really have to hand it to them.

        They made a vehical that can make the Pontiac Aztec look good by comparison. No other car company had the daring to go there.

        • I won’t argue looks – a very subjective thing.

          But – objectively – the Aztek was POS. An uglified minivan; that’s all.

          The Juke, on the other hand, is a credible performance car. Strong engine; very sophisticated AWD system. And very affordable, too. I can’t think of another car that offers similar power/performance, equipment/features for around $20k.

      • Fair enough, Eric, you’re right the guts deliver great value.
        I don’t know why manufacturers don’t go with the idea of dropping different car shells on standard body types. I believe the Mazda 3 and the Volvo hatchback are both built on the same body – why not go with that idea? Have a sporty shell, sedan shell, etc…

  3. Love this car–and an informative review, thanks Eric.

    I’d buy one in a heartbeat if I were looking for fun but cheap/reliable transportation.

    The looks are certainly polarizing; I’m one to appreciate its offbeat appearance.

    I didn’t know they could be had with AWD. I despise the dynamics of FWD, always have. Even in commuter situations, it’s disappointing–perhaps because makers tune FWD cars with that bumbling, resolute understeer so Clovers don’t “throw them in the woods” if you’ll excuse a misappropriation.

    And torque vectoring? In a sub-$25K car? Color me impressed.

    Nissan’s got verve; much more than any other Japanese maker. I hope they’re rewarded for thinking so uniquely and this car becomes a cult favorite.

    • I’ve become a big Nissan fan (and owner). They make great cars – driving-wise, service-wise and price-wise. Nissan is also probably the least nannyish major automaker. No seat belt buzzers. No DRLs. Traction control you can turn off – all the way off – by just pushing a button.

      This Juke is a fun little thing as it sits – but with another 30-40 hp or so… .

  4. Nice review. I agree with the styling comments. I mostly like it except for the hideous front end, especially the high up headlight clusters. Looks like some sort of insect.

    I like the performance numbers I’ve seen, but unfortunately, it’s being marketed as a small crossover SUV (which it is). It has very little practicality or usability in real world situations. Thank goodness it’s relatively inexpensive.

    First off, this thing is tiny, and I do mean tiny. It is almost dwarfed by a Civic. You actually will lose this in a parking lot because almost anything you park next to will block it from view. I’ve literally been surprised while looking for a parking space by coming up on one of these pulled into a parking spot normally, not unusually far forward, being hidden by a regular pickup truck or a small SUV. The tiny-on-the-outside is not such a bad thing, but it translates to microscopic on the inside, especially considering its funky styling. This is yet another price to pay for what I would consider a sub-compact SUV.

    The interior is cramped, even in the front seat. I sat in one at a car show b/c I was intrigued/interested. I am just over 6’2″ and I can barely squeeze myself into the front passenger seat with it all the way back. Most of this is due to the lack of headroom up front, but legroom is limited, too. I would not be able to drive if I were in the driver’s seat. Even my 5’6″ tall friend felt claustrophobic in it. The rear seat is off limits to me. I attempted to get into it with the front seat all the way forward. I failed. My knees were literally up in my chest and pressed hard against the seatback of the front seat. Additionally, my head was pressed down almost to my knees. I had assumed the crash position yet was unable to get my right foot into the SUV to even close the door. Part of this had to do with how narrow the bottom door opening is, and I wear size 11.5s. I couldn’t angle it in because my other foot was already in the car and not moving anywhere. It took me several long seconds to extricate myself from the rear seat. If you’re over about 5’8, don’t even try.

    The storage behind the rear seat, when up, was virtually nonexistent. It was perhaps a smidge better than a Smart FourTwo’s rear storage, seemingly. With the rear seats folded flat, it actually was a fairly usable storage area. That might be its best packaging feature.

    In reality, most people will cross-shop this with compact SUVs (Honda CRV, Mazda CX-5, etc.) and realize you get a lot more vehicle for similar money (CX-5 starts at $21k). You’ll get a usable front and back seat plus storage behind the rear seats and as good or better fuel economy. The CX-5 will probably match the Juke’s athletics except for being pretty slow in a straight line. The new Ford Escape may do as well or better. Plus, there’s a rumor that the CX-5 will get a small diesel which would help both performance and gas mileage even more. Plus the CX-5 is better styled and much less polarizing to boot.

    Those that don’t cross-shop compact SUVs will likely cross-shop compact cars in this price range and get more car for the money and likely get pretty decent performance as well. Best direct comparison there would probably be the Hyundai Veloster. Funky styling with a much larger rear seat and rear storage area in a hatchback form.

    I think the Juke is a neat concept that has been implemented poorly. I don’t know if it will survive to Juke 2.0. I just don’t see many of them around (already see more Velosters and CX-5s, even though they’ve both been on the market far less long).

    Now if they put the Juke with the Godzilla engine on the market, sheesh.

    • Thanks, SJ!

      Body type – and fit – is fascinating.

      I’m a slightly taller than you (6 ft 3) and the Juke has enough room for me up front (back seat, forget about it). It goes to show that you can’t go by the raw specs – or a review. You have to see whether the vehicle in question fits you.

      I agree that other small vehicles such as the ones you mention make better use of the available interior real estate. Nissan wasn’t going after practical so much as different. Which I also agree may backfire. This vehicle reminds me of the old Vehicross. Remember that one? It, too, was a daring – some would say bizarre – machine, built just to be different.

      I think that’s to Nissan’s credit, even if the Juke ends up not being a great success.

    • Thanks, Tim!

      On measurements: They are taken from one point (such as the kick panel/cowl area for legroom) to another point (such as the leading edge of the seat.

  5. I don’t get it. Why didn’t Nissan simply dump this engine in the Versa and be done with it. At least you can walk up to that car on a full stomach. 4 Wheel drive? Nobody needs 4WD in a car like this – or most any car for that matter. I have both and in a light rain, I can even confidently drive the slower FWD car at speeds much greater than is allowed in Zombiland so what’s the point?
    0-60 times are pretty-much meaningless except on paper. It’s the 40-60 or 50-80 times which have more relevance. I’m certain the Nissan would be faster as well but I doubt the Mini’s passing ability would equate to a harrowing experience. I have very few problems overtaking in my 71 PS Smart and that’s in Mexico where the driving is much more spirited.
    Another subject is Resale Value. Is this Juke going to become a Joke? Wait a minute! Did I get that backwards? What would you rather purchase used? This thing or the more practical Mini – or something (anything?) else? In 5 years, I think, the people trying to sell their used Jukes will be placing their ads written in braille.

    • Hi Doug,

      The reasoning is the Versa’s a low-cost economy car – while the Juke is a value-priced performance car. You can buy a new Versa for about $11k – so just a bit more than half the base price of the Juke. Adding the turbocharger and direct injection would raise the car’s price – and give potential buyers much more power than they’re interested in, as well as the higher down the road upkeep costs, etc.

      I agree on the AWD. It’s mostly a marketing gimmick because few people ever have the opportunity (or the skill) to drive fast enough to notice the difference. And a FWD car with the right tires will usually do very well in snow, too.

      On the Mini’s performance: Trust me – the non-turbo car is underpowered. Now, granted, that’s relative to what’s available today. The car is certainly adequately powerful to go A to B and so on. But it’s not the ticket for trying to pass someone on the highway.

      Resale value: I can’t say. The Juke has only been out for about a year now. Time will tell. But it is likely to lose more value relative to its price new.

      • Dear Eric,

        I like all kinds of cars, from “underpowered” econoboxes to “overpowered” muscle cars.

        But the Juke does nothing for me. It seems like a solution to a non-problem, an answer to a non-question.

        For similar bucks I’d rather have a Mazdaspeed 3. The Juke has AWD, but so what?

        I’m not convinced a car that small needs AWD. An Audi A6 or A8, maybe. But a subcompact econobox? Seems to me overkill. Too much mechanical complexity in such a small package.

        Then there’s the form factor per se. A miniature SUV, as it were? What’s the point? To me, an SUV makes more sense as a mid-sized Ford Escape or full-sized Chevy Suburban. A compact SUV like the Toyota RAV$ is borderline. Much smaller than that, and the form factor no longer makes any functional sense.

        Much smaller than that, and the subcompact hatchback form factor makes more functional sense. The Honda Fit or Mazda 2.

        • I’d object, too – if it weren’t such a good deal (relative to the competition). You get a pretty sophisticated drivetrain for a lot less than you’d pay for something comparable in a competitor. So, that’s an objective selling point. Whether one can actually use all this sophisticated stuff is another question, of course!

          Nissan’s main goal with the Juke was to offer something that isn’t a compact econo-box. Or an SUV. Or a crossover. Or a sport hatch… but an admixture of elements of all these types of vehicle.

          It may not sell in quantity, but I applaud the effort. It’s good to see something different every once in awhile. And the Juke is different indeed!

    • Doug,

      The first thing I thought about when I read about the turbo engine was how much it would improve the Versa.

      All the Versa seems to lack is a powerful engine.

      The Versa has room, the Juke not.

      The Versa has interior room, the Juke not.

      The Versa looks like a car, The Juke looks like a Joke

      • I was disappointed to learn that Nissan decided to stop selling the low-cost (1.6) version of the Versa “tall roof” hatch. Now, to get the better looks (and increased room) of the hatch layout, you have to buy the more expensive Versa 1.8 – the 1.6 is now a conventionally laid-out small sedan.

  6. Appealing little car. Good performance/price/mpg ratios.

    “So ugly it’s cute.”

    If I were looking for a small car for congested urban conditions….or to tow behind a motorhome (obviously requiring manual w/FWD,) the Juke would be at the top of my list. But I’m not.

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