2012 Nissan Juke Review

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Marty Padgett Marty Padgett Editorial Director
September 22, 2011

Scant room and lousy gas mileage probably don't even matter--if you're into the 2012 Nissan Juke's crazy styling, you'll probably love its zingy powertrain and its dino-skin cockpit.

The difference between the real future and the science fiction future is a little more blurry, now that the Nissan Juke is on the scene.

Crossovers are big sellers in the U.S. now, but are we quite ready for the alien styling and the whiz-bang technology baked into this subcompact crossover? That's not entirely clear, but what is certain is that the Juke is like nothing before it, and could be like nothing after it.

The Juke's not just very small, and very quick, it's very...distinctive. It doesn't have many straight lines or pretty viewing angles. It's an extrovert of the tattooed, ritual-scarred kind.

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More sporty subcompact than all-weather SUV, the plump-bottom, angle-backed Juke has one of the most sophisticated drivetrains available in any Nissan. It teams a 188-horsepower, 1.6-liter four with a lightweight body and an independent front suspension to give the Juke exciting high-rpm responsiveness and swift steering. Its very size also gives the Juke a stiff ride, which we expect, but it doesn't necessarily give the Juke great gas mileage, which is a rude surprise for anyone cross-shopping more conventional subcompacts like the Accent, Fiesta or Fit.

The Juke has lots of clever details encased in its....exoskeleton? The I-CON control system remaps throttle and transmission controls to boost fuel economy or sporty responses, and shares LCD screen space with the Juke's climate controls. All-wheel drive is an option, but it's more there as a side dish to that model's more advanced rear suspension, less for traction advantages in snow and ice. A nice, inexpensive navigation system is an option, but with it and the other big-ticket items, the subcompact Juke can nudge $25,000.

Nissan knows the Juke's appeal is narrow and limited, but it's hoping to dodge through the defensive lines put up by excellent, mainstream designs like the Kia Sportage, to find buyers who want something completely unexpected. They'll get it in mega-doses in the Juke, and maybe they'll also get a taste of the future of crossovers while they're at it.
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2012 Nissan Juke

Styling

The 2012 Nissan Juke is like nothing else on the road--take that any way you like.

The word "juke" commonly means a feat of athletic faking-out--a quick motion in the opposite direction you'd expect. The Nissan Juke is the opposite of what we expected from the automaker, and pretty much from any earthbound styling studio.

The Juke, put plain, is the wackiest car design since the Pontiac Aztek--even weirder, maybe. It has wide hips, a pontoon-like lower body, a predatory front grille and an angular rear end--and that's before you get inside to the motorcycle-inspired gauges. It's alternative to the extreme, with chunky proportions and lumpy lines that don't resolve anything, anywhere.

The most awkward angle is from dead-on front, where the Juke's headlights sit so low, they read as fog lamps. The turn-signal blades are feral--like the tusks on a warthog. Most crossovers are in some way or another, trying to be a truck. The Juke may be trying to be an alien life form, and that's how it succeeds. And, boy, that must have be a wild night on Alderaan.

The interior's just a bit more recognizably terrestrial. Glossy plastics abound, even where you don't want them, and the door panels get shiny nylon upholstery that may remind you of a carnival stuffed animal. Or a velociraptor. In bright red the Spiderman color scheme works on some cartoonish, instinctual level, but we think most Juke buyers will prefer the somewhat more sedate silver tone.

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2012 Nissan Juke

Performance

The coupe-like 2012 Nissan Juke is faster, handles better, and feels more fun to drive than most subcompacts.

There's just one engine offered in the 2012 Nissan Juke, a a 188-horsepower, turbocharged 1.6-liter four-cylinder with direct injection. It's an amazing piece of engineering, spinning all that power from such small displacement. It's also spunky in the lightweight Juke, though it requires drivers to rev it hard, and often. That brings out its ample noise, all turbo whistles and four-cylinder howl.

Drivers have a choice of a six-speed manual or a continuously variable transmission (CVT). The manual would be our choice for its simple, slick operation, but most Jukes come with the CVT, and it's not the best pairing. CVTs use pulleys and belts to simulate infinite gear ratios; they also tend to amplify driveline noise since they hold engine speeds well into the middle of the rpm range. They don't respond as quickly as a stepped-gear automatic, though Nissan pre-programs in some simulated "gears" to give the Juke a more conventional feel.

With the I-CON adjustable steering and transmission system, the setup can be varied from Normal to Sport to Eco mode. Eco feels pretty sluggish for something intended to be sporty; Sport mode raises idle speed and cuts down on turbo lag, which keeps the Juke burbling in the best part of its powerband, but it also cuts into fuel economy sharply.

The Juke steers quickly and corners tenaciously, but the incredibly stiff ride over some surfaces can be annoyingly harsh. Basic models have a torsion-beam rear suspension, which can transmit more errant rear-end motion to the car; all-wheel-drive models have an independent rear suspension, which behaves a little more smoothly. The Juke's 17-inch wheels and tires probably don't help soften the pavement underneath much.

The all-wheel-drive system includes torque vectoring from front to rear, and between the rear wheels (but not the fronts), and it's intended solely for street use. Try to climb a steep driveway in moderate snowfall, and you'll be confounded.

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2012 Nissan Juke

Comfort & Quality

The 2012 Nissan Juke will hold four adults if it has to--it's far from the most spacious crossover on the market.

A high driving position gives some passengers a better feeling of space in the 2012 Nissan Juke, but it's still a subcompact with subpar interior room.

The front seats in the Juke are positioned high for better visibility and an SUV-like "command" driving position, and the driver seat is adjustable not just for height, but for backrest angle, too. But there's just not an abundance of head or knee room to go around, and larger adults will have to get used to rubbing against the doors and center console.

A pair of six-foot passengers will just squeeze into the rear seats, but won't be very comfortable. The rear seat bottoms are positioned high, too, but head room is scant and knee room is just okay, even after the front seats are ratcheted forward. Kids will be much more comfortable but we think it'll be tough to get car seats and boosters in there, due to the funky cuts of the door openings. By all means, if you're looking for utility, skip the sunroof, which shaves inches off the already lean headroom.

With the rear seat left in place for passengers, the cargo bay isn't very large. At 10.5 cubic feet, it's hardly bigger than the bin in the Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG, less than half as big as the cargo space in a new Nissan Versa or Hyundai Accent. Folding down the rear seats expands the usable space but still the cargo area is about half that of the Honda Fit. There's no usable console bin, so hiding portable electronics and the like means putting them in the glove box or under the seats.

The Juke's trim and finishes deserve special mention. They're either totally cool or extremely inexpensive. The shiny, color-shifting fabric on the seats looks like carnival stuffed animals, sometimes--the headliner, like the felt-covered cardboard it is. It's par for the subcompact course, but the latest spate of Hyundais and Kias seem to pull it off better.

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2012 Nissan Juke

Safety

The IIHS has good things to say about the 2012 Nissan Juke, but the Feds haven't checked in yet.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) hasn't yet tested the 2012 Nissan Juke, but the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has--and it's given the pert little crossover its Top Safety Pick award. We'll update this review when more data is available from the federal agency.

The Juke is equipped with the usual, mandatory safety gear, including dual front, side and curtain airbags; and anti-lock brakes, traction and stability control. Tire-pressure monitors are standard as well, and in the Juke, when a tire is low, the horn sounds, alerting drivers.

Rearward visibility isn't as bad in the Juke as we expected. Despite short side windows and thick rear pillars, the view to the rear is okay, and the rear-seat headrests don't block much. The rear window isn't the biggest--it's shallow and arched--but the rearview mirror gives ample warning of what's behind you on the road. However, new safety gadgets like a rearview camera and blind-spot monitors aren't offered. 

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2012 Nissan Juke

Features

The 2012 Nissan Juke comes nicely equipped, and offers some fun options, but can top out at nearly $25,000.

The Nissan Juke has a better than usual list of standard features, but piling on the options can push the pricetag uncomfortably high for a subcompact.

The base Juke S comes with the four-cylinder/CVT drivetrain; 17-inch wheels; an AM/FM/CD audio system with an auxiliary jack and Bluetooth connectivity; power windows, locks and mirrors; remote keyless entry; and a 60/40 split rear seatback.

Next up the ladder is the Juke SV, which adds a moonroof; satellite radio; pushbutton start; the user-selectable I-CON system with automatic temperature control; and a leather-wrapped steering wheel.

On the top Juke SL, there's a standard navigation system with a small 5-inch LCD touchscreen and real-time traffic; a Rockford Fosgate subwoofer and six speakers; a USB port; leather seats, heated in front; automatic headlights; and fog lights.

On the options list are the Juke's torque-vectoring all-wheel-drive system, and on more basic models, the navigation system and USB port, which during our last test wouldn't control an iPhone, leaving us to resort to using the aux jack.

The nav system's small screen is a minus, but the system itself gets high marks for intuitive controls. Maps are stored on a space-saving SD card, too. Zooming to map intersections is one of its nice details. On the audio side, the nav/sound system displays all the satellite-radio information, and provides clean sound.

Prices can mount as you add options, but we'd select those--and probably skip things like the illuminated front sill plates that spell out "JUKE" whenever the door is open. It's a few hundred bucks, money probably spent better on gas for the thirsty Juke.

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2012 Nissan Juke

Fuel Economy

Low real-world gas mileage seems to go hand in hand with the 2012 Nissan Juke’s wacky styling and zingy powertrain.

For a subcompact, lightweight vehicle with an advanced engine and transmissions, the Juke's real-world gas mileage seems to fall short.

Startlingly low fuel efficiency may be something Juke owners need to judge before they buy. The EPA rates the Juke as high as 32 mpg highway, but in our experience, daily driving will yield results below even the city mileage of 24-27 mpg. We've logged about 24 mpg in a few Juke moves, and have seen 22 mpg or less from other publications. Those figures are low for a mid-size sedan, let alone a subcompact hatchback. Owner forums also log complaints of gas mileage in the low 20-mpg range, regardless of how the hatchback is driven.

Even before factoring in its performance and its sporty mission, the Juke's numbers are below average. Take for example the 2012 Hyundai Accent, a hatchback with an interior nearly large enough to qualify as a compact by EPA standards. It's rated at 30/40 mpg, with observed fuel economy of 33 mpg in our hands--and the same goes for the Veloster, the sporty four-door just introduced by Hyundai.

We've debated giving the Juke a green score lower than 7, but have given a little more standing to the EPA's official test numbers.

The Juke is not offered with any more fuel-efficient powertrains, such as a hybrid or a diesel.

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