The 2016 Nissan Juke looks part playful and part menacing. Those impressions, quite appropriately, extend to the way it performs, rides, and drives. It's a stronger performer than other pint-size crossovers, though it doesn't feel refined or mature.
You might sit quite high up in the Juke, but this is by no means a vehicle that ever feels tipsy or top-heavy. It feels like you're sitting high, over a low, well-balanced chassis. What really redeems the package, to us and to anyone who considers this vehicle as a sporty alternative, is its steering, which is quick, responsive, and surprisingly well-weighted, with more road feel and feedback than most small cars or other vehicles with the Nissan badge—short of the Z or GT-R sports cars.
However, its odd combination of a very firm suspension tune with quite a bit of suspension travel underneath it all adds up to a vehicle that's eccentric. Push the Juke a little too hard and it bounds and bounces. It's not all that happy with rough roads under any sort of driving.
Although the Juke looks like it might be built for occasional trail use or rutted, muddy backroads, it's not prepared for that type of duty. It's probably barely suited to a steep driveway covered in snow, and the all-wheel drive system is best thought of as a performance option for street use, bringing with it independent rear suspension instead of the front-drive model's torsion-beam rear. That would make it the enthusiast's choice despite the added weight, complexity, and cost—except that it means you can't get the 6-speed manual transmission at all, as it's only available in front-drive Jukes.
SV and SL versions of the Juke come with an adjustable steering and transmission response system. The Eco mode feels intentionally sluggish, to the degree that it interferes with smoothness (we tended to over-press the accelerator to get the desired acceleration, then had to back off, repeatedly). Normal mode is a good midpoint for drivability, while Sport mode actually feels sporty—raising the idle speed, reducing turbo lag, and sharpening the steering. But as we've noted in repeated drives of the Juke, it cuts even more into this model's already lackluster fuel economy.
Under the hood of Juke S, SV, SL, and the base NISMO models, there's a 188-horsepower 1.6-liter inline-4 that's turbocharged and direct-injected. In any of these models you can choose between front- and all-wheel drive.
You'd think this powertrain would yield a quick little urban runabout, yet it feels oddly ponderous in traffic with the continuously variable transmission—and rather noisy when you do want to extract all the available performance out of the powertrain. Push it hard, however, and it is quicker than the competition, accelerating from 0 to 60 mph in about seven seconds.
Those who want to get the most amped-up version of the Juke should go for the Juke NISMO RS. It gets a performance-tuned version of the same engine, making 215 hp and 184 pound-feet of torque. The NISMO Juke adds nearly 100 other revised components, including exclusive lightweight alloy wheels, a specially tuned suspension, more downforce, and more aggressively bolstered sport seats.