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2012 Nissan Juke Road Test

If a vehicle ever came with an age restriction, this would be it.

What It Is
Designed by people with lots of caffeine and short attention spans, this Predator-looking crossover might just be the most youth-oriented vehicle ever made...mostly because your parents would never drive one.
Best Thing
It doesn't take itself too seriously.
Worst Thing
Some tubes of toothpaste are bigger than the Juke's gas tank.
Snap Judgment
Your id will love it, your ego will hate it, and your super-ego may explode in a fit of cognitive dissonance after driving the Juke.


A bunch of teenagers sitting around with their spiral notebooks doodling cars don't design cars for major automakers; a bunch of highly esteemed art school grads do. But what if they did? What if someone's youth in rebellion won out to the point where a design department just drew up whatever it wanted and said to hell with conformity?

The result would probably look something like the 2012 Nissan Juke. It's a premium urban crossover -- that means no off-road pretentions whatsoever -- aimed at young people. Or at least that's what we surmised. How you ask? Because the Juke's Munroney label proudly calls the vehicle a "Bold Urban Sports Cross." And our Juke was optioned up with front-wheel drive and a manual transmission. At $26,240, including $780 for destination and handling, we'd certainly call it premium, as it's quite a lot of money for such a small vehicle. It easily creeps into compact crossover territory, pricewise, alongside competitors like the Mini Cooper Countryman and upcoming Buick Encore.

As for surmising that it's not for your grandpa, we'll get to that.

A Few Photos of this Vehicle

Click thumbnails for detailed view

Powered by a turbocharged 1.6-liter four-cylinder making 188 horsepower that's exclusive to the Juke instead of the conventional 2.5-liter four-cylinder found in the larger Rogue, this bug-eyed crossover is also one of the few high-riders out there available with a six-speed manual transmission. So, naturally, we opted to pick one up for a week optioned in such a way.

When added up, from the premium features available to the high-tech engine and finally to the styling and details, the 2012 Nissan Juke represents something of a head-scratcher. It's subcompact-sized and high-powered relative to the class. It's obviously geared for more enthusiastic drivers. But does the Juke deliver, or is it just another economy car in drag? And, more importantly, is it worth the price of admission?

What We Drove

For a week, we settled down with a 2012 Nissan Juke SL, the top-of-the-line leather-clad model equipped with front-wheel drive. The enthusiastic drivers among us rejoiced that it came with a six-speed manual transmission, but then we came to our senses. Many times, people who buy crossovers do so for their all-weather utility. Yet, the Juke is only available with the manual transmission when optioned with front-wheel drive. Nissan's continuously variable automatic transmission costs an additional $500 in the Juke, but adding torque-vectoring all-wheel drive drives up the price an additional $1,160 for the base Juke S and $1,650 for the Juke SV and SL models on top of the automatic.

Our Juke came with 17-inch aluminum wheels, heated front seats, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, an upgraded stereo with a Rockford Fosgate subwoofer and amplifier, USB jacks for music players, a touchscreen monitor with built-in back-up camera and navigation system, and a power moonroof, among other features. It also came with carpeted floor mats ($180) and a sport package ($1,350) that painted the wheels gunmetal gray, added a rear spoiler, and finished the exhaust pipe in the same gunmetal color.

Fortunately, all of the Juke's primary safety features come standard no matter option level you choose. They include front and side curtain airbags for the driver and front passenger, two LATCH child seat anchors, four-wheel disc brakes, and traction and stability control. In government testing, the Juke scored an overall crash safety rating of four stars -- three in front collision, five in side impact, and four stars in rollover protection. It was also named an Insurance Institute of Highway Safety 2012 "Top Safety Pick."

A Few Photos of this Vehicle

Click thumbnails for detailed view

The Commute

Riding on a short wheelbase with a stiff suspension, we could have predicted how the Nissan Juke handled highway traveling long before taking it on a trip: choppy to the point where we could feel every little bump in the road. But to our surprise, the Juke's ride was bearable.

With plenty of travel in the suspension over various road imperfections, we actually found it surprisingly pleasant for long-distance drives. In normal and eco modes, selectable from the Juke's Integrated Control (I-Con) menu on the dashboard, the Juke's steering feels fairly relaxed. In sport mode, the engine draws a quicker response, and the steering becomes crisper, enabling the Juke to pick up some more power for aggressive driving. The only downside to it is that the quicker-feeling steering gets jittery on rougher highways in its sport setting.

We enjoyed sitting in the Juke's tightly bolstered front buckets, and that only helped with the driving experience, as the Juke's interior provided a funky atmosphere to sweeten the deal. The contrasting red center console looks like a motorcycle gas tank, and the labels for the buttons disappear and reappear depending on what mode you've selected on the Juke's I-Con diagnostics display.

Our only real gripes about the Juke came with its designers' tendencies to shove too much design and technology into too small of places. For example, take the navigation system. Most smartphones have screens bigger than the Juke's little five-incher, and the navigation system announced directions in Pittsburghese. That is, its on-board voice was eager to give a "Take next right," but rarely ever displayed street names or said where to turn with any specificity. So we had to turn around a few times after missing cues. Also, while shoving two sport buckets into the Juke, Nissan also forgot to add an inside armrest for either the driver or front passenger. The Juke even lacked a telescoping steering wheel.

That "a lot in a little space" approach continued, leaving one of our (older) editors wondering if Nissan meant to put its turn signal on top of the hood or whether the automaker just ran out of space between its busy looks. Most everyone else (younger) thought they looked just ugly enough to look cool, though. And it was good Nissan decided to add a rear window somewhere between all of the Juke's curves. It wasn't particularly useful, but the Juke has surprisingly decent visibility otherwise, making up for the slight in allocated glass. We found it shame, though, that Nissan somehow forgot to make any room for its measly 13.2-gallon fuel tank, or just 11.8 gallons with all-wheel drive.

The Grocery Run

With a vehicle as small as the Juke, you don't expect much in the way of grocery-carrying ability. However, the Juke is based off the Nissan Sentra and Versa, both of which are surprisingly good with space utilization, and the same holds true with the Juke. During a recent excursion to a Trader Joe's, we fit three large bags in the cargo hold, with room for probably twice that many. But that's just about all you'll be able to fit behind its rear seats. We feel confident saying if this is your only grocery-getter, maybe only one of your children will have to go hungry do to the inability to carry home enough food. But that's really all based on having to shop for more than the average 2.2 children, spouse, and a dog.

As for people hauling, the back seat room is perfectly adequate for anyone 5-foot-9 or shorter. We'd only recommend two people of such stature sit back there at a time, as the Juke's narrow interior doesn't leave much room for anyone thinking about using the middle seatbelt.

There is a consolation for the Juke's size: maneuverability. Its tight dimensions and quick steering can make even the most nearsighted person being the wheel look like a parking lot rockstar. We'd recommend doing so with the normal or eco mode engaged, though, as those modes make steering effort all the more manageable.

The Weekend Fun

We got all sorts of kvetching in our logbook about the Juke's steering not being very sporty, its shifter feeling rubbery and imprecise, and the fact that the engine doesn't make very much power until about 3,000 rpm. But as much as our editors bemoaned the Juke's flaws, everyone came back with the same conclusion: It's somehow surprisingly fun to drive.

We say that as a bit of a quagmire because the parts don't really add up to its sum. It doesn't always do a great job hiding the fact it shares parts with the Nissan Cube and Versa hatchback, but because of its light weight and peppy engine, it somehow compensates, albeit scrappily.

Putting the Juke in sport mode helps, tightening steering. The chassis also delivers with very little torque steer -- that unwanted tug in the steering wheel that powerful front-wheel drive cars sometimes have -- under hard acceleration. That's a good thing. With a built-in boost gauge for the turbocharger, and a g-meter in the I-Con screen reading lateral acceleration in corners, the Juke comes with a surprising amount of fun technology. Although the manual transmission could use some work, the younger lot of us didn't outright loathe it like some of our more senior staffers. We just wish we could get it with Nissan's trick torque-vectoring all-wheel-drive system for better at-the-limit handling and all-weather usability.

A Few Photos of this Vehicle

Click thumbnails for detailed view

Summary

There's a lot to like about the Juke, from its nimble handling, to a design that doesn't take itself too seriously. Sure, it's ugly. But it's anti-establishment, defying convention. It comes off looking fresh compared to most other crossovers. Overall, if standing out in a sporty crossover is your thing, dwelling amidst other urbanites in places with tight parking quarter, the Juke could fit the bill what you're looking for.

We generally liked it. But then again, many on our staff are without large families or a need for bigger vehicles.

But then we thought about it longer: The Nissan Juke is more than $26,000 as-optioned, but it lacks exceptional fuel economy -- we saw 27.8 mpg with it in mostly highway driving -- is recommended for premium fuel to get the most out of the engine, has hard plastics throughout, a compromised navigation system, and a look that we loved for our week with it but wouldn't be sure if we could live with for the next few years. If we wanted a small, sporty car, we know there are plenty out there that could deliver what the Juke can. And if we needed a crossover, there are plenty out there with better fuel economy and more space, too.

The idea of something wholly different for the sake of being different makes us appreciate the Juke for what it is: A crossover for the young, single, and those who too quickly get bored by normalcy. But as we inevitably have to think about cars as things we can't just trade in after a week at a time, the Juke starts losing its luster. As a young shopper, you overlook its flaws because of its fun factor and eccentricities. As a more experienced consumer, you realize what you're getting is a whole lot of a subcompact crossover wrapped in a package largely made of frills.

Spec Box

Price-as-tested: $26,240
Fuel Economy
EPA City: 25
EPA Highway: 31
EPA Combined: 27
Estimated Combined Range: 356 miles
Intellichoice Cost of Ownership: Poor

Notebook Quotes

"Nifty car, and one that 25- to 30-year-old Keith would probably dig. But 42-year-old Keith was happy to give up the keys." -Keith Buglwicz, News Director
"I'd recommend it to a friend who is single or has a significant other. Any more people in a family may pose a problem for Nissan's little frog-crossover." -Trevor Dorchies, Associate Editor
"Love the motorcycle tank-inspired chunk of shiny red plastic in the center console, though its practicality is dubious." -Blake Rong, Associate Editor
"If I was in the market, and if my son was old enough to drive, I would buy him a Juke." -Jason Davis, Associate Editor

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