Nissan claims it is a "Sport Cross," ostensibly meaning that it's a sport utility vehicle, with more emphasis on sport than utility. Based on one of Nissan's global vehicle platforms, the Juke slots in between Nissan's unconventional, functional little Cube, and the entirely conventional Rogue sport utility.
Cargo space is limited, too, for what is technically an SUV: There's 10.5 cubic feet of cargo space, or 35.9 cubic feet with the rear seats folded down.
Up front, though, there's plenty of room for two passengers. Seats are supportive and comfortable, despite being thin, with the rear shell carved out to try to make a little more legroom for back-seat passengers. Instruments and controls are thoughtfully designed and easy to use. In a couple of areas — the basic plastic door panels, the felt headliner — you can see evidence of cost-cutting, but the overall impression is that this is a vehicle that should cost more than the $18,960 base price.
Performance-wise, the Juke is definitely a contender — playful and competent but still easy on gasoline. The only engine offered is a 1.6-liter, turbocharged 4-cylinder, pumping out an impressive 188 horsepower. But still, fuel mileage is quite good. With the 6-speed manual, which we had in the test vehicle, the EPA rating is 24 mpg city, 31 highway. Get the automatic CVT — continuously variable transmission — and mileage increases to 27/32. Gone are the days where a manual transmission always beats an automatic in mileage.
The most innovative aspect of the Juke is how it lets the driver manage that power. Press a button, and you access one of three settings — Eco, Normal and Sport, each governing the steering feel and throttle response. As you'd expect, Eco is the most easygoing, maximizing mileage. Sport definitely perks up the engine. Normal is in-between. The electric-boosted power steering has a good feel in any of the settings.
The Juke comes in three models: the base S, midlevel SV, and upscale SL. The test model was the SL, with the price starting at $23,050, before shipping. Front-wheel-drive is standard; All-wheel-drive, which the test car did not have, adds $1,500.
The SL comes loaded with equipment, including leather upholstery, a big sunroof and a Rockford Fosgate sound system, a navigation system and back-up camera. Remember, though, that even if you get the least expensive Juke, you still get that spunky turbocharged engine, as well as a long list of safety equipment.
On the road, the Juke is a genuine surprise. Standard 17-inch alloy wheels with Goodyear tires are grippy and quiet. Brakes are four-wheel-disc. Shock absorbers are the premium twin-tube KYB brand. All this, with the very short wheelbase, makes the Juke handle more like a sports car than an SUV. The ride is good on all but the worst pavement. It's an all-purpose companion ready for whatever you ask it to do.
Yes, the styling is polarizing, but it grew on me quickly. The Juke is a vehicle that is prepared to serve multiple masters, and handle all their requests with competence. Nissan is targeting the Juke at young drivers, but they may be surprised at the eventual range of customers who buy one.