More Performance for the Juke

Photo courtesy of Nissan North America

2013 Nissan JUKE NISMO.

“Nothing ventured, nothing gained.” That’s the old saying regarding sticking your neck out and taking a risk, as we all know. Doing something new, or in a new way, can often pay off in the long run.

But sometimes, well, bold moves don’t go over so well. In the car world, the infamous Edsel experiment by Ford Motor Company in the late 1950s comes to mind. And in recent years, Nissan’s bold move in the form of the compact Juke left more than a few people scratching their heads.

On paper, the Juke looked pretty cool. A tall-ish, 5-door hatchback-y vehicle that was a sort of mini-mini-SUV with a certain degree of urban vibe. But when it came to arriving in its sheet metal flesh, it didn’t exactly go over as a huge hit.

Most of the Juke looks pretty nice. The sides have nicely arched wheel openings, and an overall rakish stance. From the rear, a pretty conventional hatch surrounded by interesting taillights. But … that face. Oh dear. The view of the front is like looking at an interpretation of a frog turned into a robot.

The Juke hasn’t been a huge flop, as I do see them on the road quite a bit, and their drivers hardly ever look embarrassed to be seen in them. But Nissan may have overestimated the public’s willingness to accept such a strange design.

Help is now on the way, courtesy of Nissan’s in-house performance tuning division called Nismo. (For Nissan Motorsports.) No, the Nismo package doesn’t change the overall styling, but it does transform the Juke into a sweet little performance car.

The Nismo tuning didn’t need to go too deeply under the hood, as the Juke already comes with a turbocharged engine. But a few more horsepower are always welcome when you’re creating a hot little hatchback, so a tweak here and a tweak there result in a total of 197 horsepower, which is up just 9 from the regular Juke.

Performance enthusiasts should be smitten with the 6-speed manual gearbox as standard. More and more “performance” cars these days are doing away with conventional manuals. And even though the automatics of today are probably better performers overall in most cases, purists still want to operate a clutch pedal and shift their own gears. You can still the CVT automatic with the Nismo Juke, though only combined with all wheel drive.

Add in a more performance-oriented suspension and you’ve got the makings for a rather fun way to get around. The Nismo upgrade also includes heavily bolstered front bucket seats plus a steering wheel covered in a grippy suede-like material. Finishing touches include a revised front spoiler, red body accents, and red mirror covers.

This isn’t quite the little hot rod that the Ford Focus ST or Volkswagen GTI are, but it scoots through urban traffic pretty nicely. The gears in the 6-speed manual are perfectly spaced to make use of the engine’s power, and the suspension is just crisp enough to keep the car planted. You still sit tall in this car (part of the “SUV” type design), but it works nonetheless.

It also works pretty well as an everyday car. Fuel economy is decent (25 city and 31 highway with the manual transmission), the cargo area in back is larger than you might think, and the vehicle has a great turning radius for easing into tight parking spots.

One thing which helped my test car in that regard is an excelling rear-view camera. It’s part of a $1170 Navigation Package that also includes traffic monitoring and a Rockford Fosgate ecoPUNCH (what the heck does that mean?) sound system. All told, the bottom line sticker price was just a pinch over $25,000.

This is actually a competent little package, and fun to drive. And, the best thing about driving this Juke? You can’t see the front of it from the driver’s seat.

I’ll see you down the road.

Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7 and can be heard on “The Car Show” Saturdays at 9 a.m. on KPFK, 90.7 FM. E-mail Dave at TVCarz @ pacbell.net Twitter: @dave_kunz, Facebook: ABC7Dave