Nissan Juke Nismo focuses on performance, not looks

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When they’re not churning out mainstream sedans and SUVs, some carmakers devote a considerable amount of R & D to their performance division. Also known as “skunkworks”, this is where manufacturers step out a little and wring as much performance as they can out of existing models. Mercedes has AMG, Audi has its S division, BMW has its M division, Chrysler has SRT/Mopar, Toyota has TRD, and so on. Nissan has Nismo.

The Lowdown

Engine: Turbocharged 1.6-litre four-cylinder 

Transmission: CVT

Drive: All-wheel drive

Horsepower: 215 horsepower at 6,000 rpm 

Torque: 184 foot-pounds at 2,000 rpm

Base Price: $24,998; as tested, $30,473

Fuel Economy: 8.0 litres per 100 kilometres city, 6.6 highway; premium fuel

Alternatives: Toyota Matrix, Honda Fit Sport, Ford Fiesta SE, Subaru BRZ, Scion FR-S, Mitsubishi Lancer Sportback GT, MazdaSpeed3, Hyundai Veloster

Photos

Its name, an acronym for Nissan Motorsports International, Nismo has produced some formidable hot rods over the years, including the hellaciously quick Skyline GT-R V-Spec and the Sentra SE-R Spec-V. Essentially, Nismo takes a production model, develops a tuning package for it, gussies it up a little, and puts it on the market. They’re usually produced in small numbers and offer performance and handling that are a cut above the usual.

The latest Nissan to get the Nismo treatment is, of all things, the Juke. It gets a slightly more powerful engine, tuned suspension, glitzy 18-inch wheels and tires, different seats, and three special paint schemes: black, silver, and white.

After a tweaking by Nismo engineers, the 1.6-litre turbocharged and intercooled four-cylinder puts out 215 horsepower—compared to 188 for the regular version. It comes with front- or all-wheel drive, and you can choose from a six-speed manual or a CVT. One note here: the CVT is only available with the AWD version, while the manual gearbox is only offered with the FWD model. My tester had the AWD/CVT, and were I in the market for a car of this ilk, I’d choose the manual gearbox. If you’re going to commit to this kind of automobile, it seems to me, you won’t be happy with a CVT: it isn’t responsive enough and lacks that connection between driver and engine that all self-respecting sports cars have. That said, the AWD is bound to be more stable and grippy when the pavement goes away.

Other standard equipment with the Nismo includes tilt (but not telescoping) steering, steering-wheel audio controls, a navi system, a rear-view camera, and traction control/vehicle dynamic control systems.

Despite its crossover configuration, the Juke Nismo is actually a funny-looking sports car—it rides rougher than its stock counterpart, handles better, stops better, and offers a more spirited driving experience. It’s actually fun to drive and surprised me with its performance and handling. Although this is far from scientific, I managed to get zero to 100 kilometres per hour times in the seven-to-eight-second range during a few timed acceleration runs. And fuel economy, if it matters, is 8.0 litres per 100 kilometres in town and 6.6 on the highway. Interestingly, the AWD version is slightly thriftier in town than the FWD one, but a little thirstier on the highway.

A couple of things to mention. First up, the Recaro-style front seats are race-quality firm and supportive. This may be a good thing on the track, but for everyday driving, getting in and out of the Juke Nismo can be challenging. For anyone over 30, these seats could be downright uncomfortable, and I can see the side bolsters becoming threadbare pretty quickly.

Secondly, the ride is as uncompromising and unyielding as a cement truck. There is almost no give in the suspension, and after a while it gets pretty old. Again, tons of fun on a track, no doubt, but vexing around town. Drinking a cup of coffee while in motion takes on a whole new flavour with the Nismo.

A word about the body style. When it was introduced, in 2010, the Juke definitely got people’s attention. Unorthodox and unique were some of the adjectives that were tossed around; ugly and toad-like were others. But despite its homeliness, it was—and is—an immensely drivable car. Although it’s a completely different automobile, it reminded me of the Pontiac Aztek: weird and hard to look at, but a pleasant surprise behind the wheel. There seems to be a core of buyers out there who will purchase an automobile simply because it’s out of the ordinary—something Nissan was counting on when it unleashed the Juke three years ago. For what it’s worth, Nissan’s partner, Renault, had significant input in the styling of the Juke. This is also one of those vehicles that you have to dig a little to find. Nissan doesn’t overplay its Nismo division, and if you want a Juke in this trim, you’ll have to ask for it.

With its lower road stance, larger wheels and tires, and slick paint job, the Nismo version does mitigate the weirdness of the stock Juke somewhat, but this is still an unusual-looking automobile and not everyone’s cup of tea.

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