It might be ugly but Nissan's Juke is immensely drivable

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      According to Nissan, they’re “urban adventurers” who are directly wired into pop culture, know a trend the moment it appears on their smartphone, and are “hyper-connected”. They seek out experiences for their own sake, but don’t have a lot of money to spend on them. They buy an automobile for the statement it makes as much as anything else, primarily live in the city, and are aged 28 to 35—somewhere between echo boomers and Gen-Xers.

      “They” are typical Juke buyers, according to Hugh Wickham, Nissan Canada’s senior manager of product planning. Nissan introduced the Juke to Canadian media in Vancouver earlier this summer.

      Without stating the obvious, this may be one of the homeliest cars to ever come down the pike, at least as far as this aging baby boomer is concerned. It’s an ugly little spud. The front end in particular is completely out of whack and looks like it was styled by ’50s customizer “Big Daddy” Ed Roth on a bad day. The headlight treatment could have been on the bad end of a run-in with an 18-wheeler, and the “crocodile eye” front combination lamps must have been conceived by someone on drugs. Interestingly, there was significant design input from Renault on the Juke’s styling, and from some angles—the back end especially—it kind of resembles the Mégane, surely one of the weirdest-looking vehicles ever made. Anyway, I think you get the picture: the Juke is as ugly as a mud fence.

      But it doesn’t matter. Those clever Trevors at Nissan know full well that their target market for this vehicle will buy it specifically because it looks so wonky, and what I—or anyone over 40, for that matter—think about it is pretty much irrelevant. Compact SUVs and CUVs are exploding in popularity in Canada, and Nissan is simply availing itself of opportunities within this fast-growing segment. “This market has grown by 62 percent between 2005 and 2010,” Wickham says, “and sales of 265,000 units are projected for all of 2010 in Canada.”

      Built on Nissan’s B platform, same as the Versa, the Juke comes with one engine choice: a turbocharged/intercooled, direct-injection four-cylinder that displaces 1.6 litres and develops 188 horsepower. It’s mated to either a six-speed manual or CVT transmission and will be available with or without all-wheel drive. The AWD system splits engine torque between the front and rear driving wheels—50/50—when it’s in play, as well as sending it side to side across the rear axle. According to Nissan, this drive train will offer fuel economy similar to that of their Sentra 2.0-litre econobox with the performance of a much larger engine.

      One interesting highlight here is the “D-mode” performance setting. Located on the dash to the left of the steering wheel, three buttons allow you to choose from Normal, Sport, or Eco, and the engine throttle settings, suspension, and transmission shift points are changed accordingly. If you want to sip fuel, stab Eco; if you’re feeling frisky, choose Sport. The differences are obvious and immediate. And here’s another slick idea: variable “icon display modes” that let you—again, at the push of a button—change the instrumentation monitor instantly: you can keep an eye on the turbo boost, fuel consumption, and even G-forces as you drive. This nifty little setup doesn’t just change the display, it also changes the control buttons—slick. I also thought the motorcycle-inspired centre console was an interesting touch. Designers reportedly took a long, hard look at various sport bikes and decided the profile of the fuel tank and rear fender would lend itself nicely to a centre console treatment and they highlighted it in bright red paint, although grey is also available. Nissan’s explanation? It’s all meant to appeal to the “info-oriented” echo boomer buyers in this market.

      In fact, homely though it may be, the Juke is an immensely drivable little tusker. The turbocharger gives it an additional dimension when it comes to reserve power, and it’s lively and well behaved. I had some minor issues with the shift gate linkage on the six-speed manual during the launch, but otherwise, absolutely no complaints in the performance and handling departments. One note here: Nissan recommends premium-grade gasoline for the Juke, although it will supposedly behave itself on regular.

      In terms of storage and cargo capacity, there’s less room in the back than you’ll find in the Juke’s stablemate, the Rogue, but more than, oh, the VW Golf or Mazda3, both of which are considered to be direct rivals. You can also toss the Toyota Matrix and Scion xB into the mix, as far as Nissan is concerned. “This is the baby of the SUV/CUV market,” Wickham says. As for the name, apparently it means “to defeat or outwit an opponent or obstacle through cleverness” and is common parlance in the world of sport. It is? If you say so.

      Two trim levels will be offered, SV and SL, along with a wide range of extras including leather interior, heated outside mirrors, heated front seats, ABS, power moonroof, push-button start, and a navi system. Prices will start at just under $20,000 and go up to just under $30,000 fully loaded. Look for the Juke right about now.