According to Nissan, its supermini-sized crossover Juke has enjoyed a substantial degree of success in such markets as North America and Japan, where it has been available since the second half of 2010. Designed to sit below the popular Qashqai and Murano models, it is said to combine elements of a 4x4 with the performance of a sportscar.
Although unfortunately we don't get the AWD models here, certainly in styling terms, the Juke seems to succeed. Blank off the top half with your hand, and from the waistline down it looks all 4x4 — optional 17in alloys in puffed-out wheel arches, all chunky and substantial. Only on top of this go-anywhere base Nissan has welded a scaled-down version of the glasshouse of its GT-R, with letter-box windows, sloping roofline and squared-off C-pillar. It also suggests you'll find similarities in the rear lights with those of the 370Z — you can make up your own mind about that!
One thing's for sure, it is a shape that works 100 per cent better in the metal than in print. On the road the Juke has real presence, delivering a much more muscular stance than its humble Micra underpinnings would suggest. Don't worry, thanks to the alliance between Nissan and Renault that same platform is the foundation of the sublime-handling Clio, so it should certainly drive well. Suspension here is MacPherson-strut front and torsion beam at the rear, held up by longer springs to give that off-road stance.
Drivers in the region will get a choice of two engines, both 1.6 litre four-pot petrols. The base level normally aspirated version produces 117bhp and a useful 157Nm of torque, but we weren't able to drive that so its performance cannot be assessed. The version we did get, the Direct Injection Gasoline Turbo (DiGT) unit, pumps out 188bhp and a much more impressive 240Nm of twist, which should be more than enough to get the Juke's 1,315kg weight on the move.
Article continues below
The Juke is actually surprisingly spacious inside, thanks to its high roof and broad shoulders. The back seats are comfortably big enough for two adults, and a neat little scallop in the roof lining means there's even ample headroom. The rear doors are quite narrow to get in and out of, but they are proper doors at least. Front seats are grippy and supportive, manually adjustable and the "Premium Fabric" finish holds you in place rather more securely than the top-spec but plasticy leather alternative.
The highlight of the interior is a bold centre console supposedly modelled on the fuel tank of a motorcyle, available in a choice of red or silver metallic. If you're going to do such a thing, might as well take the bold option. Elsewhere, plastics were generally fine, but durability remains untested. Another feature is the high-tech driving information display (or I-CON in marketing speak), which lets you switch between Climate and Driving modes. In Drive you can select various settings for throttle, steering and transmission, with choices for Eco, Normal and Sport. Unfortunately, the display is set way down at the bottom of the centre console behind the gearshift, so you're better off letting your passenger choose the settings.
Forget Eco. It's just unspeakably dull, and the sheer lack of response even from the turbo engine could get you into trouble faster than out of it. If you want real economy you don't buy a bluff, chunky and substantial CUV in the first place. Normal is OK for most city driving if still a little on the cautious side. The electrically assisted steering is light and accurate enough, and the high-mounted light clusters on top of the wings make the Juke easy to place in traffic. The suspension is stiff, both to prevent body roll and as a nod to the "sporty" intentions of the car, but while never actually jarring, is best suited to mirror-smooth city roads, which in reality is where the Juke will spend 99 per cent of its time anyway.
Press on Sport, and things get better. Throttle response is sharper and the Juke begins to get into its stride. Unfortunately, not long after that it begins to get out of it again. Press-on driving on a twisty road will see the front end going progressively further into understeer, and you can feel it struggling to keep things tidy. The stiff suspension does indeed keep body roll in check, but it runs out of answers too quickly to provide much confidence over choppy or uneven surfaces, and ends up just being jittery and skittish. Better to back off and enjoy the more comfortable cruise.
The Juke offers a perhaps surprising choice of transmissions, a futuristic CVT system, which you can drive like a Tiptronic, and a thoroughly traditional manual, albeit with a choice of six gears. In many ways this is the better choice for enthusiastic drivers, as it offers a much more engaging experience than the CVT. Nissan defends the choice of CVT on the grounds of efficiency and fuel economy, but the driving experience is odd — instead of the rise and fall of engine note you get with torque-converter automatics, DCT boxes and old-fashioned manuals, which tells you about change in speed, with a CVT you get a constant engine note and the car changes speed without any audible change.
That said, the CVT in the Juke works well enough, and would be the better choice for enjoyable city driving. It also highlights the surprisingly laggy nature of the turbo.
With a manual box, there's almost nothing to be had below about 3,000rpm, so no possibility of leaving it in a higher gear and letting the torque waft you through a bend. No, you have to downshift a gear or two to keep the turbo spinning before you can make any kind of decent progress, a situation at odds with the cruisy nature of the car.
The CVT, in contrast, lets the motor spin up to 3,000rpm instantly, and so provides decent progress out of bends more readily than the manual, though the near-constant drone of the engine takes a lot of getting used to. Sadly, there's no point talking about if it works off-road, as there was no sand, no gravel, no gradients or rocky wadis, we drove these front-wheel drives only where they belong — the road.
In many ways, the Juke is a surprising car, a bold piece of design without any real equivalent in the market. Nissan expects it to compete with the forthcoming Mini Countryman and perhaps Audi's A1, but for that it will have to bring the AWD models here as well. That said, it is a spacious, comfortable four-door with funky good looks in a class of precisely one, and for many people, that's all that really matters.