When the Nissan Juke belatedly launched in Australia in October 2013, more than three years after it appeared in Europe, there were a lot of people that didn’t know quite what to make of it.
Like a Mini, it’s a vehicle that trades almost exclusively on design, but unlike Mini it lacks decades of heritage to give it context. But yours truly, like many others, was heartened to see Nissan being bold with the Juke, doing something completely left-field in spite of common sense.
And with the boom in small SUVs ramping up, its timing was near-perfect. It’s been a smash hit in the UK (where it is made for markets including ours), and while never a huge seller in Australia, has tacked along quietly to a cumulative sales total pushing 5000 units.
We can tell you one thing — those 5000 people love the car, more than they’d love just a regular little hatchback. And for those 5000, there are probably 10,000 others who scratch their heads in bemusement every time they see one drive by.
The Juke, we should add, is not your typical family-friendly crossover SUV. That’s what the Qashqai is for. Rather, the Juke is a style statement, a slightly high-riding baby hatch aimed at empty nesters. Its closest rival is probably the Mazda CX-3, which likewise focuses on form at least as much as function.
So with the update to the model that launches this week in Australia — 13 months after its world debut — Nissan hasn’t messed with the formula too much. A few styling tweaks here, some more equipment there, improved cargo space at the rear and a new base engine round out the changes.
Summing up the styling changes, you get signature ‘boomerang’ headlights and bit like those on the 370Z with LED daytime running lights, as well as a fatter ‘V’ grille inlay. The side mirrors now have LED indicators, while the rear bumper is more aggressive and the tail lights a little sharper.
There are also new sets of 17-inch alloy wheels across the range, and three new colours led by that distinctive Bumblebee yellow. The various extra packs that add splashes of colour outside and in can now be purchased bit-by-bit, too.
Inside there is more equipment across the board. The base ST gets a tyre-pressure monitor, revised audio fascia design with a 5.8-inch touchscreen and a new key design. The price at base level is also up $1400 to $23,490 plus on-road costs.
Why? Because instead of the old 86kW/158Nm 1.6-litre normally aspirated engine, it gets a slick new Renault-sourced 1.2-litre turbo with 85kW/190Nm. Being European, though, this is only matched to a six-speed manual gearbox — ruling out most Australian buyers.
This is also why the ST CVT auto, which retains the old 1.6, has an unchanged price of $24,490.
Next step up in the trimmed range is the Ti-S manual, which is a big jump up over the ST at $29,790 (up $1300). New features include xenon headlights and digital radio. It also gets stuff such as part-leather seats, Google-linked satellite navigation and app connectivity.
Commendably, standard fare also includes a reverse-view camera with a 360-degree around-view monitor, as well as high-end safety gear such as lane-departure warning and a blind-spot monitor.
Finally, a send-to-car function also allows drivers to search for their destination at home and send route instructions to the NissanConnect system.
Under the bonnet it’s also different. You get the familiar 140kW/240Nm 1.6-litre turbo engine, which makes this among the pokiest little SUVs around. The engine has been tinkered with to improve bottom-end response below 2000rpm. A higher combustion ratio (from 9.5 to 10.5:1), improved friction technologies and cooled exhaust-gas recirculation round out the changes.
The flagship Ti-S automatic costs $33,490 (up $1000), but as well as the CVT adds an all-wheel-drive system that sends up to 50 per cent of torque rearwards, with torque vectoring that adjusts specific torque delivery to each wheel, helping channel the 1.6’s power better.
The trade-off is boot capacity. While all front-drive models (ST, Ti-S manual) get 40 per cent improved boot space (to 354 litres) through changes to the actual shape of the loading area, the AWD Ti-S CVT still only has a poxy 207L. All versions have a space-saver spare wheel.
Our test drive this week was very brief. Unfortunately, the constraints meant to we didn’t have time to drive all variants. Rather, we were given the ST-S 1.6 turbo manual, and at the end had a quick dash in the new 1.2.
Said new 1.2-litre turbo engine (it’s used in the Renault Clio, though it produces 3kW more in that car, oddly) punches out its 85kW at 4500rpm, but more importantly its 190Nm of torque at 2000rpm.
It’s an extremely engaging little unit that is smooth, refined and provides ample punch that feels swifter than its 0-100km/h time of 10.8 seconds. The six-speed manual gearbox has a long throw and a slightly notchy gate, but shifting your owns gears squeezes the best out of it.
It’s really a shame that there’s no auto version with this engine too. The Renault version comes with an EDC dual-clutch option, after all. So why not Nissan? We say this because manual gearbox sales in Australia are nearly non-existent at this point.
At 1163 kilograms tare, the 1.2 ST weighs 137kg less than the 2WD Ti-S, meaning it feels even more agile than the already nippy DIG-S Turbo. Its turn-in is sharp and its body control very car-like. The electro-assist steering is a touch numb, but it’s a fun little thing to throw around a twisty road.
The 1.6 ST-S manual dashes from 0-100km/h in around 8.0 seconds. Its 240Nm is on tap between 1600-5200rpm, a much wider band than before, but there’s still lag.
Furthermore, the FWD version can struggle to put the power down through the slim 215/55 tyres on take-off. Once you’ve piled on the revs though, it whooshes its way down the road with rapidity.
Again, that vague gearbox with odd clutch friction point takes a moment acclimate to, but kudos to Nissan for making a crossover of this type fun in this way.
We found the ride over B-roads on the 17-inch roads to be a little uncomfortable, given its transmitted every minor corrugation into the cabin more than it should have. But then, Nissan wants this to be sporty, and that’s the price you pay.
Our time at the wheel was brief, but as a driving experience, the 1.2 was what really impressed us. So much so that it's a half-point better than the 1.6 turbo, at least.
Inside the cabin, the changes are few. The new multimedia system in the Ti-S is good, though the sat-nav graphics are a trifle low rent.
The design remains funky, with one highlight being the glossy plastic transmission tunnel cover that apes a motorcycle fuel tank.
The small (and dull) screen hidden at the bottom of the fascia with its G monitor and adjustable driving modes (you can make the throttle response, for instance, sharper or duller in Sport and Eco mode respectively) are both wonderfully pointless.
Still, it remains a slightly dated cabin design, really, and some of the plastics quality is quite low-rent. You don’t mind so much on a $24K car, but on the $34K flagship version this is less ideal.
No doubt a key buying consideration is the high driving position — though we say that in relative terms. Less good is the limited outward visibility, made especially evident in the ST that lacks a reversing camera and around-view monitor (and even parking sensors, which are not even an option). Nor is there telescopic steering wheel adjustment.
Space in the rear is also quite cramped. The Juke is only 4135mm long, remember, which is a foot shorter than a Mazda 3. This really is a tiny car. Knee- and head-room in the back (the latter thanks to the sloping roof) are ordinary, and the small windows are hard to see out of.
A family-ready crossover this is not. Big props for the boosted cargo space though, which now exceeds the Mazda CX-3 and addresses a major issue with the old car. Flip the rear seats 60:40 and you even have a half-decent little load-lugger.
From an ownership perspective, Nissan gives you six years and 120,000km of capped-price servicing, though the intervals are short at 10,000km, meaning it’s not the cheapest car to run. The warranty is also only three-years/100,000km.
Realistically, our first spin in the updated Juke was brief. But it was enough for us to commend the new 1.2 engine, the additional cargo space and the good equipment additions — even if they come in tow with price increases.
But none of these things change the Juke at its core. It remains the same basic car — both good and bad — that it always was. It’s still small and pokey, the cabin remains a little dull, and the lack of an auto on the new 1.2 means few people will buy it.
Still, it’s a good thing that wacky cars such as the Juke exist. If you want something for the family, get a Qashqai (or any one of the countless other small family-oriented SUVs). The Juke is a different kettle of fish, and good on Nissan for embracing that fact.