The Nismo team took the GT-R supercar and 370Z sports car to another level of appreciation. Our first drive of its third effort – a performance version of the pint-sized Juke crossover – suggests it hasn’t achieved a Nismo trifecta.
The GT-R and 370Z sports cars made completely natural subjects for go-faster treatment from Nissan Motorsport – or NISMO as it’s better known as both company and badge.
A funky-looking crossover is something different. Yet that’s what we have here with a performance version of the half-hatch-half-SUV Juke.
The Nissan Juke Nismo RS has been on sale for a few years in other markets, and production of the variant has actually ceased. It’s here because Nissan Australia decided to bag 240 units from the final month’s batch off the assembly line.
It arrives with an MY19 update for the regular Nissan Juke range, which has been around since 2013 (itself arriving a few years after debuting globally in 2010).
You can read here about the other Juke models, which are priced between $23,490 and $33,840.
The Nissan Juke Nismo sits at the top of the pile with a starting price of $37,790 in six-speed manual, front-wheel-drive form, or $40,490 for a CVT auto with all-wheel drive. Nissan Australia is forecasting the Nismo variant will account for about a third of Juke sales.
On the crossover, it runs along the top of the Nismo’s sporty side skirts and then underneath the LED daytime running lights and across the more aggressively styled lower bumper.
Where the sports cars add another red stripe on their side mirrors, the Juke Nismo adopts red mirror caps.
Completing the Nismo makeover is a rear roof spoiler, diffuser-style rear bumper, and 18-inch wheels featuring 10-spoke Nismo RS alloy rims.
The first Juke Nismo rolled out overseas was merely a styling package carrying an R badge. Wisely, Nissan Australia waited for this RS model that is much more in keeping with a motorsport heritage stretching back decades.
Almost every area related to the driving experience has been tweaked in some way.
The suspension and body are beefed up, there are larger brakes up front (and the rear discs ventilated where they’re solid on regular Jukes), the steering is revised, there’s a Nismo-tuned exhaust system, and extra boost and engine management tweaks bring more power and torque from the 1.6-litre turbocharged four-cylinder taken from the Juke Ti-S.
Here, it produces 160kW and 280Nm – or 157kW and 250Nm with the CVT AWD variant most buyers (about 70 per cent) will choose.
At this stage we can’t reveal which is the better drivetrain as we were given only a manual model at the launch. Our time behind the wheel wasn’t as extensive as we’d have liked, either, while conditions varied between wet and damp. Still, an excellent variety of roads helped to reveal plenty…
The first is that the Juke Nismo’s front end can be a bit of handful.
Even with mid-corner throttle usage slightly tempered in view of a soaked surface, the Juke struggles to transfer power to the road smoothly out of corners despite the inclusion of a (helical geared) limited-slip front differential. There’s significant torque steer and plenty of wheelspin.
The Juke Nismo sits tall compared to a similarly sized hot-hatch, and the manual variant sits the highest of all Jukes, where the CVT is lowest – a quirk of the differing suspension set-ups we’re told, where the AWD auto model has a stiffer front end (though both are stiffer than regular Jukes).
That ride height benefits vision, but the clear trade-off is a relatively large degree of body roll in corners you wouldn’t experience in, say, a Renault Clio RS. Turn-in isn’t especially sharp, and the steering feels artificially weighted – though its medium heaviness is consistent, and the Alcantara-wrapped wheel feels sporty.
The Renault is a particularly relevant example as the hot Clio uses a variation of the Juke’s 1.6-litre turbo engine.
Variation is a key word, though, as the Juke Nismo RS’s engine isn’t as feisty as the installation found in the Clio RS, only just starting to stir past the 2500rpm mark and providing satisfying response only once above 3500rpm – where maximum torque starts to pile in.
It similarly starts to run out of puff at higher revs, but the Juke’s Dyson-like drone is less inspiring – lacking the gurgling, whooshing (albeit audio-enhanced) noises of the Renault.
Juke Nismo owners will also have to shell out for the most expensive fuel, as 98-octane rather than 95 is recommended.
At least you’re offered a manual gearbox with the Nissan. The six-speeder has a shortish throw and the clutch pedal is well weighted, but the rubbery gearshift action lacks finesse.
Sixth gear isn’t too short, so at 100km/h the engine ticks along at 2500rpm where it’s reasonably quiet and capable of providing some response to an extra squeeze of the throttle.
The Juke Nismo feels well suited to country roads in other respects, because its damping is effective at settling the crossover quickly when encountering dips at high speed.
The suspension is less successful at lower speeds on urban roads, where the stiffer springing and damping was glaring – and clumsy at times over bumps.
We’ll have to wait to see whether any improvement comes from the CVT version – which switches from the manual’s torsion beam rear suspension to a multi-link, to better cater for the auto’s all-wheel drive system with torque vectoring function.
It’s about 140kg heavier, mind, and the rear track is narrower, while those with an eye on practicality should note the more sophisticated drivetrain and suspension shrink boot capacity from 354 to 207 litres by losing the manual’s under-floor compartment.
Regardless of speed or location, the Nismo’s thickly cushioned and chunkily bolstered sports seats strike an excellent balance between comfort and support. The steering wheel adjusts only for height, though.
Other Nismo touches around the cabin include branded tread plates and mats, suede door trim sections and binnacle hood, red tachometer, leather-accented gear knob, some gloss-black trim, a main dash section finished in a faux carbon-fibre plastic, and that Alcantara steering wheel.
However, they can’t mask an interior that is looking every bit its eight years in terms of both design and materials. That’s not helped by all the hard plastics and cheap roof-lining, or the tiny (5.8-inch) infotainment display.
Nismo touches aside, equipment is shared with the mid-range Ti-S Juke – including digital radio, navigation, surround view, heated front seats, tyre pressure monitoring, blind spot detection and lane departure warning systems. Autonomous emergency braking (AEB) isn’t available on any Juke – expect that on the next-generation model due in 2019.
That sharing makes it harder to find the value in the Nismo’s $7650 premium.
The Juke Nismo’s pricing also encroaches on territory occupied by talented hot-hatches – such as the Volkswagen Golf GTI and Hyundai i30 N – that are more engaging to drive and just as, if not more, practical despite the Nissan’s partial SUV DNA.
Ownership isn’t helped by Nissan’s short three-year warranty or the high running costs stemming from the Juke Nismo’s need for 98-octane fuel.
It is good to see a performance SUV-style vehicle at a lower price point, though, while limited availability guarantees the Nissan Juke Nismo will have a large degree of exclusivity on the road.
The motorsport division’s treatment just doesn’t rejuvenate the greying Juke like it did with Nissan’s ageing sports cars.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Although the official press imagery shown here depicts track driving, Australian media were not afforded the opportunity to test the Nismo Juke RS on track. We have used these photos for lack of any current alternatives.