The Nissan Juke was well ahead of its time when it launched in early 2010. Back then, making a quirky crossover was not the obvious choice it is today, but rather a bold gambit carrying significant risk.
If you make something people either love or hate, you’ll either get their attention or their money. It’s apathy that’s to be avoided.
Almost a decade on, and Nissan has sold about 1.5 million Jukes, the lion’s share in Europe (it’s made in the UK), and the well-overdue second generation model is poised for a world premiere any minute now. It enters a world it helped define.
For whatever reason, though, the Juke has never been all that popular in Australia. It arrived belatedly in 2013, and has eked out about 10,000 sales over five years, fractional averages next to its aforementioned rivals.
Price, powertrain and age factors all conspired against it, as did the presence of the more predictable and sensible Qashqai in Nissan’s ranks. Despite this, the company has decided to see this first Juke iteration off in style.
And so we have the hotted-up Juke Nismo RS, the third product from Nissan’s storied motorsports division sold locally since its modern rebirth, alongside the 370Z version and GT-R supercar spinoff. Just 240 units will be sold, making this car something of a rarity.
Given Australia's penchant for performance derivatives (we’re often Renault Sport’s number two market, 25 per cent of Volkswagen Golf sales are GTIs and Rs, we're a leading Mercedes-AMG market, we could go on), a hotted-up Juke should hold appeal.
Furthermore, Nissan has a bit of an excitement deficit in its current line-up, and so anything driver-focused in its folio is surely something for motoring fans to cheer. This is a brand with serious performance pedigree, after all.
So, has Nissan Australia finally made the Juke cool right at the end of its life cycle?
We’ve got the Juke Nismo RS manual here, priced at $37,790 before on-road costs. That’s not far off highly credentialed rivals like the Hyundai i30 N, and pricier than the almost-flawless new Volkswagen Polo GTI. It’s also $7650 more expensive than the familiar Juke Ti-S turbo version on which it’s based.
There’s no shortage of tweaks. The Juke Nismo has a turbocharged 1.6-litre engine making 160kW of peak power (at 6000rpm) and 280Nm of peak torque (between 3600 and 4800rpm), up 20kW/40Nm on the Ti-S. Fun fact: it’s a version of the engine used in the Renault Clio RS.
Nismo has squeezed more from this unit by messing with the ECU and whacking on a different exhaust system, while the six-speed manual ‘box gets a shorter final drive ratio and strengthened clutch cover.
Torque is sent through the front wheels only, though there’s a helical-geared limited-slip differential (sending outputs to the wheel with more traction) on the front axle – in an attempt to mitigate torque steer.
As those peak power and torque curves suggest, this is not one of those little turbo engines that gives you all it has from low engine speeds. The Juke Ti-S’ 1.6 turbo makes 240Nm at just 1600rpm, whereas the Nismo’s 280Nm doesn’t arrive until 3600rpm. Peak power doesn't hit you until you’re nudging the redline.
This is an engine the loves having its neck wrung, with a lag before delivering. The good news is the gearbox has a lovely mechanical shift feel, a short enough throw and nice clutch weighting, meaning you’ll enjoy working it.
The bad news is that, irrespective of driving mode (sportier and more comfort-oriented settings lightly tweak things like throttle mapping) the engine always sounds flat and tinny, and the exhausts don’t amplify things all that excitingly, meaning the soundtrack is more sewing machine than sex bomb.
The other issue is torque steer, which that LSD fails to eradicate. Mash the throttle and you’ll feel the steering wheel tug in your hands, unless the front tyres are instead busily chirping in their battle to actually hook up with the road surface at all, even from getaways using 60 per cent throttle input.
The strange thing is, I actually found all this quite endearing. It’s a throwback from behind the wheel, inasmuch as the design and concept is actually forward-facing. But we can’t exactly reward unresolved engineering, either…
The Nissan does a 0-100km/h time of about 7.2sec, while combined-cycle fuel consumption is listed at 7.2L/100km. Nissan requires you to use the expensive 98 RON juice.
There’s an obvious solution to the handling quirk, and that’s to fit the optional on-demand AWD system that directs some engine output to the rear wheels. However, the torque-vectoring AWD system is only offered with a 157kW engine mated to a fun-killing CVT automatic transmission, all for a $3700 price impost ($41,490). No thanks.
Dynamically, the Juke gets strut suspension at the front and, as tested here, a humble torsion bar at the rear (the AWDs get multi-link). Nismo has fitted stiffer stabiliser bars at both ends, twin-tube shocks and 320mm/296mm ventilated brake discs with red calipers. Nismo has also added some body/chassis stiffening and a variable ratio steering system.
It’s a small car, the Juke. It's actually less than 4.2m long, meaning a VW Golf dwarfs its footprint. Its SUV ‘bonafides’ are found in its 189mm ground clearance and higher driving position than proper hot hatches, plus the manual’s two-stage boot with a decent 354L (cut to just 207L for the independently-sprung and AWD Juke Nismo CVT).
But while it sits lower than regular versions, the roll axis is still higher than conventional pocket rockets. So while turn-in is improved, a Clio RS feels more go kart-like, with more rapid directional changes and stability near the limit. At the same time, the ride quality is stiff and unforgiving over corrugations and sharp inputs.
Again, a throwback: laggy engine, chirping tyres, tugging wheel and stiff ride. Fun for sure, but not the height of hot hatch evolution, especially considering its price-point rivals.
The interior looks and feels its eight years. The fit and finish is fine, but the plastics are hard to the touch and garish, and the 5.8-inch touchscreen infotainment system is low resolution and dated. It’s really time for a change, there.
That said, I like the copious use of Alcantara suede and the black headlining, and the nifty lower digital display that alternates between displaying your driving mode and your ventilation setup. The front seats are also fantastically supportive. The back seats? Best for kids.
Beyond the Nismo elements, the flagship Juke’s equipment mirrors that of the Ti-S. This means push-button start, seat heating, satellite navigation, DAB+, blind-spot monitoring, 360-degree camera, blind-spot monitor and rain-sensing wipers.
You'll note the absence of active safety and driver assistance tech like autonomous emergency braking and adaptive cruise control.
A Nismo body kit for the distinctive-looking Juke brings a signature red stripe along the sides and front, revised bumpers and a rear roof spoiler. Wheels are no bigger than those on the mid-range Ti-S Juke, though they feature a Nismo RS 10-spoke design.
As we flagged at the launch, ownership isn’t helped by Nissan’s short three-year warranty or the higher running costs stemming from the Juke Nismo’s need for 98-octane fuel.
So, the wrap: To say the Juke Nismo RS is outclassed by a price-equivalent hot hatch like the Hyundai i30 N is not just fair, it's an understatement.
Yes, the Nissan looks interesting, and is actually quite engaging in its way. And rare, to boot. But while it's good to see the company dipping its toes into performance waters, this car shows its age.
Its interior layout, ride and handling balance, and value-for-money equation, are all below the class average. So while it's not without charm, it doesn't do enough to earn a pass mark.