The list of fun, fast, frisky cars for under $20,000 is a short one. The list for these cars with optional AWD is even shorter. This is a niche segment in search of buyers, another portion of the market that manufacturers hope will expand as tastes change and drivers are pushed toward small cars. Nissan is ready and able to be a player here with the compact Juke.
The Juke is a tiny crossover, barely 162 inches long. This is the same length as a Honda Fit, yet the Juke is oriented toward an entirely different customer; probably much closer to the same buyer who looks longingly at a Mini Cooper Clubman or Countryman — of which the latter is also 162 inches long.
Because the Juke is one of the few small cars/crossovers that also offers a part-time/full-time AWD system, you might cross-shop the Nissan against the shorter Suzuki SX4 or the longer Subaru Impreza WRX. The Juke’s styling spirit and dimensions might closely match the Suzuki, but the car’s handling, power and behavior that more closely mirror the WRX than the Suzuki.
Key to that analogy is the Nissan’s robust 1.6-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine. With 188 hp on tap and a weight hovering around 3,200 pounds the Juke is quick on its feet, very agile and a great point-and-shoot urban car capable of squirting through small holes in traffic in an instant. There is a hint of turbo-lag when you first step into the throttle, but once the power spools up, the Nissan surges forward with a giant rush, the CVT automatic holding the extra revs until you decide you’ve reached your selected velocity. It would be fun to sample the six-speed manual version of this car; however, the majority of drivers today are opting for the automatic gearbox.
When that power hits, there is notable torque steer. Yet, the Juke driver has an edge. If you purchased the optional AWD system, you can push the dash button for part-time AWD, which will direct this turbo-power to the rear wheels as well, letting the car pull and push you forward with extra grip when traction is poor, or, when you apply heavy throttle under less than ideal circumstances. You can also select full-time AWD for foul weather motoring. It is the best of all worlds.
The Juke’s independent chassis capably handles the demands of this blown-power. Steering feel is taut, handling is crisp, and the sporty ride is reasonably well dampened for our tortured roads. As befitting a car with only 100 inches of wheelbase, the Juke has a small turning radius and superb agility.
There is, however, one caveat to this fun — actually two. While enjoying the Juke’s power flow it is easy to empty the smallish fuel tank in relatively short distances. At 225 miles the low fuel light is blinking and the audible alarm is saying “gas me now or walk soon.” Good thing there is both audible and visual notices here as the Juke’s highway cabin noise can be a bit oppressive. If you are solo motoring, the powerful Rockford/Fosgate sound system can compensate. If you are traveling with companions, the combined tire and wind noise levels make reasonable dialogue strained.
Countering this negative is a power sunroof that quietly flows a lot of fresh air when tilted open. The Juke’s cabin gets generally high marks for comfort, front spacing, visibility and overall presentation. There is a definite need for a telescoping steering column — tall drivers will have a long reach to the wheel — however, the rest of the unique layout will win admirers. The dual-mode center dash instrument panel changes faces and labels at the touch of a button, providing additional information from the same space, while the compact nav screen relays usable mapping data. Oddly, the emergency flasher switch is prominently located atop the center of the dash, like a third eye looking back at you. Is there going to be a high frequency of usage for this switch, or, are Nissan’s designers just playing with us?
Like the Suzuki and the Honda, the Juke has an expandable cargo hold with split-folding rear seats and a light liftgate. Rear seating is snug for adults — doable, but tight — while the heated front seats proved to be supportive and all-day serviceable. With SL trim, you also get a rear view camera—great addition — plus pushbutton ignition and keyless access.
You can’t look at the Juke without thinking about the car’s unconventional styling. The fender-top turn signals are like bright bug eyes that, yes, are seen from the helm when driving at night. The whole face of the car, with those big round headlamps, suggests that this is some kind of vaudeville face. When you get around to the rear, the look is at least consistent with elongated rear lamps that arch up the hatchback lid from rear shoulders that are wider than the liftgate entrance. Perhaps this is all central to the car’s appeal; great AWD driving dynamics, turbo-power, and a little in-your-face styling just to drive the point home.
Juke pricing starts at just under $20,000 for front-drive models, while our SL test unit begins at $25,550. Included items are rear privacy glass, traction and stability control, CVT automatic transmission, 17-inch sport wheels, heated leather seating, multi-function tilt steering wheel, manually adjustable seats, Nissan intelligent key with push-button ignition, navigation, power sunroof, back-up camera and automatic climate control. EPA estimates are 25/30-mpg; tested Juke returned an average of 24 mpg with a lot of highway driving at a pace above the 60-mph average used by the EPA testing method.
The Juke’s unique characteristics are part of its charm. Its power delivery and capable AWD system are part of the hook to draw in buyers who want a slice of something just a little edgy.