When they’re not in the business of churning out mainstream sedans and SUVs, some carmakers devote a considerable amount of R&D to their performance divisions. Also known as “skunk works”, this is where manufacturers step out a little and wring as much performance as they can out of existing models. Mercedes has AMG, Audi has its S division, BMW has its M division, Chrysler has SRT/Mopar, Toyota has TRD and so on. Nissan has Nismo.
An acronym for Nissan Motorsport International, Nismo has produced some formidable hot-rods over the years, including the hellaciously quick Skyline GT-R V-Spec and Sentra SE-R Spec-V. Essentially, Nismo takes a production model, develops a tuning package for it, gussies it up a little, and puts it on the market. They are usually produced in small numbers and offer performance and handling a cut above the usual.
The latest Nissan to get the Nismo treatment is, of all things, the Juke. Among other things, it gets a slightly more powerful engine, tuned suspension, glitzy 18-inch wheels and tires, different seats, and three special paint schemes: black, silver, and white.
After a tweaking by Nismo engineers, the 1.6 litre turbocharged and intercooled four cylinder puts out 197 horsepower….compared to 188 for the regular Juke. It comes as front or all-wheel-drive and you can choose from a six-speed manual or a CVT. One note here: the CVT is only available with the AWD version, while the manual gearbox is only offered with the FWD model. My tester had the AWD/CVT, and were I in the market for a car of this ilk (which I most assuredly am not), I’d choose the manual gearbox. If you’re going to commit to this kind of automobile, it seems to me, you won’t be happy with a CVT; it isn’t responsive enough and lacks that connection between driver and engine that all self-respecting sports cars have. That said, the AWD is bound to be more stable and grippy when the pavement goes away.
Other standard equipment with the Nismo includes tilt (but not telescoping) steering, steering wheel audio controls, navi system, rear view camera, and traction control/vehicle dynamic control systems. The AWD/CTV combo in my tester adds $3480 to the price tag.
Because, despite its crossover configuration, the Juke Nismo is really a funny-looking sports car….it rides rougher than its stock counterpart, handles better, stops better, and offers a more spirited driving experience. It’s actually fun to drive and surprised me with its performance and handling. Although far from scientific, I managed to get 0 to 100 km/h times in the seven to eight second range during a few timed acceleration runs. And fuel economy, if it matters, is 8. 0 L /100 km in town and 6.6 on the highway. Interestingly, the AWD version is slightly thriftier in town compared to the FWD, but a little thirstier on the highway.
A couple of things to mention. First up, the Recaro-style front seats are race-quality firm and supportive. This may be a good thing on the track, but for everyday driving, getting in and out of the Juke Nismo can be challenging. For anyone over 30, they could be downright uncomfortable and I can see the side bolsters becoming threadbare pretty quickly.
Secondly, the ride is as uncompromising and unyielding as a cement truck. There is almost no give in the suspension, and, after awhile, it gets pretty old. Again, tons of fun on a track, no doubt, but vexing around town. Drinking a cup of coffee while in motion takes on a whole new flavor with the Nismo.
And a word about the body style. When it was first introduced, in 2010, the Juke definitely got people’s attention. Unorthodox and unique were some adjectives that were tossed around….ugly and toad-like were others, but, despite its homeliness, it was – and is – an immensely driveable car. Although a completely different automobile, it reminded me of the Pontiac Aztek: weird and hard to look at, but a pleasant surprise behind the wheel. There seems to be a core of buyers out there who will purchase an automobile simply because it is out of the ordinary....something Nissan was counting on when it unleashed the Juke three years ago. For what it’s worth, Nissan’s partner, Renault, had significant input in the styling of the Juke.
With its lower road stance, larger wheels and tires, and slick paint job, the Nismo version does mitigate the weirdness of the stock Juke somewhat, but this is still an unusual looking automobile and not everyone’s cup of tea.
Which, in itself, may be some people’s idea of fun.
AT A GLANCE
Engine: Turbocharged 1.6 litre four cylinder
Horsepower: 197 hp @ 6000 rpm
Torque: 184 ft. lb @ 2000 rpm
Base Price: $24,998; as tested: $30,473
Fuel Economy: 8.0 litres per 100 kilometres city / 6.6 highway. Premium fuel.
Alternatives: Toyota Matrix, Honda Fit Sport, Ford Fiesta SE, Subaru BRZ, Scion FR-S, Mitsubishi Lancer Sportback GT, MazdaSpeed3, Hyundai Veloster.