2012 Nissan Juke Turbo Review (Manual): Driving the Unicorn

When is a crossover not a crossover?

By Imthishan Giado

Bit late to the Juke party? After all, this car was released last year, and I’ve even driven the hyper-mad Juke R before the regular car. But when Nissan Middle East called up and offered me the keys to a manual Juke, I couldn’t turn them down.

By now, everyone’s formed their opinion on the Juke – and that opinion is based solely on looks. Love it or hate it, but there’s no inbetween option. One has to hand it to Nissan for being so brave; even a year later, there’s nothing that looks quite as out there as the Juke. Is it car? Is it an SUV? Nobody quite knows. It’s the automotive equivalent of Ru Paul – a singer, actress and model that also happens to be a man.

Having said that, the Juke really grew on me over the brief course of its stay. Yes, it’s ungainly, with those swollen arches and bizarre froggy headlamps. Yes, the interior space and packaging is somewhat compromised by the overly-funky feel. Yes, the roof spoiler is faintly ridiculous. But unlike so many cars out here, it’s not trying to be not be for everybody. It’s not a Passat, white goods dressed up with a funky bodykit. It’s designed to tell other people that the owner looked at every other sensible sedan or small hatch and said, ‘sod it, I want a funky crossover that’s got a tiny engine and can’t go offroad”.

It’s not sensible, and in a not-so-secretive way I think it’s brilliant. What Nissan have created is a car that everybody wants, because everybody thinks it reflects their unique snowflake personality. Which in actuality it doesn’t, but that’s a whole other pyschiatric evalution…

Looks aside, is it any good? That depends on what your definition of good is. The cute exterior dimensions and those big fenders make the Juke easy to park and place in traffic – more on that later – but undoubtedly force some compromises on the interior. Don’t get me wrong – I like looking at the interior. Less overtly zany than a MINI, the faux movable hood on the dials is very nice, as as the super-clear Nissan Altima style font for the tachometer and speedometer. Parts-bin pilfering is epic but somehow invisible ; a cursory glance reveals that the steering wheel, stereo, stalks, knobs, seats, are all from Nissans ranging from the Altima to the Murano. But you somehow don’t notice, and it feels like a special place to be. That’s because the one new bit absolutely dominates the interior – that huge outrigger-style centre console.

Nissan claim it was ‘inspired by a motorcycle fuel tank’ but I can’t think of anyone who’d want to ride that in a hurry. And it does make a great place to rest your weary arms, although you won’t be doing it too often with this manual transmission.

Ergonomically, it’s a bit hit and the miss. That radio unit has been in use for ages now and desperately needs an update, but that’s nothing compared to the climate control. Bizarrely, the HVAC system shares a single colour LCD with the ‘D-Mode’ performance system. A little about the latter before the former. There are three modes on offer – Normal, Sport, and Eco. Sport offers sharper throttle response, reduces the steering assist, and in a CVT-equipped car, offers more aggressive shift patterns. Eco is the opposite, and dulls everything down to unbearably torpid levels in an effort to save fuel any which-way. The LCD offers all sorts of useful information – like the current fuel economy – and not-so-useful information like the level of turbo boost, or a G-meter. Steady on Nissan, this ain’t no GT-R…

But when you’re marvelling at the wonders of D-Mode, you won’t be able to control the A/C. That’s right, the HVAC system uses exactly the same display to show information, and you can only have one or the other. It’s lucky then, that Nissan’s A/C unit remains one of the best in the business, able to cool the spacious cabin down in mere minutes, regardless of the summer sun outside.

Occupants up front are treated to great, bolstered seats that are very comfortable. People in the back? Not so much. Headroom is tight for anyone over six foot, but the squab is mounted high for taller people and legroom, as the photo shows, isn’t great. Boot space isn’t marvelous either – you can thank that sharply sloping tail for that. Best to think of the Juke as a 2+2; you can carry people, but it’s not a continent cruncher and definitely not if you’ve got loads of luggage.


On the drive front, the Juke lives up to the promise of its funky looks. Under the hood, there’s a tiny 1.6-litre turbo engine that pumps out 188bhp and 177lb-ft of torque – which is more than the upcoming FT86 sports car! Of course, the use of a turbo in an engine that packes less cubic inches than a bottle of Masafi makes perfect sense – adding punch at the upper end of rev range, but keeping fuel economy down. Pity then that there’s an awful amount of turbo lag off the lag and it doesn’t really get out of bed until about 3000rpm, when it suddenly announces its presence with tyre-shredding amounts of torque delivered to the front wheels (manual Jukes are FWD only, although top-spec cars get AWD and clever-clever torque vectoring systems). And on the highway, sixth gear could be a little longer – it’s revving at well over 3000rpm at 120kph.

But in an old-school way, this car is actually a lot of fun. You have to work the snicky-but-precise six-speed manual and the featherlight clutch to keep the engine on the boil, and the payoff is surprisingly nippy performance. Catch it offboost, and well, you’ll never make that mistake again, pulling out into traffic at a snail’s pace. But I can’t emphase enough the fact that the Juke is genuinely fun to drive, more so than the MINI Countryman I raved about last year. The body rolls quite a bit on the suspension but ignore it – there’s plenty of grip on offer from the 17-inch wheels and brake feel is precise and accurate. Even the electric steering is relatively feelsome, although it’s a bit too artificially heavy in Sport mode – what a shame you can’t mix the Sport mode throttle and Normal mode steering, something BMW will let you do. Still, the fact that we’re talking about Sport anything in a humble Nissan is quite a feat in my book.

I would talk about the inherent understeer when you push too hard, but let’s be honest, if you’re talking about understeer in the Nissan Juke, you’ve completely missed the flipping point. Like I said – this is a fun car, one that squirts around town with ease and rides with pleasing pliance. Asking for more than that just silly.

How much is Nissan asking for exactly? Just AED70,000 to start with for the non-Turbo version. But honestly, who would buy that? No, it’s far wiser to save up your bits and bobs and get the Turbo car which starts from AED88,000 for this manual version. Frankly though, this might be the only time you ever read about a manual Juke in this region. No one will ever buy it, the dealers will refuse to import it, and you’ll never be able to sell it. In fact, it’s taken the best part of a year to secure the chance to drive this actual car! It’s the automotive equivalent of a unicorn.

The biggest surprise of all is that the Juke is so much fun to drive. I don’t think that situation would change hugely with the CVT; to be honest, this is a good manual, but the whole car feels set up for that rubberband box. That’s the car you should buy. But is the Juke for you? Put this way: I like honest rear wheel drive sportscars, or hot hatches, and in some weird way, this combines the best of both worlds. Not the most practical car around and if you have a small family it won’t last them past growing into teenagers, but it’s infinitely more interesting than buying yet another midsize saloon.

Go on, live a little.

Nissan Juke Turbo
Price: AED88,000 ($23,900)
Engine: 1598cc, direct-injection turbo four-cylinder, 188bhp @ 5600rpm, 177lb ft @ 2000-5200rpm
Performance: 0-100kph 8.4 seconds, 199kph, 6.3L/100km
Transmission: six-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Weight: 1441kg

Imthishan’s verdict: Bargain-priced crossover fun and frugal to boot, but make sure you can live with all the constant jokes about the name

2 responses to “2012 Nissan Juke Turbo Review (Manual): Driving the Unicorn”

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