WHEN CARLOS GHOSN took over as CEO, more than a decade ago, Nissan was bleeding cash and a lot of its products were forgettable, me-too copies of various Hondas and Toyotas.
Since then Mr. Fix-It—as he became known—has overturned Nissan like, well, like a tsunami.
But a tsunami of goodness! Now mainstream Nissans are praised for delivering value-for-dollar and fine driving dynamics, and the company also makes lustworthy cars for motorheads (the 370Z, the GT-R, the G-series Infinitis) and even ecophiliacs. Nissan’s zero-emission Leaf is the world’s first mass-produced electric vehicle.
There’s a dark lining to every silver cloud, though, and for Nissan it’s the urge to build cars for Generation X. Or maybe it’s Y or even Z by now; they who wear their ball caps sideways and call me “dude.”
Thus Nissan also makes the two ugliest vehicles this side of the former Soviet Bloc: the cube (no capital letter) and this, the JUKE (all capitals).
Every time I see it I think of a rhinoceros calf. Then I climb in and drive away and am reminded that rhinos are remarkably agile animals. And their babies are actually sort of cute.
No question that the Juke is right-sized for today’s new reality, at least for drivers who don’t cart Little League teams around. (It’s the same length as a Mini Countryman.)
The rear seats are tolerable for two adults, so long as they’re not six-footers, and you can stack a week’s groceries inside the tailgate without having to fold them down. The back seats, that is. By the way, this does have rear doors; the latches are up there by the windows. Fuel economy that is only in the mid-20s is disappointing, but consider two things: This Juke has all-wheel drive, which adds weight; and all Jukes have a 1.6-liter, four-cylinder engine tuned for 188 horsepower.
Those ponies make the Juke pretty lively. Dipping into the throttle squirts the car through traffic, while sensors and a computer keep a close eye on wheel spin. We’ve gotten accustomed to AWD systems that split power between the front and rear wheels as needed, but this Nissan can also divide it side-to-side, at least at the back wheels.
(The 2WD Juke is pulled around by its front wheels, and it lacks independent suspension at the rear wheels.) In hard cornering or acceleration I can feel the car settle down under the grip of the AWD. Then the Juke corners nimbly and with a lot less understeer than expected. The steering is quick enough to contribute to this deftness.
A 6-speed manual gearbox is available. The automatic transmission is a continuously variable type with Sport and Eco modes. Nissan says these settings also tweak the steering and throttle behavior; I can’t tell the difference, but the CVT does perform well.
For 2012 Nissan offers eight models of Juke: S CVT FWD, S CVT AWD, SV CVT FWD, SV M/T FWD, SV CVT AWD, SL CVT FWD, SL M/T FWD and SL CVT AWD. I think this means there’s one for every budget, priced from the high teens to the middle twenties, and all manner of upper-end options are on the menu.
Our sample has leather seats, satnav and satradio, a USB port, push-button starting, stereo and cruise-control switches in the steering wheel and so on. I can do without the oddly contoured garnet-red console, but now I’m just being an old fuddy-duddy.
It’s not a joke, it’s a Juke. And, as the saying has it, when you’re behind the wheel, the ugly goes away.