Driving a car many people consider ugly is often kind of fun for those of us with a contrarian streak. With the Nissan Juke NISMO RS, you don’t even need that — it’s fun in the traditional sense, even if its shape suggests otherwise.
I admit to having somewhat of a soft spot for the Nissan Juke since it debuted in 2010 as a 2011 model. My regular readers will know I daily drive that other weird Nissan, the cube. So in addition to catching my eye with its muscular stance and sporty turbocharged engine, I had some love for the Juke because it was built on the same basic platform as my cube. It also had my sympathies because it was often maligned as an ugly duckling — a criticism cubes know a little too well.
A tinge of jealousy strikes when I get behind the wheel of the Juke NISMO models, however. The NISMO RS is the zenith of current Jukes and everything I wish Nissan had dared to do to the cube before the automaker discontinued importation of the boxy model to the U.S. this year.
The Juke NISMO RS takes the Juke’s 1.6-liter turbocharged, direct-injected gasoline engine, bumps its horsepower from a stock 188 to a NISMO-tuned 215, and gives it the transmission and chassis it deserves.
The gearbox in our tester was manual, with closely-spaced ratios and short gearing to keep that engine on the boil. There’s a CVT available, but it requires the engine lose a few of those extra horses and takes away a lot of what I enjoy most about the Juke NISMO RS.
The tires are sticky 18-inch Continental ContiSportContact summer performance models mounted on attractive black-and-gray alloys. The brakes are bigger than any other Juke model, and unlike other Jukes, they’re ventilated. There’s a helical limited-slip differential on tap to keep power flowing to the front wheel with the most grip in the NISMO RS — unavailable on any other Juke — and the suspension is revised for handling that frankly embarrasses most of the Juke’s compact crossover cohort.
The 2016 Nissan Maxima I recently reviewed was fun to drive, but not at all in the same way the Juke NISMO RS is. The Juke NISMO RS is quick to turn in, and its manual transmission offers short-enough throws and a level of engagement the CVT-only Max does not, even in the sporty Maxima SR trim. The short gearing ensures it’s easy to keep the MR16DDT engine gnawing at your right foot, begging you to floor it.
That gearing comes as a blessing and a curse. It’s infinitely amusing on twisty backroads and during the stoplight drags in town, but it also puts the engine RPM squarely in the 3,000 to 4,000 range whenever you hit an interstate highway. In point of fact, 70 MPH saw the engine turning just a hair over 3,000, while 80 MPH put me at about 3,500. I was glad for the excellent Rockford Fosgate sound system, as it helped drown out the turbo mill’s scream going down the interstate. Side note: Bluetooth audio streaming with my Android 4.4 smartphone worked much better with the older NissanConnect head unit in the Juke NISMO RS than it did with the newly revised NissanConnect head unit in the Maxima.
The short gears of the Juke NISMO RS, of course, make the fuel economy lackluster for such a small vehicle. This is an area where tall, length-challenged crossovers like the Juke are at a disadvantage anyway because of aerodynamics, so I wasn’t all that surprised to see a calculator-reported 28.4 MPG when I stopped to get fuel after burning about half a tank of the recommended premium unleaded on I-40. Granted, I had the cruise control set at 80 MPH most of the trip, but then again, I was getting passed a lot even at that speed. Blame traffic heading into Knoxville from the west for the UT-Vanderbilt football game, I guess.
The first time I drove the Juke NISMO was a less-powerful non-RS model. Even that model got me thinking mighty hard about the Juke NISMO as a suitable compromise for those who want a sporting car but who can’t square their child-rearing lives with owning a two-door sports coupe. I had only one child back then. Alas, now with two wee ones to tote, the same thoughts crept into the back of my mind as I spent the week ferrying my toddler and infant around in the back of the Juke NISMO RS.
Yeah, its interior space is a bit tight even within the confines of the segment, but there’s enough room to carry two forward-facing child seats in the back row without too much compromise of front-seat legroom — perhaps partially thanks to the thin backrest profile of the NISMO RS Recaro racing buckets. We were even able to get by with my infant’s rear-facing seat on the passenger side, although we have my wife’s short stature to thank for that — she wasn’t bothered by scooting her front passenger seat up almost all the way to provide adequate clearance for the rear-facing Baby Trend Flex-Loc seat behind her.
Other constraints of interior space made themselves apparent when we took the Juke NISMO RS on a shopping spree where we bought our kids’ Christmas presents. The rear cargo area’s 10.5 cubic feet quickly filled with bags and boxes after just a couple of stops on our planned shopping route, so by the end of the trip we were stuffing things into the second row seats and floorboard. There was a storage well underneath the rear cargo floor that we admittedly didn’t use because it was too small for the first few toys we bought. In our hurry to get the shopping done, we didn’t take time to unload and repack everything midstream to see if it would have been possible to carry the whole load in the cargo area.
But that’s probably one of about four times this year I’ve needed more cargo space behind the rear seats than the Juke could offer. Living with a cube — itself no paragon of rear cargo space — teaches you to minimize a lot. As a result, we’re not the double-stroller-packing type of parents. We could probably make do just fine with a Juke’s interior space for at least the next several years, assuming my toddler boy doesn’t have a massive growth spurt that sends him shooting toward 6 feet in height anytime soon.
Until such a day arrives, I know one thing for sure: If I owned a Nissan Juke NISMO RS, I’d be having way too much fun driving it everywhere. If you’re looking for something that has a compelling mix of enthusiastic, usable performance and four-door crossover practicality, you could do a lot worse than this.
2015 Nissan Juke NISMO RS
Base Price: $28,020
Price As-Tested: $29,316
Options: NISMO Carpeted Floor Mats and Cargo Mat ($220), Center Armrest ($250)
- Sporty handling
- Too-fun NISMO tune of MR16DDT turbocharged 1.6-liter engine
- Excellent Rockford Fosgate stereo system
- Short gearing means buzzy highway experience
- Not-so-great fuel economy relative to vehicle’s size
- Tight interior space, particularly in cargo area
Disclosure: Nissan provided the vehicle, insurance, and a tank of gas for this review.