Some car makers devote a considerable amount of research and development to their performance divisions.
Also known as “skunk works,” this is where manufacturers step out a little to wring as much performance as they can out of existing models. Mercedes has AMG, Audi has its Quattro/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 and puts it on the market. These vehicles are usually produced in small numbers and offer performance and handling a cut above the norm.
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 a front or all-wheel-drive and you can choose from a six-speed manual or a CVT. The CVT is only available with the AWD version, while the manual gearbox is only offered with the FWD model.
Other standard equipment on 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/CVT combo in my tester adds $3,480 to the price tag.
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 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 7-8 seconds during a few timed acceleration runs. And fuel economy is 8.0 litres/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.
The Recaro-style front seats are race-quality firm and supportive. This may be good on the track, but for everyday driving, getting in and out of the Juke Nismo can be challenging. For anyone over 30, it could be downright uncomfortable.
The ride is as uncompromising and unyielding as a cement truck. There is almost no give in the suspension, and, after a while, 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 flavour 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.
Despite its homeliness, it was – and is – an immensely driveable car. It reminded me of the Pontiac Aztek: weird and hard to look at, but a pleasant surprise behind the wheel. There is 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 mitigates the weirdness of the stock Juke, 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.
2013 Nissan Juke Nismo AWD
Base Price: $24,998; as tested: $30,473
Engine: Turbocharged 1.6 litre four cylinder
Horsepower/torque: 197 hp/184 ft-lb
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 8.0 city/6.6 highway.
Alternatives: Toyota Matrix, Honda Fit Sport, Ford Fiesta SE, Subaru BRZ, Scion FR-S, Mitsubishi Lancer Sportback GT, MazdaSpeed3, Hyundai Veloster
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Globe rating for the 2013 Nissan JukeOur ratings guide
No give. Think of a chuckwagon.
Well, it is better than the stock version.
Unusual, but liveable and comfy.
All the usual active/passive safety features.
Thirsty and needs premium gas.
(out of 10 / Not an average)
The numerical ratings are assigned by The Globe and Mail’s car reviewers on a scale out of ten. Each car is assigned a separate rating in five key categories - plus an overall satisfaction rating that is calculated separately, and is not an average of the five category ratings.
Vehicles that do not yet carry ratings on this site will be assigned them when the latest model is reviewed.