The seats are suede with red stitching and that stitching carries over to the Alcantara leather steering wheel. There is a black headliner. The cabin is trimmed in glossy piano-black plastic. The pedals are metallic and if those little styling cues don’t get the message across, the seatbacks have “NISMO” labels.
This is what it’s like to sit inside the 2013 Nissan Juke NISMO. Fire up the little 1.6-litre, direct-injection, turbocharged four-banger with the push-button start, slide into gear and Whammo! Off you go in this little rocket, all 197 horsepower of it. The Juke NISMO is a lightning bolt of a small hatchback and that makes it a variation on the Juke theme of oddball looks and outsized performance.
Around the world, Nissan fans understand the Juke. But in North America, this racy little ride disguised as a practical hatchback with four doors and room for four adults is a head-scratcher – unless you’re in Australia, where Nissan has a four-car entry in the V8 Supercars Championship. On this continent, where NASCAR is hugely popular, North Americans are just now starting to understand that there is a replacement for displacement and it looks like this Juke NISMO.
Yes, hard-core gearheads still drool over throbbing V-8 engines, but the reality around the rest of the globe is different. There, V-8 engines have become not an anomaly, but an anachronism. They are just so yesterday. Performance cars of the 21st century are mostly powered by little engines that do big things. At the top, in Formula One, those engines are small and getting smaller, next year, in fact. You get my point.
In the Juke – what Nissan calls a “sport cross” for sporty crossover utility – the engine is a little gem. The turbo power comes on fast and mightily. Stab the throttle and, in a blink, you’re off carving apexes. The steering is tight, direct and responsive. The suspension is firm but not harsh – a nice balance of sporty and comfy, really.
Best of all, Nissan sells an all-wheel-drive Juke NISMO ($28,478). This means something important: the power does not get wasted in smoking wheelspin that can be amusing and crowd-pleasing, but completely useless from a performance perspective. (Nissan also sells a front-drive Juke NISMO for $24,998, but why would anyone buy it?)
The all-wheel-drive system here can split torque 50/50 front and rear. I suppose this is a handy feature in the winter, when the roads are slippery, icy or snow-covered. But what matters more in this little rig is this: by putting power where it’s needed, by allowing it to be split front and rear and to either of the rear wheels, the on-board engineering helps the aggressive driver find some extra stability in the corners. In other words, it always helps to get a little boost when and where you need it.
In fact, AWD is such a help, Audi – a pioneer with its quattro system – doesn’t get to use it at Le Mans, the famed 24-hour June race in France. When Audi first brought quattro to the racing scene in the early 1980s, the racing world was aghast. Audi was accused of cheating, in fact.
I am mentioning Le Mans purposefully. While it’s true that Audi seems to win the premier prototype race every year, NISMO engines are being used in 17 cars at the 2013 Le Mans 24 hours. Nissan says that’s about a third of the Le Mans starting grid. There’s more, too.
Earlier this year, during the opening of the new global NISMO headquarters and development centre near Yokohama in Japan, Nissan CEO Carlos announced Nissan’s return to the Le Mans 24 Hours in 2014 in Garage 56. That’s just a small part of the expanded motorsports program at Nissan. NISMO – which essentially stands for Nissan motorsports – is leading this new racy push.
NISMO is to Nissan what AMG is to Mercedes-Benz and SVT (Special Vehicle Team) is to Ford. Sort of. Nissan will brand its performance road cars like the Juke with the NISMO label, just as with AMG and SVT. But Nissan is also stamping its motorsports arm with the NISMO logo.
The next step will come in 2014 at Le Mans. Nissan plans to race some sort of electrified car there, in keeping with Nissan’s commitment to battery-only cars, hybrids, fuel-cell vehicles and the like. Nissan is also racing in the GT3 and Super GT Series, and Nissan even has a GT Academy to train future racers. The hope is to put an exciting spin on Nissan’s everyday road cars, like the Juke NISMO and even the all-electric Leaf.
Other than the standard continuously variable transmission, there doesn’t seem to be much that’s Leaf-y about the Juke NISMO. This one is all about going fast and standing out in traffic. In a nutshell, for less than $30,000, you get a screamer of a road car that can also bring home furniture from IKEA.
2013 Nissan Juke NISMO AWD
Type: Sporty crossover utility
Price: $28,478 (freight $1,695)
Engine: 1.6-litre four-cylinder, turbocharged
Horsepower/torque: 197 hp/184 lb-ft
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 8.0 city/6.6 highway; premium gas
Alternatives: Mini Countryman John Cooper Works, Buick Encore