Shiro Nakamuro, Nissan chief creative officer, is one seriously sharp dresser, but what about his staffers who styled the creation they call the Juke? What can be their look?
At Nissan design headquarters at Atsugi, just outside Tokyo, we picture young dudes wearing pants with crotches located just above the knee (imported from the U.S.A.), women with entire arms beautifully tattooed, persons carrying their pencils in holsters having decided not to present any style at all.
Earlier, they shaped the molten box that is the Nissan Cube. Their studio door is kept locked, distancing these masters of freakish form from those Italian suits who spend their days shaping elegant Maximas and Altimas and the like, just as teenagers keep their parents at bay.
It's remarkable what they've achieved. The Juke could be described as the first product of the protuberance school of design - that is to say, the wheels stick out, lamps ooze from the front fenders, the gearshift sprouts from a silver plastic egg supposedly inspired by a motorcycle's fuel tank. Protuberances everywhere.
In the course of driving a Juke SL for a week we are photographed, laughed at occasionally, looked at much of the time, and on a personal level delighted. It's just so much fun - in appearance and behaviour.
The handling is closer to a sports car's than that associated with a normal crossover vehicle - the category in which the Juke is identified - or sport-ute. Despite its height and ample ground clearance, Juke doesn't feel at all tippy. Rather, agile, although the 10.7-metre turning circle is about the same as that of the Toyota RAV4.
It accelerates as it corners, sportier than most. The turbocharged, direct-injection engine produces 188 horsepower from only 1.6 litres. The manual transmission does detract from the sports car feel, however. Long shift motions are reminiscent of those in a pickup truck and the fifth-sixth gate requires special concentration: shifting from fifth to sixth too often serves up fourth.
Another negative is the steering wheel twisting in your hands in hard acceleration from a standstill. A true sports car wouldn't do this. Torque steer is difficult to tune out of a vehicle this tall. It would be a non-issue in a Juke equipped with part-time all-wheel-drive, but ours is a front-driver.
With Michelin X-Ice tires on all four wheels, our Juke easily deals with a late-winter blizzard. Only those drivers desiring maximum sure-footedness need consider the $3,000-plus premium for part-time AWD.
On our colder mornings, a creak emanating from somewhere within the dash detracts from the impression of solid construction. Heavy snow accumulates beyond the reach of the passenger-side wiper creating (in combination with the thick windshield pillar) a large blind spot. Did Nissan not winter test the Juke in its rush to bring it to market in Japan last summer?
Inside, all is comfy. It's like being encapsulated in a video game control box, if you can imagine such a thing. Lumpy contours are highlighted by an abundance of shiny, chrome-like surfaces on the dash and console. "The interior is sculpted almost like an athletic guy with a wetsuit on," Alfonso Albaisa, vice-president of design, Nissan Design America, says in one web presentation.
Juke presents readouts and images normal cars don't, when equipped with the $2,600 leather/navi package. Such as, a G-force indicator, for front-to-rear weight transfer or side-to-side. Responsible citizens might question how this can possibly contribute to responsible driving. Other info choices include Normal, Eco and Sport modes, indicating turbo boost in Sport, or fuel efficiency in Eco, and so on.
Best not to become absorbed by this Driver Information while driving, needless to say. If all of this seems to fall into the category of Toys for Growing Boys, there's good reason: Nissan identifies the under-30 male as the target demographic for the Juke.
Go ahead, press the start button (the clutch needs to be depressed for the starter to function, or the foot on the brake in the case of the automatic transmission). We have ignition. Absorb the surroundings, scroll through the information options, savour the leather/navigation/back-up camera/Rockford Fosgate/subwoofer sound, and ask yourself if this vehicle is very cool, or is it clearly over the top?
The Juke is totally polarizing and the men responsible for this, as it turns out, are nothing like the fashionably unfashionable types we imagined at the outset. They're 40-something in age, and they're veterans of mainstream design, judging by their photographs and background found on Nissan Design Newsletter No. 14.
Juke exterior designer Takashi Noguchi - longish hair, wearing a casual yellow print shirt at his desk - shaped the current Altima and Maxima sedans in earlier assignments.
Product chief designer Seiji Watanabe - tailored blue shirt, no tie, dark-frame glasses - states that the goal was making a vehicle unlike anything before and, beyond that, something that wouldn't be copied by other manufacturer, as was the case with the Cube.
A curb-leaping bike that caught Watanabe's eye in London provided inspiration. "I wanted to create something for the urban jungle, but in a sporty compact vehicle - like that bike I saw."
2011 Nissan Juke SL FWD
Type: Four-door crossover
Price: $23,548; as tested, $27,708 (including leather/navigation package and $1,560 destination charge)
Engine: 1.6-litre, turbocharged, four-cylinder with direct fuel injection and variable valve timing
Horsepower/torque: 188 hp/177 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed manual
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): rated at 8.3 city/6.4 highway; in our city-area driving, 10.7; regular gas
Alternatives: Nothing on this planet compares
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