Friday, September 24, 2010

2011 nissan juke: the serious toy car

It's hard to believe the whole toy car era is almost 20 years old now. It was 1991 when Nissan introduced the Figaro, a limited production home market only job with the look of a cartoonized fifties french runabout. It sold out instantly, with dealers holding a lottery to see who would win the right to buy one. It became an instant collectible, and inspired other vehicles whose design seemed to either look directly in the rearview mirror, toward the appliances on the kitchen counter, or above all to value whimsy over function.

Volkswagen brought out their Retro Concept One which came to market as the New Beetle. Ford took the license to bring out retro version of anything that had sold more than a few thousand copies in the first place, with Retro Birds and Retro- 'Stangs. Chrysler corporation brought out a pair of cars to market in the Plymouth Prowler and PT Cruiser which, in case everyone else missed it, looked MUCH more like miniature '37 Fords than anything the blue oval itself ever created. The trend created variants, with the Scion xB bringing the chest freezer to the automotive showroom, the Nissan Cube paying homage to the Flashcube, and the Kia Soul demonstrating that the paralleologram isn't just for geometry class anymore. All are highly styled products based on existing platforms for cost effectiveness.

But the new Nissan Juke refines the game. Call it Toy Car 2.0, or the Toy Car goes to College, because the Juke combines whimsical styling with a very sophisticated little chassis and a level of content and sophistication heretofore unseen in whimsical motoring.

The Juke is scheduled for introduction in the fall and is based on the Nissan B platform (think Versa) but with completely unique styling. Juke comes in one style, a four door hatchback.The overall profile is that of an exaggerated leaf, with the same contours applied on a smaller scale, with greatly enlarged wheel openings. The overall roof shape is similar, but the Juke conceals the rear door handles for a coupe look. The Nissan Z-car trademark boomerang taillamps are utilized, but they race up the C pillars. And the front end styling sets off the whole car- I find it rather froglike, if frogs happened to have parking lamps for eyebrows. Overall very fun and whimsical, definitely youthful, but beautifully executed. I for one found the parking lamps (bi-directional and visible from the driver' seat) to be a work of art.

Similar sophistication was evident in the chassis as well. While based on the B-platform. the wheels were pushed out for a wider stance and greater stability. This track of 60.0 inches from and rear with a wheelbase of 99 inches creates a large footprint creates the basis of a very stable chassis with handling characteristics of a much larger vehicle. The standard powertain is a 1.6 liter four cylinder engine featuring direct injection and a turbocharger. It develops 188 hp and 177 lb.ft of torque, but notable has a broad torque curve. It's mated with a standard 6 speed manual transmission and front wheel drive. A CVT automatic transmission is optional, and Nissan's Advanced Torque Vectoring AWD is available with automatic transmission only. This system splits torque not only front to rear, but also side to side across the rear axle. It marks the smallest chassis Nissan offers an AWD system on and incidentally adds only 64 pounds to the vehicle's weight. In addition, AWD cars will come with a rear multilink suspension with a stabilizer instead of a rear torsion bar setup. ABS, front disc brakes and Vehicle Dynamic Control (with traction control) are standard, as are 17" allow wheels and all season tires.

Nissan has positioned the Juke with three trim levels and a high level of standard content. All models have the 1.6 turbo engine, 17" alloy wheels. iPod connector and Bluetooth, remote keyless entry and speed sensitive electric power steering as standard. they all have 6 air bags and active headrests as well. The mid range SV adds intelligent key, XM radio, auto climate control, power moonroof and upgraded cloth. The top of the line SL adds leather seating, heated front seats, standard navigation (optional on other models at $500) upgraded audio and a rear view monitor.
Manual transmission is available on S and SV only, and AWD is offered on all three models. Pricing is expected to range from a base S CVT at $18,960 to a fully equipped SL CVT AWD at $24,550.

We spent a day driving the Juke along the picturesque Sunshine Coast of British Columbia on a later summer day. I sampled the SV AWD and the S FWD, both with automatic transmissions. Both cars impressed me a lot- the smooth powertrain with no noticeable turbo lag and a very even torque curve, a CVT so responsive it even has shift points, an excellent seating position and a great, surefooted feeling, owing both to the wide stance and to Nissan's electric power steering, which offered considerably more road feedback on the twisty rural roads than other systems I have sampled. By far and away I preferred the AWD, both for the better ride resulting from the multilink suspension and for the extra torque from the Torque Vectored AWD. It was instantly noticeable when I pulled away in the AWD version. Kudos also to Nissan's "low cost" Navigation- at roughly $500, it's a simplified but effective Nav system which omits the fancy features I never learned to use on my STS anyway but gives you what you need for $500.

It may well be that the appeal of this car is going to come down to the styling. If you like the whimsical look, there's an excellent car beneath that will deliver great economy, road comfort and some pretty impressive handling characteristics (especially with the AWD) and a terrific parkable city size. My biggest down side with the exterior is the relatively drab color palate - only a blue and a red in a sea of grey metallics. A Look At Me car in a dull color is like Britney Spears in sweats driving a Camry, and this car simply screams for some seventies colors- a bright yellow, lime or metallic orange.

So call me when the Lime Green ones come in.


  1. Reflecting the exterior's blending of SUV and sports car attributes, the interior provides the commanding driving position but with all the attributes expected of a sports car.