Sunday, October 27, 2013

Nissan JUKE NISMO - Affordable Little Piece of the Racetrack

The Nissan JUKE is a strange little animal. It's a sporty compact crossover, with wheels at the corners and a high window line. Its face is not pretty. But it's practical, seating four and carrying nearly 36 cubic feet of gear when the seats fold flat.

NISMO stands for NISsan MOtorsports (just like BEVMO stands for Beverages & More). For nearly 50 years, this engineering group within Nissan has been specially tuning cars for racing, including the GT-R sports car for Japan's Super GT series. By bring the special look and tuning of NISMO vehicles to the JUKE, it's now possible for car enthusiasts of modest means (young) to have fun out on the streets without breaking the bank.

The JUKE NISMO contains nearly 100 changed parts compared to the standard car. Notably, the body wears aerodynamic enhancements, including adjustments to the front fascia and grille and sweeping side skirts. The tail wears a body-colored liftgate spoiler and fascia diffuser. Red is applied strategically to make an impact--it's even in the O of NISMO.

The lightweight alloy wheels on the JUKE NISMO are 18-inchers -- an inch larger than the standard JUKE's, and their spokes are sprayed a two-tone gray to go with the three available body colors -- black, white and silver. This is a serious racer, so no pretty shades, although the deep Sapphire Black of my test car was handsome in a manly way.

Inside, everything is geared to giving the driver an in-control feeling. The deeply bolstered, suede-covered buckets hold you in place. They feature NISMO badging embroidered into the seatbacks and red stitching. The ceiling is black, and there are soft sueded door panels, and piano black accents on the dash. The panels themselves have a round, "inflated" look, so despite the appearance of intense racing, there's a pleasant, comfortable feel sitting there. And, of course, there are more red accents, including a red section at the top of the leather and alcantara-wrapped steering wheel--a racing tradition of showing "top dead center" at a glance to busy drivers.

My tester had the Navigation Package ($1,170), which included a small-screen Nav system that I was able to confuse for a while while descending a parking lot ramp. The Rockford Fosgate ecoPUNCH premium audio had plenty of bass response, thanks to a subwoofer, but working its small screen took some care. Once I had my favorite XM and FM stations programmed in, I controlled everything from the fully-featured wheel.

NISMO is a performance-driven organization, so there are some real enhancements to the JUKE wearing the NISMO badge. The suspension, steering and transmission are adjusted for a sportier feel. In addition, the I-CON system lets you select Normal, Sport or Eco settings. Normal is fine for all driving, but Sport adjusts the steering for quicker response, firms up the road feel and with the automatic, adjusts the shift feel. I found myself in Normal most of the time and even that setting is more sporty than a standard Juke.

The JUKE NISMO carries a 1.6-liter direct injected inline four-cylinder engine under its bulging hood. It puts out 197 horsepower and 184 lb.-ft. of torque for the NISMO, The standard JUKE has 188 and 177 respectively. Direct injection is a fuel delivery technology that enhance engine performance and is becoming more common in the auto industry today, as manufacturers look for ways to maximize performance of smaller engines, so they can use them raise fuel economy.

The NISMO folks lowered the car an inch -- it's not only more hunkered-down looking but that creates a tighter fit between the wheels and wheelwells, for better aerodynamics.

JUKE NISMOs come with either front-wheel drive and a six-speed manual (like my test car) or all-wheel drive and the XTronic continuously-variable automatic.Manual shifting is more fun, in my opinion, but, as always, it's a bit more of a chore in commute traffic. The lever moves precisely so I never caught the wrong gear.

Regarding fuel economy, the manual version is rated slightly higher than the AWD with auto (probably because of the additional weight of the automatic): 25 City, 31 Highway, and 27 Combined. I averaged 28.9 mpg during my test week. That is not the highest fuel economy a compact hatchback can deliver, but the JUKE NISMO is not your ordinary little car. The EPA gives it a 5 for Smog and 7 for Greenhouse Gas -- a little better than average.

It's fun to take this little car around. At just under a ton and a half, it stays pretty smooth on the freeway, despite its short 99.9-inch wheelbase. It sticks nicely in the turns, and hums along with the 1.6-liter on the boil. Even nicer, it's highly practical, too, and takes in a tall upright bass with no problem, sliding easily along its flat, carpeted cargo hold. In the FWD models, there's hidden storage under the cargo area, too.

It's hard to find complaints. My wife wasn't keen on having to climb into the deeply-bolstered passenger seat. The sunvisors are short when used on the side (and don't slide). The XM Radio listings are truncated so you can't see the year of most songs on the oldies channels. That's about it, though.

Pricing for NISMO-equipped JUKEs starts at $23,780 for the FWD/manual models, and $26,080 for the AWD/automatic version. Just for comparison, the base S model JUKE (which comes only with the CVT automatic) is $19,780.

In the highly-competitive auto industry, it's essential to distinguish your products from the others -- in the right way. Nissan has some "interesting" styling, and the JUKE NISMO has the fun factor dialed up high. You don't need to spend a lot to own a little piece of the racetrack, and get nearly 30 miles per gallon as you race around your neighborhood.

Read about the standard JUKE here.

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