The honour of being the first non-hatchback entry into our Big Guy, Small Car series goes to the Nissan Juke. But then, that’s not...

The honour of being the first non-hatchback entry into our Big Guy, Small Car series goes to the Nissan Juke.

But then, that’s not really right, is it? I mean, the Juke is a hatchback, right? It’s hardly any taller than a VW Golf, after all…

It’s unique, it’s distinctive and while I can’t say it’s pretty, I’m not sure it’s supposed to be.

That’s the thing, though. Nissan has to be commended for being one of the first manufacturers to really popularize the subcompact crossover segment (or micro crossover, or urban utility vehicle, or….). That is to say, small crossovers based not on compact but subcompact platforms; the Juke, for example, actually shares its platform with the Nissan Micra as opposed to the Sentra, which underpins the Juke’s big-brother Rogue. Since the Juke was first released for the 2011 model year, Mazda, Honda, Jeep, Fiat and Chevrolet have all jumped on the bandwagon in North America.

So, it stands to reason that the Nissan Juke is seeing a lot of popularity in European markets where these micro-crossovers have been weaving their way through narrow city streets and alleys for quite some time now (it also gets a diesel engine there, which Europeans love). So you knew it would work there, but what about here in Canada? Is there more to the Juke that its modest 2014 sales figure of 3,641 suggests?

Well, considering there are some choice additions for 2015 – and this year’s Juke sales are on pace to double last year’s – maybe there is something here for you or the Big Guy in your life.

Oh, and let’s get the “ohmigod, it looks like a frog” thing out of the way, right now. Unless you look real closely and spot the subtle “this is a Nissan detail” – the V-shaped front grille bars, the rear taillight lenses – I wouldn’t blame you if you spotted a Juke with no markings and thought it was something else. It’s unique, it’s distinctive and while I can’t say it’s pretty, I’m not sure it’s supposed to be.

Further, strange lines or no, you gotta’ like the Cosmic Blue paint job, especially when it’s given white accents as ours was, though those do come at a cost.

The Knee Test

So you’re walking up to your Juke and taking in those lines; the bug-eye DRLs (those little round things below the lights mounted atop the fenders? Those are your headlights), the subtly flared fenders and the almost coupe-ish profile (since the vertical rear door handles are camouflaged with the rear windows), and you prepare to step in.

Of course, you’re conscious that this is a small car. So, wanting to keep your hairdo intact and your forehead bruise-free you’re careful to duck as you step into the car. The step itself isn’t a big issue – you actually step down into the Juke – but that’s only half of it.

As any Big Guy driver knows, it’s not enough to just duck and be done with it; you have to watch out for your elbows against hard armrests or your knees against hard door cards and centre stacks.

Well, your right elbow should be OK, because the Juke – even in top-spec SL trim – doesn’t have any front armrests. Of course, that presents other issues, but we’ll get to those in a minute. Your legs should be okay too, because the Juke has a surprising amount of room between the seat and steering column/lower dash, so there’s room aplenty for your legs. If you want more room, then the wheel manually tilts, although it does not telescope. 

Which bring us to that issue we touched on earlier.

While entrance and egress is no big thing, the seating position leaves a little to be desired. This is especially true if you suffer from slight T Rex syndrome (long legs, short-ish arms) as I do. I was required to move my seat back (manual seat adjustment is your only option), which is no big thing (except for the compromise it asks of back seat passengers), but since the wheel has no reach adjustment, I found myself having to really stretch to get there. Then, when I wanted to rest my overly stretched arm, there was nowhere to do so, expect on the passenger beside me. Which can be awkward, depending on who it is.

It’s too bad because other aspects of the seating position are pretty good; you get 1,007 mm of front headroom (980.4 if you have the moonroof, and 933 mm in the back), 1,068 mm of front legroom and a pretty nice view forward thanks to a surprisingly high seating position. Yes, at 815 mm rear seat legroom is, to put it lightly, snug (which is generous, I’d say; it is very, very snug back there), but what do you expect when it shares underpinnings with a city car?

The Hockey Bag Test

So, if you’re going to squeeze the rear seat passengers, you should have plenty of room in the rear cargo area, right? Well…

As you can see from the photos, getting an adult-sized hockey bag in there is not a problem, widthwise. The rear hatch’s opening is a little narrow, but the real problem comes with fitting longer items. In many cars, you can slide your sticks over the back seats, even if there is a tonneau cover installed.

With the Juke, however, the space between the tonneau cover and rear window is so snug, you really have to manipulate longer items. You’re better off folding the rear seats (they split 60/40); when done, the seatbacks sit completely flat, and 1,017 litres of cargo room is available. That number shrinks to 297 L with the rear seats up.

The Rest

Otherwise, I rather like what’s going on in the Juke’s cockpit.

For starters, there’s the centre stack, whose ability to change from a set of driver aid controls to a set of climate controls never really gets old. Look! The buttons say different things if I press this button! How DO they do that?

It’s a pretty neat trick, one that’s quirky and fitting with the Juke’s mission.

Being the top-flight SL model, our car has all the goodies as standard: navigation, Sirius satellite radio, heated front seats finished in leather, and Nissan’s AroundView camera system. While that last one may not be as necessary for a small vehicle like this as it would in, say, a Pathfinder, it’s still a nice feature to have as the rear window isn’t huge. The side-view mirrors are quite large, however, and can even get in the way when it comes to forward visibility.

Let’s hit the road

While the standard turbo engine is not technically new to the Juke, it’s internals have been updated to raise the compression ratio from 9.5:1 to 10.5:1, providing smoother operation and better fuel economy (we saw 8.8 L/100 km in the combined cycle; that’s up a little on what Nissan claims. I’d be happy with that as an owner, except that it takes Premium fuel.

Standard on all trims barring the Nismo edition, it’s good for 188 hp and 177 lb-ft of torque, which means that even though it’s a relative veteran in the micro crossover game, it still makes more power than its competition from Mazda (the CX-3) and Honda (the HR-V) – by a long shot, actually, beating the Mazda by 42 hp and 31 lb-ft, and the Honda by 47 hp and an even 50 lb-ft. Those aren’t small figures, especially when you consider that in the Juke’s case, you’ve only got 1,360 kg to shift about on FWD versions, and 1,443 with AWD versions, as you see here.

So, forward progress is mostly brisk; as brisk as it can be with Nissan’s Xtronic continuously variable transmission (CVT), anyway, Yes, if you can live without AWD, then a six-speed manual transmission is available, but you’ll have to live with the CVT if you feel you need power to all four wheels. There isn’t a paddle-shift option, either, so if you want to manipulate the CVT on your own (I say “manipulate” because you don’t actually change gears), you’ll have to make do with nudging the lever fore and aft. While there may be few people that actually use paddle shifters when they have them, I’ll bet even fewer use a manual mode when the only option is bumping a shift lever around.

During normal driving, 100 percent of available torque is sent to the front wheels for better fuel economy. That can change, however, if you select either AWD-V mode or full AWD mode by flipping a switch mounted (a bit out of the way, actually) to the left of the steering column.

Both AWD modes can send up to 50 percent of power to the rear wheels, but AWD-V uses torque vectoring – power is sent to the outside rear wheel during a turn to help swing the car around – for better performance in twisty conditions on dry tarmac. AWD mode, meanwhile, is on hand to send power to the rear axle in slippery conditions. It’s what you should be using in snow or on gravel roads.

Tested on tarmac, as we did, reveals a surprisingly (or maybe not so much) tossable chassis that is much more “sporty hatch” than “crossover”, which is another obvious advantage of these types of vehicles. Even the ride is smooth; this is helped by the fact that AWD models get a multi-link rear suspension as standard, while front-drivers have to get by with a torsion beam rear end. It’s a little lighter, but it won’t ride quite as well.

The bottom line is that the chassis plus the new powerplant brings the Juke even closer to its Nismo brethren; you don’t get the latter’s specially tuned suspension, but what you do get is nothing to scoff at.

So, if you’re of taller ilk…

Well, you’re going to have to figure out some way to get around that no reach steering. Maybe you have to attach a knob, bus-driver style, to add reach – I don’t know, but it’s too bad the problem exists.

It’s too bad because there’s a lot to like here, both on the performance and feature front. If you’ve got the arms for it, however, then you should be OK, and will pay less than you would for a similarly equipped Mini Cooper 5-door.

NRCan Fuel Consumption: 8.5/7.2 City/Highway
Observed Fuel Consumption: 8.8 L/100 km

Warranty:
3 years/60,000 km; 5 years/100,000 km powertrain; 5 years/unlimited distance corrosion perforation; 3 years/60,000 km roadside assistance

Competitors:
Chevrolet Trax
Fiat 500X
Honda HR-V
Jeep Renegade
Kia Soul
Mazda CX-3
Subaru XV Crosstrek

Specifications

Model Tested 2015 Nissan Juke SL AWD   Destination Fee $1,695
Base Price $30,178   Price as Tested $31,973
A/C Tax $100  
Optional Equipment
$1,370 – front and rear bumper accents $242, lower hatch accent $134, headlight trim rings $114, interior colour inserts $129, side mirror caps $154, side door sills $295, body side moulding kit $302