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Wednesday, May 8, 2013
2013 Nissan Juke Nismo Quick Drive
Juke R, 370Z Nismo Also Driven
Though staff opinions on the Nissan Juke's styling couldn't be more divided, feelings about its driving experience have been almost unanimously positive. The short-wheelbase crossover feels relatively nimble and peppy, thanks to a suspension and an available all-wheel-drive system geared more toward on-road use, and a 188-hp turbocharged 1.6-liter I-4. Now, Nissan has upped the sportiness factor of its polarizingcompact CUV with the Juke Nismo, the first model to come from Nissan's expansion of the Nismo brand. Nissan invited us to its backyard in Nashville, Tennessee, to drive the Juke Nismo, along with some of the brand's other important performance models.The Nismo version begins with either a front- or all-wheel-drive Juke and ups power to 197 hp and 184 lb-ft of torque. The in-house tuner then adds unique bodywork including functional aero bits such as the front lip and rear spoiler, and retunes the suspension and steering. If that doesn't sound like enough of a performance boost to make it the top-of-the-range Juke model, that's because it's not meant to be. Nissan recently lowered prices across the Juke lineup to make the oddball crossover more competitive. That same line of thinking is what positioned the Juke Nismo beneath the top SL trim level in price.
The Juke Nismo reminds me more of a comprehensive sport package than a separate sporty variant like the Mini Countryman's JCW model. The car utilizes the same turbocharged engine, but gets a reprogrammed ECU that yields an extra 9 hp and 7 lb-ft. Springs are 10 percent stiffer, and other suspension components including dampers and bushings have been revised as well. The car has also been lowered on new 18-inch alloy wheels wearing 225/45-series Continental ContiSportContact5 summer tires, giving it a sportier stance and stickier footprint. Finally, steering has been tweaked to offer more resistance at higher speeds.Behind the wheel, the performance upgrades weren't immediately noticeable. The model receives new seats with more bolstering, finished in cloth and suede. The seatbacks are embroidered with the Nismo logo, which also appears on the center console. The tachometer gets a red hue, making it easily visible through the spokes of the special Alcantara-wrapped steering wheel. The other enhancements became apparent once we hit the autocross course. Turn-in was more responsive, with the grippier summer tires biting into the pavement and rapidly changing direction on command through the slalom. Body roll felt reduced, but the Juke still didn't feel completely at home carving up the course's sharp turns. Hustling the Nismo through a corner resulted (predictably) in understeer, and you could feel the small CUV's weight transfer with each slight motion. Still, handling was admirable for a crossover.
After several runs, the CVT-equipped all-wheel-drive model emerged as the faster of the two in the autocross. The manual front-drive Nismo was fun to drive, but the substantial torque steer made it a handful coming out of the turns. The all-wheel-drive model with its torque vectoring system put the power down more effectively, and clicking off the CVT's simulated gear changes made the absence of a third pedal more bearable. I did wish for a good set of paddle shifters so I could keep my hands at the ready to shuffle the wheel. A Nissan rep said that's one feature that might be in the works, though a manual-equipped all-wheel-drive Juke isn't in the cards for this generation, as there's currently no gearbox that will mate up to the crossover's system, and developing a new manual would be too costly.
The highway ride was bumpy at times, but not much more than the standard model. Punching the throttle with either transmission or drive layout produced similar thrust to a regular Juke, and any acceleration gains were hardly perceptible. Also similar to the standard Juke was the vacuum-like whine of the turbocharged engine, which made flogging the 1.6-liter less enjoyable. The Juke Nismo turned heads everywhere it went in the Nashville suburbs, and I don't blame people for looking. Love it or hate it, the Juke's unique styling definitely stands out in today's automotive landscape, and Nismo exterior touches such the roof-mounted spoiler, special side skirts, and the model-specific front valance announce the crossover's presence even more loudly.During my drive, I couldn't help but wonder if a traditional hot hatch wouldn't better serve Juke Nismo buyers, especially considering the Juke doesn't offer any more utility with its sloping roofline. Cargo volume behind the second-row seats stands at 10.5 cu-ft for the Juke Nismo, compared to 23.8 for the Ford Focus ST and 15.2 for the outgoing four-door 2013 Volkswagen GTI. The Juke's ground clearance advantage makes it better suited for off-road use than a hot hatch, but the few times I did venture off the pavement for photos, I still felt I had to be cautious given the lowered ride height of the Nismo. We've wondered in the past why Nissan decided to make the Juke a crossover, and the Nismo version only places a bigger question mark at the end of that sentiment.
But for those buyers who love the Juke despite its quirks, the Nismo variant gives them a sportier option that looks racy, has a hint of added performance to back up its appearance, and a starting price that won't break the bank, at $23,780 for a front-drive manual model, and an extra $2300 for all-wheel drive and a CVT. Nismo doesn't plan on stopping with the Juke either, hinting that more performance-oriented products are in the works. We can't wait to see what the firm will come up with next.
The Juke Nismo's steroid-addicted, $600,000-plus cousin, the Juke R, was also present at the track that day, and I was given a rare opportunity to drive it. As we've covered extensively in the past, the extremely limited model isn't so much a Juke with a GT-R drivetrain as it is a taller, shorter-wheelbase, Juke-shaped GT-R. Power comes from a pre-2012 face-lift GT-R twin-turbo 3.8-liter V-6 that produces 480 hp and 434 lb-ft. The vehicle combines the Juke's 99.6-inch wheelbase (9.8 inches shorter than the GT-R's) with the GT-R's track width accommodated by flared carbon-fiber wheel arches for a squat, planted look.To get in, you have to contort your body to clear the roll cage and squeeze into a tight OMP racing seat. The GT-R steering wheel was familiar, but the seating position was a bit awkward, as you sit farther back in the cabin. This made sight lines less than ideal for my 5'7" frame, with the A-pillars obstructing the view of my corner exit most of the time. Not surprisingly, the car accelerated like the GT-R in the straight, but as soon as I cranked the wheel I noticed the Juke R's sharper turn-in response. With its shorter wheelbase, the Juke R was also more eager to rotate compared to the GT-R, and the stability control system lets the rear slide briefly, but catches you and restores grip after too long. Apply the brakes, and you have all the stopping power of a GT-R at your disposal.
Although the Juke R was built by racing outfit RML Motorsports, not Nismo, the Frankenstein creation's presence at the Nashville event helped demonstrate Nissan's performance commitment, and that the company isn't just about selling more Altimas.
Nissan 370Z Nismo
Nismo's other current product, the 370Z Nismo, was also on hand for us to sample. For 2014, the Nismo Z gets gray and red exterior accents to match those found on the Juke Nismo. The model still produces 350 hp and 276 lb-ft from a tuned 3.7-liter V-6, and gets a longer, aero-optimized nose compared to the standard Z. On the track, the Z feels solid and planted in the turns, exhibiting minimal body roll. The wide footprint of the 19-inch Rays alloy wheels combined with the sticky Bridgestone Potenza S001 summer tires gives the sports car phenomenal grip, contributing to the sports car's crisp turn-in but also allowing the chassis to rotate when desired. The six-speed manual transmission featured Nissan's auto rev-matching downshift function, which made dropping gears in preparation for a turn smooth and easy. If I wanted to do my own throttle blips, the feature could be turned off.Though it's an aging product, the 370Z Nismo is still a potent sports car that really shows what the performance brand can do. We're looking forward to seeing Nismo's handiwork on more Nissan products in the future.