"I dare you to sell a 99-hp hybrid," says Volkswagen to Toyota; "I dare you to sell a car that doesn't have all-wheel drive," says Mitsubishi to Subaru; "I dare you to sell a car that people under 50 will buy," says Chrysler to Buick. Everyone's laughing and having a good time.
And then, it happened.
"Hey Nissan! I dare you to sell a subcompact-sized sport-utility, built on a Versa platform, powered by a, uh, turbo engine, with a centre console that resembles a motorcycle gas tank, with a pinched butt, virtually no cargo space and that looks like a bullfrog after being hit by a bus."
Silence filled the room, followed by murmurs. That sounded more like a double dare than a simple dare.
"That's it?" said Nissan, crewing on a Twizzler. "You call that a dare?" And that's how the Juke was born. At least, that's how I imagine it.
Styling: love it or hate it
We can criticize the Juke, but we must give credit to Nissan for taking chances, for contributing to prevent the automotive industry from becoming a bland, vanilla-flavoured one. The Juke's look may not please everyone, with its oddball shape, its single-eyebrow grille and sky-high flashers, but it does draw attention.
The 2012 Nissan Juke's doorstop profile also looks strange from certain angles. On the other hand, its disproportionate shape is another aspect that draws good or bad comments but nothing in between; people either appreciate its boldness or say that it's downright ugly.
DIG that engine
The Juke's engine is shared with no other product in Nissan North American lineup. That's a shame, as this little 1.6L inline-4, force-fed by a turbocharged and blessed with gasoline direct injection (or DIG as Nissan calls it) produces 188 horsepower and gobs of low-end torque; 177 lb-ft from 2,000 to 5,200 rpm to be exact.
The front-wheel drive Juke comes standard with a 6-speed manual, but the AWD Juke can only be equipped with a continuously-variable automatic with manual mode. The Juke lunges forward from a standstill and is quite amusing, but the engine does get noisy as the tranny holds it near the redline at wide-open throttle.
The Juke SL AWD accelerates to 100 km/h in 8 seconds. Our fuel consumption over the course of the test is averaging 9L/100km; not bad, but the engine requires premium unleaded. DIG that.
With a short wheelbase as well as precise and direct steering, the Juke is fun to drive, in a go-kart-ish sort of way. The suspension is firm, pounding over rough pavement, although it's fine on the highway. It may share its platform with the Versa and the cube, but it doesn't feel like it.
Trunk? What trunk?
When you sit in the back of a Juke, it also doesn't feel like the hindquarters of a Versa, as there's very little room. I convinced four work buddies to hop in the Juke on our way to the pasta bar for lunch, and the three who sat in back haven't spoken to me since. Probably just a coincidence.
The Juke is also not the best choice for week-long road trips, unless you're only two aboard. A few grocery bags fit in the cargo area when the rear seats are up; with only 297 litres of space, it's less accommodating than the cube, the Versa and the Sentra. Flip down the rear seatback, and you get 1,017 litres of room, which is better but still about two-thirds of what you get in a Versa Hatchback or a cube.
Up front, space is also precious but adequate for the size of the vehicle. The painted centre console looks different, but the lack of a centre armrest is a shortcoming; for me, anyways. In pure typical Nissan fashion, the Juke's switchgear is straightforward, while the optional sound system and navigation touchscreen display is easy to use, if a little small.
The I-CON interface doesn't impress me all that much. You get over the zoomy performance and fuel economy bar graphs pretty quickly, and it would be nice if the system would stay in ECO or SPORT mode even after you turned off the engine. It doesn't. Still, the occasional passenger thinks it's cool.
Go for the stick
A base, front-drive Juke SV with the 6-speed manual is listed at $19,998. It lacks the SL's I-CON system, intelligent key system, heated front seats, power sunroof and fog lamps as well as the AWD's independent rear suspension, but otherwise, it would suit me just fine.
Our SL AWD tester, loaded with leather, navigation, a rearview camera and a stereo upgrade with USB port costs $29,378.
What can it be compared with? Well, there's nothing really like it on our market right now, besides perhaps the Mitsubishi RVR, the Kia Soul or, to a certain degree, the MINI Cooper Countryman.
Call it cute, call it ugly, but don't call it irrelevant. The Juke is an affordable, fun-to-drive runabout that draws attention. As for Nissan, they have proved in the last few years that double dares don't scare them one bit.