Overall rating: 4/5
Nissan's Nismo performance brand arrives in Europe in the unlikely, but enjoyable form of the Juke Nismo.
In the metal 4/5
Like it or not the Juke's divisive style has been a massive success in Europe, and given it is built here, that's reason to celebrate. Nismo might be a well-known sub-brand in Nissan's home of Japan, but outside it - and the odd PlayStation GranTurismo garage - it's relatively unheard of. Even so, we were a touch surprised that Nissan's first official European Nismo offering would be based on the upright SUV-cum-supermini that is the Juke.
An oddity, insomuch as it's a supermini playing SUV with a foot in the hot hatch camp. Though the unlikely sounding mix actually turns out to be a surprisingly appealing machine. The Nismo bits add more than just some sporting looks; the aero changes, for example, help with stability - without being detrimental to the drag figure. The stickers pictured are an option, the Juke Nismo arguably better without them, but the bigger wheels, LED daytime running lights, Nismo badging and red wing mirrors all work well with the Juke's lines. Inside, that's true too, the red painted rev counter, deeply bolstered bucket seats and Alcantara steering wheel giving the already appealing interior a sporting lift.
Driving it 4/5
The first turn of that Alcantara steering wheel surprises, as the Juke Nismo immediately feels like it's more than mere marketing puff. The weighting is good and there's even some feel through the wheel's rim. Changes to the suspension and steering rack are obvious. There's agility here that's not in its non-Nismo relations, the Juke transformed from a fairly ordinary run-around to something with a good deal more driver appeal. Nismo's people have increased the spring stiffness on the two-wheel drive car by 10 per cent and the result is improved precision and control through the bends, though it's playful and fun too. There is a trade-off, as, while the suspension copes admirably with most surfaces, it can get a little busy at speed, where small undulations cause a vertical movement that's fine in the driver's seat but less fun for passengers.
A motorway drive also reveals the biggest shortcoming of the six-speed manual gearbox. The shift itself is decent, but sixth gear doesn't feel long enough, so it's not unusual to find yourself taking it out of gear to check you've not left it in fourth. The engine's performance isn't in the league of extraordinary, even if the 7.8-second 0-100km/h time is respectable enough, its strength being in the mid-range where the turbo is doing its best work and peak torque is delivered. Maximum power is produced at 6,000rpm, heady, and ultimately unnecessary unless you want to rev it out. The incentive to do so is scant, the 1.6-litre turbocharged unit not delivering the greatest aural delights - sounding a bit strained as you pile on revs.
If we're sounding down on the Juke Nismo then it's a disservice, as those few faults aside it's actually a very entertaining back road car, and the list price and sizeable equipment list do make it look conspicuously good value alongside more conventional hot hatchbacks.
What you get for your money 4/5
Being a range-topper the Juke Nismo comes with a sizeable standard specification. There's that Alcantara covered steering wheel, those sports seats in suede and all the Nismo body kit and 18-inch alloy wheels outside. Add a reversing camera, intelligent key with push button start, satnav with Bluetooth connection and Google's 'Send to Car' features and you'll want for little. Nissan also offers an iPad mini connection and mount along with an App that gives real-time data and additional instrumentation should you desire it, but for all but the geekiest it's more of a distraction than anything useful.
Nismo hasn't stopped developing the Juke; indeed we had a quick run in a prototype version of the Nismo Juke producing an additional 20hp and with some further and more extreme suspension modifications. More power is always welcome, but the spring and damper tweaks might prove a bit much for Irish roads. Nissan is planning on putting the faster Juke into production too and it's expected to arrive late 2013. As with the regular Juke the Nismo is also offered in four-wheel drive, though only in conjunction with its CVT automatic transmission. It drops to 8.3 seconds for the 0-100km/h sprint while economy takes a hit at 38.1mpg (7.4 litres/100km) - and emissions rise to 169g/km.
We didn't honestly expect to enjoy the Juke Nismo as much as we did. There are a few compromises in terms of ride comfort and refinement, but that's also true of its rivals and the pay off is a far more entertaining drive. Something of a surprise then; if this is what Nismo can do to something as relatively ordinary as the Juke then we're looking forward to what's next...