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Performance arm Nismo targets a new generation of hot hatch fans with an uprated Juke, but lower-slung rivals are more dynamic

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The introduction of a completely new breed of performance car – in this case the Nissan Juke Nismo – is something to celebrate, but the launch of a whole new performance brand is an even rarer and more special occasion.

This road test is marking both as Nismo – Nissan’s dedicated motorsport arm turned go-faster road car specialist – arrives in the UK. And its introductory model is a hot hatchback from way out in the left field: a 197bhp Juke crossover. The Juke Nismo was replaced with the Nismo RS which gained some styling cues from the monstrous GT-R and a lick of performance fine-tuning.

Development took place at Nissan's tech centre in Cranfield

Nismo – Nissan Motorsport International Limited – was formed in 1984, when Nissan fused its customer and works racing departments

The performance division then entered the Le Mans 24 Hours for the first time in 1986, built its first bespoke racing machine in 1988, and developed its first road car – the Skyline GT-R 'R32' – for release in 1989. 

The Juke Nismo first appeared as a concept at the 2011 Tokyo and 2012 Paris motor shows, while the Le Mans 24 race of 2012 marked the public reveal of the performance-orientated crossover.

A barrage of questions presents, ranging from the straightforward (read ‘easy to answer’) to the other sort. What is a Nismo Nissan? Are the people who design them, develop them and build them different from those who make regular Nissans?

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What kind of performance machines can we expect them to be? Distinct from, say, a Volkswagen Golf GTI or a Vauxhall VXR? How, exactly, can we expect them to drive? And how high should our expectations be of them as dynamic entertainers?

You’re about to find out. You’re also about to learn what happens to a high-rise supermini when you bolt in an engine from an experimental race car. Here’s a clue: it doesn’t hang about.

Nissan juke 1

DESIGN & STYLING

Nissan Juke Nismo headlight
Three body colours are on offer: grey is standard, black or white cost extra

The governing maxim of the Nismo brand is ‘innovation and excitement for everyone’. It's a fresh take on the performance derivative, for a generation of buyers who first came across Nismo through games such as Sony’s Gran Turismo series. Above all, accessibility is key.

There are clear parallels with Ford’s ST models. Like a Ford ST, the Juke Nismo was engineered by a team of dedicated specialists.

The Nissan Juke Nismo is certainly different

The project included input from Nissan’s design centre in Paddington and its technical centre in Cranfield, but it was signed off in Japan, by Nismo itself. And, like a Ford ST, the Juke Nismo is built on the same production line as its lesser range-mates, to keep its price realistic.

Unlike the Ford Fiesta ST, however, the Juke Nismo is a crossover supermini, complete with raised ride height and esoteric styling. It has stiffer springs and dampers than a standard Juke, as well as 18-inch alloys and a revised steering set-up.

But there has been no drop in ride height, there are no wider tracks, no larger brakes and no saving on kerb weight. 

Power comes from Nissan’s 1.6-litre DIG-T four-cylinder turbocharged petrol engine. Here, the unit gets a 10bhp and 7lb ft peak output hike, making 197bhp and 184lb ft in all, without impacting on emissions; the Juke Nismo emits no more CO2 than a regular 1.6-litre DIG-T. Ostensibly, though, this is still the same engine as used by the Le Mans DeltaWing racer, albeit in a lower state of tune. While the uprated Nismo RS that superceded it received a further 15 bhp, taking its output to 215bhp.

That power goes to the front wheels in the six-speed manual version. There’s also a four-wheel-drive version that runs a stepped, continuously variable transmission.

Outwardly, the usual extended bumpers and side sills distinguish the car, but of much greater impact is the enlarged front air dam, flanked by LED running lights.

Meanwhile, we heartily approve of the red door mirror caps and red pinstripe body trim, both of which are set to become Nismo styling hallmarks.

This is a car that stands out from the crowd. 

INTERIOR

Nissan Juke Nismo dashboard
The cabin mixes a sense of purpose with a level of sophistication

The cabin benefits greatly from the focus imposed by Nismo. The designers’ aim was to add simplicity, perceived quality and a strong sense of purpose. In all three, they’ve succeeded. And they’ve done so without removing the underlying character of the Juke’s cockpit, which remains appealingly distinctive.

The darker trim on the transmission tunnel, centre stack and headlining make the cabin look and feel quietly upmarket, without clamouring for visual attention.

It's amazing the difference a bit of Alcantara makes

Your gaze is allowed to fix instead on the more important functional parts of the interior, such as the multi-modal Nissan Dynamic Control System (NDCS).

Positioned just ahead of the gearlever, it allows you to tweak throttle response and steering effort levels, and cycle through trip computer information, with the same switchgear that is used to change the climate control settings.

Eye-catching, too, are the tactile Alcantara-trimmed steering wheel and the generously supportive suede sports seats, while the ‘Nissan Connect’ nav system has been enhanced for the Juke Nismo. It has a decent-size screen (5.8 inches), is well detailed and even integrates with Google so you can plan a route in advance or access an expanded points of interest database with live fuel prices and weather information.

Nissan's standard audio is a six-speaker system that’s more than respectable – although we suspect that it’ll take a technological back seat when Nissan’s Nismo app is released. The shortcut buttons and a touchscreen interface make it easy to navigate, and there are also steering wheel-mounted controls to help you out.

Full Bluetooth connectivity is standard. It’s quick and easy to connect with and audio call quality is good. Functionality will also expand to include the ability to use your iPad as an auxiliary display screen (once you’ve downloaded that app), to relay extra instrumentation or connect to social media.

There isn’t a great deal of rear passenger space – plenty of regular superminis offer more – but the raised hip point makes getting in and out more easy than it might be. The driving position is high, but many won’t mind, although it is slightly poorer for the lack of reach adjustment on the steering column. Nissan is a regular offender on that charge, for which there is little excuse these days.

That apart, there’s plenty to like about the Nissan Juke Nismo’s interior. This isn’t a very practical car, but hot hatch clientele probably won’t expect much on that front. Equipment levels are generous, but so they should be for the price, and there’s just enough go-faster flavour to whet the appetite. So far, then, so good.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Nissan Juke Nismo rear quarter
Two-wheel-drive versions of the Juke can sprint from 0-62mph in 6.9sec

If you thought that the Nissan Juke Nismo would be something of a half measure in terms of sheer punch, think again.

The Juke Nismo would comfortably hold its own in most traffic light grands prix, running nip and tuck with our new hot supermini class leader, the Fiesta ST, right up to 100mph. It’s a genuine sub-7.0sec prospect to 60mph, and our time makes a mockery of Nissan’s 7.8sec official 0-62mph claim. It’s also more than a second quicker into three figures than the previous Renault Clio Cup.

The Juke Nismo has a claimed top speed of 134mph

No damp squib, then. Once you select Sport mode on the NDCS, the Juke’s turbocharged four-pot develops sharper throttle response – provided you’ve got the turbo spinning.

That turbo takes a little bit of rousing at low revs, as our in-gear acceleration numbers show, but it has a predictably large swell of mid-range torque in all driving modes. More than enough, often, to trouble the maximum traction levels of the front wheels.

There’s a real edge to the engine’s voice, which becomes harder and more metallic as the revs rise although never bothersome in its harshness. You’ll like listening to this motor, which can’t always be said of engines of its kind. And its willingness to pile on speed above 4000rpm is also impressive for a small-capacity turbo. The limiter doesn’t chime in until 6750rpm, and you can get quite close to that threshold before its lungs begin to run short of air.

The gearlever is quite short of throw and substantial in feel, and it engages ratios with good positivity. The Nissan Juke is short in the wheelbase and rides high, but it is well controlled in an emergency stop. During our braking tests, it came to rest from 70mph in exactly 45m – a result that would do any hot hatchback credit.

You'll find there's a substantial premium if you want to go for the automatic version of the Juke Nismo, however, and it would be if all you got for your extra money was an automatic gearbox.

What you actually get, however, is Nissan’s continuously variable transmission (CVT) – operable in manual mode via seven ‘steps’ and tuned by Nismo for more sporting changes – combined with a four-wheel drive system, an electronic torque vectoring system, a multi-link independent rear suspension set-up and a slightly larger fuel tank.

The CVT has a torque converter with full lock-up, a seven-speed ‘manual’ mode and an operational range in automatic mode of anything from 5.7mph to 33.8mph per 1000rpm. The Nissan’s all-wheel drive system is operated by a hydraulic pump but is controlled electronically and can send up to 50 per cent of power to the rear wheels.

That power can then be forced to a loaded outside wheel by the brake-actuated torque vectoring system, which can help counteract any understeer. The four-wheel drive model’s multi-link rear suspension set-up replaces the front-drive Nissan Juke Nismo’s torsion beam. The multi-link consists of two lateral links and one trailing arm, and is adjustable for wheel camber.

If you have a particular desire for an automatic then it's your only option, but it's worth bearing in mind that it's slightly slower and less efficient than the manual version.

RIDE & HANDLING

The 197bhp Nissan Juke Nismo
Height and keen handling don't make keen bedfellows

Earlier, we mentioned that the Nismo variant of the Juke had been given no drop in ride height over the standard car, which itself has a fairly loping ride and easy body movements.

That, presumably, gave Nissan two options when tuning this variant: nail the ride down hard to effect full control of the body’s lateral and longitudinal sway, or keep spring settings slightly easier and afford a bit of roll and pitch at the expense of some keenness, which can then be reined in with good damper tuning. Nismo has chosen the latter route.

The Juke responds well to a smoother driving style

On the upside, this means that driving a Juke Nismo is, mostly, no more of a dynamic chore than driving a regular Juke.

The ride is fairly compliant, the brakes are keen and the body feels quite deftly checked after an initial deflection. In fact, had they had no experience of a regular Juke, your passengers would be unlikely to realise that this was a sporting version of a more conventionally configured car.

The thing is, though, that even the driver is unlikely to find the Nismo much more sporting than a regular Juke. Even though the steering is reasonably weighted and geared, you get precious little back from it. And on more challenging roads or, woe betide, a circuit, the disadvantages of allowing such body movements and compliance really come to the fore. 

Consequently, around corners, the Nismo pitches and rolls, spinning easily a lightly loaded inside wheel as it scrabbles for grip out of even low-speed bends. If Nismo was aiming for a dynamic demeanour that’s never challenging to its driver, then it has entirely succeeded.

Similarly, though, this Nissan Juke is never engaging, which seems like a shame for a car wearing a Nismo badge.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Nissan Juke Nismo
The Juke is a compact crossover with punch and presence

On-board technology is set to play a big part in the appeal of the Nismo brand, and the Nissan Juke Nismo is highly equipped as a result.

Juke Nismo owners will eventually be able to connect their iPads via Bluetooth, mount them as auxiliary screens and call up extra instrument readouts and social media functionality via the impending Nismo app.

Curiously, an alarm system is available but it isn't standard

Other equipment includes the standard Nissan Connect sat-nav, a reversing camera and heated front seats. For some reason, an alarm is a dealer-fit option. It shouldn’t be.

The car is fairly well priced compared with the rest of the Nissan Juke range, but not so much relative to some of its more conventional hot hatchback and crossover opposition.

Some of the premium is forgivable given the equipment you get, but not all. Residuals could be a sticking point, too; our sources suggest they won’t be as sound as many may hope.

On the plus side, the Juke's economy and emissions are reasonable, which helps to keep running costs down, while low repair costs and good reliability should further minimise your expenditure.

VERDICT

3 star Nissan Juke Nismo
Nissan's 'generation Y' hot crossover leaves us a bit cold

Nissan development chief Andy Palmer has described the Nissan Juke Nismo as “the obvious place to start for the Nismo brand”.

But you’re only likely to agree with him if you care more for ostentatious design and hi-tech gadgetry in your hot hatchback than you do for ultimate handling thrills. Since you’re reading this, we trust you don’t.

More practical than a hot hatch, but not as satisfying to drive

This car has plenty going for it, but there simply isn’t the outright grip or directional agility to satisfy the confirmed petrolhead. It's neither as capable nor as engaging as the Ford Fiesta ST or the Renault Clio RS 200.

The Nissan Juke Nismo certainly isn’t slow; in some ways, it’s dynamically sophisticated and its chassis damping demonstrates that Nissan’s performance department can, in the future, be expected to deliver a more rounded performance car. 

So it isn't an alternative to a proper fast supermini with an immersive driving experience. On the flip side, if design appeal and novelty value are more prevalent tick-boxes on your shopping list, then this may be the only car on the market you care about.

Nismo has, regardless, demonstrated that it is to be taken seriously, and you get the impression that the true potential of the brand is yet to be deployed.

The Juke Nismo itself, however, isn’t to be taken so seriously and neither is the harder Nismo RS. We wouldn’t give up a proper low-slung hot hatch for it.

Nissan juke 1

Matt Prior

Matt Prior
Title: Editor-at-large

Matt is Autocar’s lead features writer and presenter, is the main face of Autocar’s YouTube channel, presents the My Week In Cars podcast and has written his weekly column, Tester’s Notes, since 2013.

Matt is an automotive engineer who has been writing and talking about cars since 1997. He joined Autocar in 2005 as deputy road test editor, prior to which he was road test editor and world rally editor for Channel 4’s automotive website, 4Car. 

Into all things engineering and automotive from any era, Matt is as comfortable regularly contributing to sibling titles Move Electric and Classic & Sports Car as he is writing for Autocar. He has a racing licence, and some malfunctioning classic cars and motorbikes. 

Nissan Juke Nismo 2013-2018 First drives