Test Drive: Nissan Juke NISMO RS

NISMO, Nissan’s in-house tuning company, has a long and rich history of working their magic on standard Nissan performance cars and making them both look and go faster, from the R32 Skyline GT-R NISMO to the 270R, a NISMO-tuned variant of the S14 Silvia.

Yet, today in the United States, there are only two cars in the Nissan lineup that offer a NISMO-tuned variant. One should come as no surprise; the 370Z NISMO is a more powerful and more focused version of the already competent Z sports car.

But the other vehicle given the NISMO treatment from the factory is undoubtedly a surprise. It’s not the Sentra, or the Maxima, or even the R35 GT-R supercar. It’s not even technically considered to be a car for that matter.

It’s the Juke.

Yes, what is quite possibly the most controversial vehicle for sale in America thanks to its bizarre styling gets a special blessing from NISMO in two forms, either as the Juke NISMO, or as my test car, the NISMO RS.

Addressing the styling first, opting for a NISMO or a NISMO RS means that the Juke’s normally rather silly visage is made to look much more serious. The NISMO body kit adds a larger and lower front bumper, with a front chin spoiler, side skirts, and rear spats. A sizeable rear spoiler perches atop the tailgate where it’s nearly impossible to miss from any angle.

Behind the visage of the standard Juke is a 1.6L 4cyl engine that’s turbocharged, intercooled, and direct injected and makes 188hp. But the NISMO RS’s engine has a few extra goodies, both internal and external. NISMO reprogrammed the ECU and added a louder and freer flowing exhaust on the outside. That brings total output to 215hp and 210 ft-lbs of torque, and to cope with the extra power and turbo boost that results from the new ECU mapping, the connecting rods are both stronger and shorter, which lowers the compression ratio from 10.5:1 to 9.5:1.

The all-wheel-drive NISMO RS has a slightly lower output (211hp and 184 ft-lbs), but the real reason you don’t want the AWD one is because those are CVT by default. If you’re going to take driving your NISMO-tuned Juke seriously, forego the AWD and choose the front-drive version that has a six-speed manual, as my test vehicle was thankfully equipped.

Power from the Juke NISMO RS is ample, especially with the short-ratio manual gearbox. The synchros could stand to be beefed up, especially on 2nd gear, which occasionally made a painful-sounding crunch during fast shifts. But keep running through the gears and you’ll post good acceleration numbers, if not outstanding ones; 60mph takes 6.7 seconds and the quarter mile takes 15.1 seconds with a 93mph trap speed. But the Juke NISMO RS’s drivetrain does a fine job of making it feel faster than it actually is. 2nd and 3rd gear full-throttle pulls are downright addicting, and the ratios mean that even 6th gear has the engine in prime boost-building territory at highway speeds.

Nissan also was wise to give the front-wheel-drive Juke NISMO RS a helical limited-slip differential, so torque steer is barely noticeable in straight line acceleration, and tire squealing from the inside front wheel exiting a corner is well controlled, even if you push the traction control button, which actually disables all electronic driver aids. Thanks for that, Nissan.

There are more go-fast trinkets inside, including some Recaro front seats that I’m at a loss to describe with any other word other than “hardcore.” They’re so hardcore, in fact, that getting in and out of the Juke NISMO RS can be, well, a challenge… especially if you’re male. The bolstering is not just upholstered padding; it’s part of the solid seat frame, and that bolstering is just as heavy duty on the seat bottom as it is on the seat back. So, if you’re feeling tough and macho about getting in your souped-up Juke NISMO RS, be certain that your entire body is fully within the confines of the bolstering before you put your weight down in the seat. Otherwise, what makes you male will suffer immensely, and your tough and macho disposition will be long gone. Don’t ask me how I know.

Get past that, and the Juke’s cockpit is actually quite good. The NISMO RS’s steering wheel has a red centering stripe at the top as an homage to racing cars, there’s lots of Alcantara strategically strewn about, and the Rockford Fosgate stereo sounds fantastic. The Juke’s HVAC display is still a fun toy to play with: press the D-Mode button, and all the HVAC buttons change to show and toggle through the available driving modes. Normal shows a torque gauge, Eco gives you a score for how economically you’re driving, and Sport shows a boost gauge, or it can even show you lateral G forces while you’re taking corners.

With my testing equipment, I measured 0.9g of lateral acceleration, which is commendable. NISMO has been at work underneath the Juke as well, having tuned the KYB twin-tube shock absorbers and adding a thicker rear swaybar. The NISMO RS gets bigger 18-inch wheels wrapped in more adhesive Continental summer tires as well. However, I feel a bit more needs to be done. Despite NISMO’s fiddling with the suspension, the NISMO RS has only 0.1 inches less ground clearance than the standard Juke. So it still feels as tall as the standard Juke when you’re diving headfirst into a corner, and that tall profile makes understeer its prevailing handling characteristic, even with the bigger rear swaybar. Furthermore, Nissan claims the steering is also tuned by NISMO, though that really only means it has less electric power assist. The steering rack ratio is the same between the standard Juke and the NISMO RS, so it’s not any more responsive to steering input either.

That lack of handling prowess makes the Juke NISMO RS rather difficult to evaluate, if I’m honest.

The Juke is a peculiar vehicle to begin with, and I’m not referring to its styling. Nissan claims the Juke is a crossover, but its dimensions, both inside and out, are almost all smaller than the Versa Note subcompact, so it doesn’t really offer the practicality of a crossover; in fact, rear passengers will actually feel quite cramped. It’s tall, and it offers all-wheel-drive, but the ground clearance for the all-wheel-drive models is lower than the front-wheel-drive models, so it’s no off-road machine either.

One would surmise, then, that the Juke NISMO RS’s purpose in life would be more clear cut, as a tall hot hatchback. But though it may have the horsepower to inspire all kinds of hijinks, it doesn’t complete the package with hijinks-inspiring handling.

As brave as Nissan was for designing and building the Juke in the first place, and giving a crossover a NISMO edition, it seems like they weren’t brave enough to make it a genuine high-performance automobile.

But don’t draw the curtain on the Juke NISMO RS just yet, because around $1,200 stands in the way of making it a true performance car. NISMO is one of the best factory authorized performance tuning companies of any automaker, and they’ve developed a NISMO S-Tune coil spring upgrade, which further lowers the Juke NISMO RS 35mm or around 1.4 inches. Were I to buy a Juke NISMO RS, I would strongly consider adding that modification to the as-tested MSRP of $28,345.

With that upgrade, the Nissan Juke NISMO RS may just be Nissan’s hot hatchback, and a bona fide contender in the modern sport compact car market, while standing out very distinctly from it as well.


Quick Stats:

Price as tested: $28,345
0-60mph: 6.7 sec
1/4-mile time: 15.1 seconds at 93mph
Lateral skidpad acceleration: 0.90g
60-0 braking distance: 116ft
Horsepower: 215hp
Torque: 210 ft-lbs
Weight: 2,969 lbs
Fuel economy: 24.2 mpg

Test vehicle provided by Nissan North America.

Thanks for reading Boosted News… keep your brakes cool and your passion hot!

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