Test Drive: 2016 Nissan Juke SL

The 2016 Nissan Juke occupies an unusual spot in the hearts and minds of Canadian car buyers. On the one hand this pint-sized crossover is prized for its affordability, frugal fuel economy, and spirited handling – three characteristics that are rarely found together in its segment. On the other, the Juke has become an easy punch-line for conservative-minded critics content to point out what everyone within a 10-metre radius already knows: its styling kind of stands out from the crowd.

It all starts with the ride, which has clearly been tuned with the idea that you might need to tackle a few corners between point A and point B.

There's really nothing else out there that looks like the Nissan Juke, and depending on which side of the fence you sit that's either a big plus or a shuddering negative. One thing the car definitely is not, however, is anonymous, and in the current sea of urban look-alikes vying for your baby-SUV dollars, it's hard not to think of the immortal words of Jules Winfield: personality goes a long way.

After spending a week behind the wheel of the 2016 Nissan Juke SL I can confirm that the crossover's charms are more than just skin-deep. It all starts with the ride, which has clearly been tuned with the idea that you might need to tackle a few corners between point A and point B. The crossover's suspension is livelier than any other vehicle in its class, save perhaps the similarly sprightly Mazda CX-3, which is a welcome change from how easily the apple cart can be upset when piloting most other small people-movers. At the same time, there's no real extra punishment served up by the Juke's responsive shocks and springs, which means the daily commute doesn't end up feeling like a penance for weekend fun. If you so desire, there exists a universe of Nismo-branded models at the apex of the Juke line-up that further hone its handling to a sharper point.

The Nissan Juke SL's willing chassis is matched with an equally enthusiastic turbocharged engine – although there are a few caveats along the way to getting the most enjoyment out of the crossover's drivetrain. The 1.6 L four-cylinder mill offered up by the Juke makes use of a single turbo to generate 188 hp and 177 lb-ft of torque, which is enough to keep things interesting with your foot in it.

Of course, how willing you are to hammer the throttle in the Nissan depends entirely on how you feel about its continuously variable automatic transmission. Sure, there's a six-speed manual gearbox available too, but the CVT is non-negotiable if you want to access the Juke's optional all-wheel drive system. In fact, there are only two manual-equipped, front-wheel drive trim levels one can buy in Canada – the SV and the RS – with all others, including the SL I drove, offering AWD with the automatic.

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Personally, I'm of two minds when it comes to the Juke's CVT. There's no doubt that in some situations the drone of the engine can be somewhat off-putting, particularly when accelerating hard from a roll or when passing. The vehicle features multiple drive modes – Sport, Normal, and Eco – with the most aggressive of the trio 'shifting' the Nissan via a set of seven virtual gear ratios. This alleviates the unusual CVT sensation to a degree, but there's still some buzz to deal with regardless of how you have the crossover configured.

The thing that most drivers forget, however, is that a continuously-variable design is ideal for a small-displacement, turbocharged motor such as that found in the Juke. This is because it's capable of pegging engine rpm at the on-boost sweet spot, keeping you at maximum power for the duration of full-throttle application. The net result is that the Juke pounces forward with enthusiasm, building speed at a rate quicker than its relatively-stable drivetrain rotation would seem to suggest. It's an unusual sensation for anyone who's used to traditional performance automobiles, but as with the crossover's singular sheet metal, 'weird' doesn't always translate into 'bad.'

The 2016 Nissan Juke SL's passenger cabin features a mix of plastics and fabrics befitting its status as the nicest version of the crossover you can buy without dipping into the Nismo pool. My tester's leather seats featured red stitching, and while it would be a stretch the label the SL a 'premium' model, it's got nearly a full load of equipment, including a touchscreen infotainment system, navigation, automatic climate control, and the Juke's unique vehicle information display on the center stack that works together with a configurable set of controls to show either HVAC info or fun stuff like engine torque.

One thing is clear: the Juke was never designed to cater to families. The sloping roofline and short wheelbase of Nissan's spunky sport-utility vehicle means rear seat room is limited, and you may in fact test the limits of friendship or perhaps even the blood ties you have with anyone forced to occupy the back bench for more than 15 minutes at a time. When it comes to cargo the picture is somewhat rosier – I was able to stuff a full set of 18 inch tires inside the Juke with the seatback folded forward, along with a jack, jack stands, and several boxes of tools – which further reinforces the notion that Nissan has aimed the crossover squarely at couples looking for a funky and practical hatchback, not brood-friendly, future-proof transportation. The Juke is far from the only cute ute to adopt this philosophy – see the similarly-tight, previously-mentioned CX-3 – and I think it makes sense to be honest about your demographic rather than feigning the desire to please every possible buyer.

The 2016 Nissan Juke might not be a car for your neighbour, or your mother, or the guy who works out beside you at the gym. But it may just be the right vehicle for you. In a world where many of us have to deal with a deafening chorus of marketing messages, social pressures, and contradictory opinions telling us what to do, the Juke offers a chance to spend your money on something you actually want, rather than the dull appliance everyone else expects you to buy. It may very well be the right time for you to loosen you collar, breathe a little deeper, and take a chance on Nissan's oddball.

Warranty:
3 years/60,000 km; 5 years/100,000 km powertrain; 5 years/unlimited distance corrosion perforation; 3 years/60,000 km roadside assistance

Competitors:
Chevrolet Trax
Fiat 500X
Honda HR-V
Jeep Renegade
Kia Soul
Mazda CX-3
Subaru Crosstrek

2016 Nissan Juke SL AWD
2016 Nissan Juke SL AWD
Base Price $30,178
Optional Equipment Cosmic Blue paint ($135.00)
A/C Tax $100
Destination Fee $1,750
Price as Tested $30,313
Optional Equipment