Scratching All The Right Itches

2013 Nissan Juke Nismo

Say what you will about the unconventional aesthetics that Nissan employed on the company's Juke. I love the thing. The universe has no shortage of ambiguously styled CUVs, and while I can't exactly say I would have turned to the amphibian world for design inspiration had it been me with the charcoal in my hand, I can certainly appreciate the fact that the Juke isn't just another box-on-box design.

And then there's that engine. The turbocharged 1.6-liter four-cylinder under the hood is one of the best powerplants in the company's toy box, offering plenty of low-range torque and comical levels of thrust. Hell, it even makes the optional continuously variable transmission tolerable. Praise be to the deities of forced induction. But something has always been missing from the mix. From the first moment I got my hands on the Juke, I couldn't help but think how much better the machine would be if Nissan ditched an inch or two of ground clearance and sharpened up its suspension. Think more "hot hatch" and less "Kermit goes to Kroger."

I wasn't the only one with that notion. The minds at Nismo were keen to turn their attentions to the Juke, and while the resulting 2013 Juke Nismo isn't the hardcore machine I'd seen in my dreams, it may very well be the best trim available for the runabout.

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Nissan is keen to make American buyers more aware of the Nismo name.

Nissan is keen to make American buyers more aware of the Nismo name and what the performance arm stands for, and the Juke Nismo is the first step in that effort. Designers and engineers started by giving the machine a full aerodynamic overhaul, complete with redesigned front and rear fascias and side skirts. Up front, that means a more dramatic lower lip with LED daytime running lights tucked into the front vents set at each corner. A red accent line races its way around the hatch's lower regions, but the really interesting part is that Nismo claims the bits help generate a 37-percent improvement in downforce over the standard Juke.

Down the flanks, it's hard to miss the contrasting metallic red side-view mirrors or those massive 18-inch wheels, clad in Continental ContiSportContact5 summer performance tires. Step around back and the Juke Nismo delivers a new rear diffuser with design influence from the 370Z as well as a larger-diameter exhaust finished in chrome. The result is a machine that looks unmistakably more purposeful and less playful without being overwrought. Well, more overwrought. I dig it.

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While a lower, more hardcore Juke certainly isn't off the table, cost was an issue this go around.

Technically, the Juke Nismo is slightly lower than its standard-trim brethren, though the figure isn't substantial. Much of the apparent drop comes from the lower body kit, fender flares and bigger wheels. According to Jeff Skalisky, a product planner with the Juke program, lowering the vehicle any further meant subjecting the model to the complete battery of federal tests required of a new vehicle. Those tests could cost millions of dollars. Skalisky says that, while a lower, more hardcore Juke certainly isn't off the table, cost was an issue this go around.

Indoors, the Juke Nismo offers a substantially updated interior. The driver gets to toss around a sport steering wheel with Alcantara grips, black leather and red contrast stitching. There's even a red leather band at 12 o'clock just like some of our favorite aftermarket bits. That same motif makes its way to the leather shift knob, but the biggest improvement comes to the fronts seats. Nissan ditched the standard thrones in favor of comfy, heavily bolstered buckets with suede trim. With Nismo embroidery on the backs and matching red stitching, these seats are excellent. You won't find anything else like them in this class.

2013 Nissan Juke Nismo interior2013 Nissan Juke Nismo seat detail2013 Nissan Juke Nismo gauges2013 Nissan Juke Nismo badge

Despite the ride height, this CUV wants to be flung around corners.

Despite the substantial aesthetic adjustments inside and out, the driveline remains largely unchanged. Expect to find a small nudge in power – up to 197 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque from the base 188 hp and 177 lb-ft. The bump is thanks to a little ECU tweaking as the intake and exhaust hardware remain unchanged from the standard model. The Juke Nismo does offer a retuned electric power steering system, and models equipped with the CVT will enjoy a sportier "shift pattern" that will hold gear ratios longer between each step.

Engineers saw fit to serve up springs and dampers that are 10-percent stiffer all the way around for a slightly sportier feel, though we think the larger wheels and stickier tires have as much to do with the added grip and change in ride as the compressible bits. On the road, the Juke Nismo feels slightly sharper than the base model. There's still plenty of body roll to be had, but the standard Juke has always been a blast to throw around despite that fact. The extra little tweaks found on the Nismo only make that sensation ring more true. Despite the ride height, this CUV wants to be flung around corners.

2013 Nissan Juke Nismo engine

Nissan hasn't positioned the Juke Nismo at the top of the model's trim range.

The manual gearbox serves up decent shift feel but can only be had in the front-wheel-drive configuration. Throw in the aforementioned body roll and trying to accelerate out of a turn will see the Juke Nismo gladly shuffle all the power to the inside wheel with the least grip. While watching the inside tire go all smoke show is fun, it isn't all that effective helping you get out of a turn quickly. This machine deserves an honest limited slip differential up front. Opting for all-wheel drive takes care of that issue, but saddles the buyer with the CVT.

The big saving grace here is that Nissan hasn't positioned the Juke Nismo at the top of the model's trim range, slotting instead just below the SL trim. Buyers can expect to pay $22,990 (excluding a $790 destination fee) for the machine in front-wheel-drive configuration with a manual transmission, or around $1,800 less than the equivalent top-trim SL. Stepping up to all-wheel drive sees the Juke Nismo's price swell to $25,290, which is still $700 less than the SL. Sure, the SL trim serves up leather seats and a sunroof option, but Nismo guise is both more attractive and the better driver, making it the Goldilocks of the Juke stable. Buyers can find the car on dealer lots now.

2013 Nissan Juke Nismo rear 3/4 view

The Nismo may not be the Mazdaspeed3-rivaling hatch I'd love to see from the Juke line, but it is a step in the right direction. And, since Nissan isn't shy about letting the world know more Nismo hardware is on the horizon, we can be happy that this isn't the last word in performance products from the company. We're promised that more good things are coming.

If you like the Juke Nismo, check out our recent First Drive of the 545-hp Juke-R.