2014 Nissan Juke Nismo RS

As a point of love-it or hate-it styling, the Nissan Juke is king. As a weird, samurai-bullfrog-looking compact crossover with handling chops and a gutsy powertrain, it also has one of the bravest inclusions of a manual transmission in recent memory. It's funky, unmistakable, polarizing and actually pretty neat. Okay, so even though the back seats have a surprising amount of legroom, it's like sitting in a cave, and the sightlines out the back are challenging – every frog needs a few warts. But those matter less when the amphibian gets a big wet kiss from the Nismo princess.

Enter the 2014 Juke Nismo RS. The Jukiest Juke, with many new bits to make looking at, driving, and being inside it a more exciting experience, is the top of the heap for the model line, positioned above the regular Juke Nismo. I put one through its paces in Nissan's American homeland of Tennessee and came away with a few quick impressions.

Driving Notes
  • I don't care who knows it: I think this Nissan looks cool. The red highlights on the fascia, side skirts, mirrors and brakes pop. Styling changes advance the latent aggression already baked into the Juke. It looks meaner, more playful and confidently ridiculous. The bugeye headlights seem to work better with this front-end treatment and the always-on, low-mounted LED accents look great on the road. It goes without saying that this isn't a car for everyone.
  • One of the great crimes of the turbo direct-injected era is an incomprehensible crusade against turbo whoosh. It's delightfully present in the Nismo RS. This is a breathed-upon version of the standard 1.6-liter direct-injected, turbocharged four-cylinder. Most of the grunt comes through ECU tweaks, but there are upgraded connecting rods and a dual-mass flywheel for smoother revs. At 215 horsepower, It makes 27 hp over the standard Juke, and comes packed with 210 pound-feet of torque, a useful 33 lb-ft bonus over stock. (Of course, that's only if you opt for front-wheel drive – AWD models reduce these numbers to 211 hp and 184 lb-ft). Strapped to it is an upgraded six-speed manual with a beefier clutch and housing, plus lower gear ratios for first through third.
  • This is a powertrain that requires full driver engagement for maximum performance. Turbo lag is real here, so keep on the juice, pick the right gear, and this Juke RS will punch far above its weight. Fall short and you're stuck in no-boost-town, slowly pulling away from the stoplight. Do pay attention to drive mode though; Normal, Sport, and Eco have real effects on throttle response and steering effort. By the way, its EPA numbers are pegged at 25/31/27 miles per gallon, city/highway/combined.
  • My example was a front-wheel-drive, manual transmission model. This means it retains the torsion-beam axle of the standard Juke (all-wheel drive goes multi-link) and doesn't get the inside-wheel-braking torque vectoring system of the AWD Nismo RS. There are a raft of other goodies though: chassis bracing, stiffer springs, more aggressive dampers, a lower ride height, recalibrated electric power steering, 0.9-inch bigger brakes up front and an upgrade to vented discs from drums at the back. Just-right 18-inch wheels wearing 225-width ContiSportContact5 summer tires round out the chassis goodies.
  • On the road and around a corner, this little beasty is indistinguishable from a classic hot hatch. Expect gobs of torque steer if you're goofy with the throttle while twitching the steering wheel, but play it smart and the reward is prodigious cornering, snappy steering, predictable and progressive understeer limits and just a fun all-around character. The ride is much more our style too; the standard Juke can feel a touch too soft, this feels German – just enough road feel without punching you in the kidneys.
  • Nissan shows once again that it knows what it's doing when designing a sporting manual transmission. Quick, notchy, great gear spread. We could row through those gates all day.
  • For the Juke's interior, Nissan has given its Nismo team the good drugs. There is a stark difference when stepping from a base Juke into the Nismo RS. Rather than climbing into soft seats, you slide across rigid thigh bolsters and drop down into some of the most racecar-like Recaro chairs on the road right now. Nissan admits they eat up a healthy portion of the almost $7,000 premium over the base vehicle, but they're worth it. Along with the suede seats, the Nismo RS has faux suede on the wheel, gauge hood, rear seats and door panels. The gauges are red. It's neato.
  • The real-time digital torque gauge (and drive info in screen general) is placed down low on the center stack, well below the safe line of sight. It would be fun to see them dance around. A bit disappointing.
  • The most unfair part of our drive was being nowhere near a closed course or a racetrack. It feels like there's a lot more to learn here, but not on public streets.
A common practice on these kinds of drives is to play the pricing game. The Price is Right rules apply, he who gets closest without going over wins. With the 2014 Juke Nismo RS, almost everybody we spoke with went over. $30,000-32,000 was the price most pegged this little devil with, yet its base price is $26,120 and ours came in at $28,345 with options. That seems eye-watering when a basic Juke runs $19,170, but this is so different as to be barely recognizable. Against rivals like the Ford Fiesta ST (let alone larger, heavier cars like the Focus ST and Volkswagen Golf GTI), the Nismo RS costs a bit more. However, it has the higher seating position many customers prefer, plus a lot more visual chutzpah. The RS is by no means a perfectly behaved performer, but it's a ton of fun, and that's what really counts.