Funky Hatch Is The Perfect Nissan Middle Child

2011 Nissan Juke - Click above for high-res image gallery

Nissan seems to be on a war path to fill every last ounce of white space in the automotive spectrum. The company has unleashed a barrage of vehicles that range from playful to downright confusing. At first blush, the 2011 Nissan Juke would seem to fit into the latter category. With styling that's two shakes away from robo-reptilian, the small crossover packs plenty of power, a tall ride height and a small footprint into one sub-$20,000 package. If you can avoid pigeonholing the Juke, you'll find that the engineers at Nissan secretly managed to bring their own interpretation of the hot hatch to market without raising the ire of the company's accountants.

We wouldn't blame you for thinking we're one stud short of a lug pattern on this one, but point your peepers to a few specs and you'll see what we mean. The Juke weighs in at less than 3,000 pounds in front-wheel-drive guise and packs a turbocharged, direct-injection 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine that's good for 188 horsepower. For reference, the company's own Sentra SE-R hits the scales with an extra 88 pounds on its waist and 11 fewer ponies at its command. Opt for the manual gearbox in the Juke, and things get even lighter. Intrigued? We were too.

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Photos copyright ©2011 Zach Bowman / AOL

Perhaps the biggest compliment that we can pay the design of the 2011 Juke is to say there's nothing to compare it to in the automotive food chain. Sure, there are borrowed elements from the 370Z in the taillamps and there's more than a little Kia Soul in the roof line, but by and large, the Juke is its own machine. That's no small praise considering manufacturers have been cranking out vehicle designs for well over 100 years.

Up front, the Juke serves up something of a puzzle with its lighting array. Those stylized lenses up top don't tackle main illumination duty like you'd think. Instead, they prefer to take care of both marker and turning-indicator work, leaving headlight detail to the pie plate-sized lenses set low in the front fascia. If that's not confusing enough for you, higher trim levels also get fog lights placed even closer to the ground.

2011 Nissan Juke side view2011 Nissan Juke front view2011 Nissan Juke rear view

From the side, the Juke boasts seriously bulging fenders front and rear as well as a short wheelbase of just 99.6 inches. In fact, from stem to stern, the crossover measures a mere 162.4 inches, or shorter than even the admittedly small Versa hatchback. Fortunately, the Juke comes from the factory wearing stylish 17-inch alloy wheels even in base configuration. Those sizeable rollers give the Juke a little extra attitude and serve to help avoid the pitfall of looking like an econobox... er, trapezoid. Throw in a set of rear door handles hidden in the C-pillar and the Juke comes off as a three-door hatchback from a distance.

The rear of the Juke shows more of a traditional CUV or crossover look with a rounded hatch, sculpted taillamps and a small roof spoiler. Despite its abbreviated package, it uses a fairly tall rear deck for loading groceries and the like, and we expect the painted bumper cover to suffer more than a little abuse at the hands of careless owners.

2011 Nissan Juke headlight2011 Nissan Juke fog light2011 Nissan Juke wheel2011 Nissan Juke taillight

Jump indoors and the Juke delivers an interior with a greater attention to detail than we're typically accustomed to from Nissan. The driver is treated to a sport steering wheel with contours in all the right places and quality texturing that feels a galaxy or two ahead of the tiller in the Rogue. Large, easy to use buttons make short work of cruise control, audio settings and handling calls from the Bluetooth system. Door panels are decorated with painted plastic bits color-matched to the unique "motorcycle tank" center console, and large, rounded chrome handles add a little bit of brightwork to an otherwise dark cockpit. Our tester came in S trim, which means that it sacrifices the trick I-CON center stack of the SV model for more pedestrian dials and buttons. Base guise does net buyers an iPod interface, though navigating the menu structure via the controls on the dash and steering wheel is nothing short of confounding.

Otherwise, the Juke serves up a surprising amount of room given its tiny stature. There's enough space to comfortably ferry four adults around town without having to accordion anyone's knees, and there's a deceptively large area behind the rear seats for stacking up luggage or groceries. We have it on good authority that several propane tanks and multiple bags of groceries can fit back there at the same time, though a lack of tie downs or hooks makes for plenty of racket once the going gets twisty.

The eggs never made it home.

2011 Nissan Juke interior2011 Nissan Juke interior2011 Nissan Juke gauges2011 Nissan Juke rear cargo area

One of the best things about the trim structure with the Juke is that no matter what configuration you choose, you're guaranteed to find one very capable four-cylinder engine under hood. Our bare-bones tester made use of the same direct-injection, turbocharged 1.6-liter four-cylinder as the rest of the lineup. That means we had the good fortune of getting to play with a full 188 horsepower and 177 pound-feet of torque. While we were itching to get a full week's worth of time with the six-speed manual transmission, our tester came lugging the Nissan CVT gearbox in front-wheel-drive configuration.

But that's not as bad as you'd think. Nissan has cleverly graced the Juke with the same "shiftable" CVT programming as found in the likes of the Maxima. Nudge the gear lever up and the transmission will happily provide you with a quick jump in ratios that's good for darting along your favorite mountain road. Speaking of darting, front-wheel drive will net drivers a torsion-beam suspension out back, though like many inexpensive small cars these days, the rear bar doesn't seem to hold the Juke back when it comes time to tango.

2011 Nissan Juke engine

Keep the tach pointed above 2,000 rpm and the Juke will gladly dispatch any amount of tarmac with little argument. The hatchback kicks out very little understeer if you manage to keep out of the throttle. Really mash the skinny pedal, though, and the sizable pack of horses will do their best to torque-steer you away from your intended path of flight. The result is a small car that begs you to keep hammering, despite its tall ride height. The brakes are properly firm and though the electric power steering is a characteristically light, it's not enough to dampen the giggle factor.

It's worth noting that our particular tester was a pre-production unit with plenty of hard-won miles on the clock at the hands of sinister auto journos. That said, we did notice a fairly rough idle, especially when the engine wasn't up to operating temperature. At highway speeds, the cabin suffers from road and engine noise, though not enough to worry us. This is a vehicle with an MSRP lighter than its curb weight, after all.

The EPA says you should be able to net 27 mpg city and 32 mpg highway from a CVT-equipped, front-driver like our tester, though after a full week of darting around the countryside, we saw a measly 22 mpg combined. Just remember, kids: Small turbo engines drink fuel just like their larger, normally aspirated counterparts when you have your foot burried in the carpet. In this case, Nissan's little alien sucks down premium juice, so it would pay to go a little lighter on the fun pedal should you decide to park a 2011 Juke in your driveway.

2011 Nissan Juke rear 3/4 view

And how much will Nissan ask for the pleasure of Juke ownership? Prices start with the S Trim at $18,960, and buyers can expect power doors, locks, iPod connectivity, a six-speaker sound system and Bluetooth hands-free calling for that stack of cash. That sticker price snugs the Juke smack dab between the Nissan Rogue at $20,810 and the Nissan Sentra at $15,520. With decent (if a bit theoretical) fuel economy and a fun factor that's well above either of those options, the Juke represents the perfect middle child in Nissan's lineup. While it may not be as functional as the Rogue, we'll take that sacrifice for the bump in power and the handling hijinks.

The Juke is as close to a modern hot hatch from Nissan as we're likely to get anytime soon, and were it ours, we'd immediately begin looking into ways to get the vehicle a little closer to the ground. If ever there were a car that begged for the aftermarket to right its wrongs, the Juke is it. The styling may not be for everyone, but after a week with the five-door, we grew warm to its funky face. Hey, if people can welcome pug dogs into their homes, they should have no problem opening up the garage door for the 2011 Juke.

Photos copyright ©2011 Zach Bowman / AOL

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