When it was decided to dish out some hot-hatch treatment to the Nissan showroom, many may wonder why the Juke was the recipient. But then you remember this is a company that doesn't bother with traditional shapes any more, going instead with bits of SUV crossed with bits of supermini or bits of hatchback and so forth. So although the Juke may be a fusion of fashion and five-door functionality, it's also the most suitably sized - and priced - car in the range for a spot of extra speed. And so it was decided: one quick and relatively affordable Juke, coming right up. All they needed next was someone to sort the speed...
That's where Nismo - short for Nissan Motorsport - comes in. Its engineers have been jazzing up Nissans since the Sixties, sprinkling magic on various Skylines and racing cars from the circuits of Japan to the straights of Le Mans. In Tokyo, their creations are treated with cult reverence, but elsewhere you're more likely to have driven one with your thumbs in video games than with your limbs in real life. Until now. The Juke Nismo is very much a car for Britain... and Europe... and America. In fact, it was co-developed by Nismo's team in the UK, and it'll be made alongside the normal Juke at the factory in Sunderland.
It's just the first in a string of performance cars that'll wear Nismo stripes. The idea is to take existing models and heat them by a few degrees, much like Ford does with the Fiesta ST or VW does with the Golf GTI. This isn't just a stripes-and-stickers quickie, either. The bodykit isn't just there to look mean: the aero is functional, so it reduces lift and adds downforce, even if marginally. The wing mirrors are red, the 18-inch alloys are black - with slightly wider tyres than usual - and the steering wheel is trimmed in Alcantara, as are the more shapely seats (which feel great). Other Nismoisms go like this: red starter button, red-on-black dials, red-on-black stitching and a red line atop the steering wheel to help you sort your apex angles.
The springs and dampers are 10 per cent stiffer all round, and the anti-roll bars are a few smidgens tauter. And it makes 197bhp from its 1.6-litre turbocharged petrol engine versus 187bhp in the non-Nismo petrol version. Although none of this completely transforms the Juke, it's enough to make it feel more like a hottish hatch than a modish crossover: not too much roll, just enough power to grab your attention, and a cheeky measure of torque-steer without feeling squirmy. And the exhaust, though not exactly rude, certainly sounds more resonant - especially with the windows down. It's a playful little thing, this Juke, and although you won't be monstering lap times, it'll put you in the mood for a lively drive to work.
It's not perfect. The brakes could use a touch more bite. The engine could have a more growly induction noise, to separate it from the more humdrum version in a normal Juke. The wheel doesn't adjust for reach, and, although the electric steering has been given a few ounces more weight, it could feel even meatier, especially in the thick of a corner. But here's the thing: we also drove a prototype of a far more exciting version, likely to form an RS-type model further up the range. We were left to guess most details, but it felt instantly harder and more aggressive, with somewhere in the ballpark of 240bhp. So maybe they're keeping a little bit up their sleeve for that.
There's a four-wheel-drive version too, but Nissan didn't bring one to the launch. That gets a torque-vectoring system to help slice up corners more cleanly, plus more sophisticated multi-link rear suspension in place of the plain-ish torsion beam in this 2WD version. All of which sounds very promising, and could edge the Juke closer to something like the all-wheel-drive VW Golf R, for a lot less money. Unfortunately it's only available with a CVT gearbox, which - going by our experience of the same 'box in the regular Juke - could be its downfall. We're willing to be proved wrong here, so come back in a month or so when we've actually had a go in one.
For now though, two-wheel-drive is where it's at. And as Nismo's first proper sortie into the British market, it's a decent effort. You get the sense it was made by people who care about driving, and who know a thing or two about ride and handling. There are enough well-executed mechanical changes to give it substance, and enough styling tinsel to give it extra visual clout. There's more to come, too. Some of the launch cars were fitted with an iPad mini, floating above the centre console on a mounting arm. Each was loaded with an app - still in development - that ‘talks' to the car's brain, then displays all sorts of exciting information about turbo boost and g-forces and other things you don't really need to know about.
And so to the bill. The Juke Nismo will cost you £19,995, which buys everything bar some optional racing stripes. That means satnav - a new system with a bit of Google connectivity - plus reversing camera and keyless go as standard, which for our money, and for just £2k more than a regular top-spec Juke, is a great deal.
On the same day we drove this Juke, Nissan also showed off a 370Z Nismo, which will go on sale in June. If it can spice that up without adding too much to the asking price, it could be onto something. Maybe one day, we'll look at Nismos like we look at fast Fords or Type R Hondas. It'll take time, but if Nismo nails the faster versions, the idea of a hot-and-chunky-supermini-hatch crossover might not seem so completely daft after all.
1598cc, 4cyl, FWD, 197bhp, 184lb ft, 40.9mpg, 159g/km CO2, 0-62 in 7.8secs, 134mph, 1441kg
Nismo's first proper entry into the UK is a success. But we suspect the even faster versions might really be where it's at...