As I’ve progressed into my late 20s, I’ve felt strongly drawn toward ponycars at times. My week in the 2013 Nissan Juke NISMO has turned that desire on its head.
Earlier this year, I spent a week in the Scion FR-S— perhaps the closest Toyota has come to producing what we Americans consider a ponycar– the two-door sports coupe segment primarily inhabited by the Ford Mustang, Chevrolet Camaro, and Dodge Challenger. The thing about the Scion FR-S is it’s much smaller than any of those American contenders for my quarter-life crisis-driven attention span.
Being that I have a child who will be in a forward-facing car seat for at least another couple years, I commenced internet searching my brains out and comparing rear seat room of every sporty– and not-so-sporty– coupe I could think of in search of a justifiable two-door future car purchase. Having liked the driving dynamics and sporty feel of the FR-S, I was bitten by the coupe bug, and hard.
Alas, as I always do, I came down from that headiness to realize kid-hauling in a coupe is not easy nowadays, with ever-larger child safety seats and a sure-to-be-long-legged son doing no favors for my cause. Best stick to four-door vehicles. Too bad most sporty four-doors with non-coupelike legroom in the rear row are priced into the stratosphere.
I hadn’t considered the Juke much. I genuinely admired its design and its sharing of our Nissan cube’s platform– go ahead, start penning that hate mail– but owning one would, I thought, require too many sacrifices to practicality with very few sporty benefits. A Mustang, meanwhile, has not much more legroom for rear-seat passengers than the tiny FR-S, but even in its base, $23,000 form, you’re getting 300 horsepower to play with. That kind of eases the pain of squeezing your kids in the back row, you know? And if you resist the temptation to hoon, you can get about 30 MPG out of it, to boot.
Funny, then that the Juke NISMO presents roughly the same value equation. The shortcomings: Cargo space in the back of the Juke is not impressive– just 10.5 cubic feet— and the rear seat is tight for adults. Even my two-year-old son’s feet stayed lodged in the passenger front seatback most of the time when I ferried him around in the Juke NISMO. Surprising to nobody familiar with sportscars would be the tendency of the sporty Juke’s suspension to get a bit crashy over rough pavement.
But to make up for those– shall we call them inconveniences?– the Juke NISMO has a massaged version of the 1.6-liter DIG turbocharged gasoline engine found in regular Jukes. While more vanilla Jukes make 188 horsepower at 5,600 RPM and have a peak torque of 177 ft-lbs, the NISMO crew have tuned this sporty Juke’s mill to make 197 horsepower at 6,000 RPM and reach a peak torque of 184 ft-lbs. The NISMO edition also gets sport suspension, and in the case of our test vehicle, a close-ratio six-speed manual transmission. (The stick is only available with front-wheel drive Jukes, NISMO or not. All-wheel drive is available in either case, but requires Nissan’s Xtronic CVT.)
There are other things that set the Juke NISMO apart from its plebian siblings: NISMO-specific interior bits and exterior trim, for starters. However, the driveline and suspension do the heavy lifting of turning the Juke into a sporty little monster. The close spacing of the gears makes it easy to keep the tiny engine on the boil, and the suspension that brought the Juke NISMO’s body closer to the earth than other Jukes’ allows for cornering speeds that might otherwise feel tippy.
It’s that tuning of the Juke NISMO’s chassis that makes it so fun to drive. Sure, it’s down more than 100 horses on the standard-bearer Mustang despite costing roughly the same. Sure, their fuel economy figures are very similar. And sure, the Juke’s design isn’t likely to win the near-universal praise as a “cool car” from everyone at the grocery store or gas station the way a Mustang might. But tight as the rear seat may be on the Juke NISMO, it’s still more tenable than the Mustang’s– and far easier to latch a child into, thanks to those rear doors. And given how quickly I was able to hustle the Juke NISMO through the twisties, I’m not sure I need to be given the extra 100-plus horsepower, anyway.
That is surely the mantra sung by many a buyer of the Volkswagen GTI– a car that makes roughly the same horsepower as the Juke NISMO and is likewise noted for its tidy handling. It also comes in a four-door configuration. But the VeeDub also carries a steeper MSRP than the Juke NISMO– try finding a four-door GTI in your local dealer’s inventory for under $30,000– and in my part of the country, VW dealers are far rarer than Nissan dealers. If both the GTI and Juke NISMO are meant to appeal to twentysomething parents like me who are tempted by cheap ponycars but can’t justify their inconveniences, then the Juke NISMO would win on those last two points alone for me.
Disclosure: Nissan provided the vehicle, insurance, and a tank of gas.