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Nissan attempts to sharpen up the hot version of its baby crossover with help from performance tuning arm Nismo - but low-riding hot hatches have superior dynamics

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The Nissan Juke was made by – and for – people with a healthy disdain for convention.

Five years after its launch and following a significant facelift, this car remains the most daring and esoteric in the class that it founded. That’s no small achievement.

The Nissan Juke Nismo was first introduced in 2013 and has accounted for three per cent of the Juke's annual European production volume

Drive a Juke for any length of time and you’ll conclude that it doesn’t exist to be practical, comfortable or dual-purpose capable, nor particularly stylish or sporty. It exists to be different, visually characterful and little more.

And while the Juke’s direct rivals have filtered into their variously more straightforward roles on the periphery of the class, the Nissan's identity has only become clearer. Most who buy a Juke probably wouldn’t feel the need to explain themselves in any more complicated way than by saying “I fancied one”. It’s what marketing departments like to call ‘emotional appeal’.

Furthermore, ‘emotional’ cars are the ones that lend themselves best to performance makeovers, because they’re that little bit more exciting from the word go. An engineer might disagree, but in most modern car companies engineers do what they’re told – usually by designers, marketeers or corporate strategists.

That is how it came to pass that, in 2013, Nissan introduced its new factory performance brand to the UK with the Juke Nismo. This performance crossover was a punt – but quite a clever one. A likeable enough thing so long as it wasn’t taken or driven too seriously, it was pitched at the more usability-minded end of the hot hatch market. It has proved popular, accounting for three per cent of the Juke’s 130,000-unit annual European production volume.

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So to today’s question: can the Juke Nismo’s cutting edge be sharpened further? Now that the appetite for a fast Juke is established, can the hardware be turned into something of greater purpose and credibility? Step forward the Juke Nismo RS.

Nissan juke

DESIGN & STYLING

The Nissan Juke Nismo RS accounts for 3% of Jukes built in Europe
Nissan has added structural reinforcements to enhance the Juke's rigidity

Surprisingly few visual differences set the Nismo RS apart from its non-RS forerunner. As part of last year’s facelift, all Jukes received a more prominent ‘V’ radiator grille, new upper headlights with LED running lights and new tail-lights, while upper-trim models also got new door mirrors with indicator repeaters. 

But those changes, plus some discreet RS badges and some red brake calipers, really are all there is to speak of. Nissan says there’s a bigger exhaust muffler on the RS, but we’ll have to take their word for it because the tailpipe is identical. The new car even uses the same paint palette, wheels and tyres as the Nismo. We can’t help thinking an RS model should be better distinguished.

You can have a four-wheel-drive Nismo RS if you prefer, but this comes at a £2100 premium

Where you can’t see it, Nissan has added structural reinforcements – mostly along the transmission tunnel and pillars – to modestly enhance the Juke’s rigidity.

The 1.6-litre DIG-T petrol engine has also been overhauled, and it now produces 215bhp and 207lb ft – 18bhp and 23lb ft gains on what it made in the old Nismo, and just enough to position this car among the fiercest hot superminis of the moment.

The powertrain is augmented with a dual-mass flywheel, a stronger clutch and shorter intermediate gear ratios, while the changes to the chassis consist of stiffer springs and dampers and bigger anti-roll bars. The suspension and steering remains otherwise the same: MacPherson struts at the front and a torsion beam at the back, with electro-mechanical power steering.

The latter has been retuned to account for a certain other interesting addition: on the front axle of two-wheel-drive versions of the Nismo RS you’ll find a new helical limited-slip differential.

We’re testing the front-driver, but, just as you could with the Nismo, you can have a four-wheel-drive Nismo RS if you prefer, which has the ability to act like a normal four-wheel driver system that has the ability to split the power like a traditional torque vectoring system.

If you do, you’ll get independent rear suspension and a slightly larger fuel tank. But you’ll also have to put up with a stepped ‘Xtronic’ continuously variable transmission with shift paddles, a smaller boot, a greater thirst for fuel, output downgrades to 211bhp and 184lb ft, and a car that takes a full second longer to hit 62mph from rest.

All of which seems a rough deal for customers wanting four-wheel drive or the convenience a two-pedal driving experience, and willing to pay Nissan’s hefty £2100 premium.

INTERIOR

From the driver's perspective in the Nissan Juke Nismo RS
The raised ride height of the Juke Nismo RS makes it a doddle to get into

Next to your common or garden hot supermini, which requires a spot of rear end freefall in order to get in, the high hip point of the Nismo RS makes it a doddle to get into.

It would be wise, though, to savour this lack of aggravating knee-bending because it’s one of the few areas in which the Juke can claim a clear advantage over the segment’s more conventional offerings. Certainly the interior space is nothing to get particularly excited about when you consider the car’s size advantage over most superminis.

Nissan will have thought the Recaro option a potentially enticing upgrade, but try the RS's standard seats first

Rear passengers can expect to be no more comfortable than they would be in the five-door Renault Clio RS. Front occupants are better catered for – or at least they were in our test car, in which a pair of handsome Recaro seats had replaced the standard sports affairs.

The sight of them, though, establishes the incongruity which somewhat hampers the Nismo RS’s overall appeal. As supportive as the optional pews are, their aggressive appearance seems at odds with the humble crossover cabin and, as you still sit very high, the sensation of an enhanced relationship with the road is never really forthcoming.

Elsewhere, the interior lurches from good (the tactile suede trim) to bad (the nasty shiny finish to the centre console and dash) without ever really convincing you that the transition from standard placid Nissan Juke to testy RS is anything more than skin deep.

As before, Nissan’s Dynamic Control System – the tech which provides a modest choice of Eco, Normal and Sport modes – is merged with the switchgear for air conditioning, meaning you have to make do with reading telemetry from the Juke’s smallest display (an app allowing you to ‘cast’ additional information to an iPad has never materialised).

At least the remodelled boot, at 354 litres with the seats still up (and the two-level floor in its lower position), is bigger than those of most of its supermini rivals. That said, it’s still hard to imagine any prospective buyer seizing on practicality as a reason to opt for the Juke Nismo RS.

The Nismo RS Juke comes with a wealth of equipment including a 5.8in infotainment system complete with sat nav, a reversing camera and DAB, plus Nissan's Safety Shield Technology. There are as you expect a few sporty extras too, including, an upgraded braking system, sports suspension, a limited slip differential and numerous Nismo adjustments to the exhaust, aggressive bodykit, rear diffuser, and bucket seats.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Half throttle causes wheelspin in a second or third-gear corner and brings unwanted understeer
Power comes from a 215bhp 1.6-litre turbocharged four cylinder petrol engine

Nissan may not have been able to fit wider wheels and tyres to the Juke Nismo RS even if it had wanted to, given that small, front-engined cars and wide wheels are notoriously incompatible for packaging reasons.

By choice or not, the RS runs the same 18in rims and 225-section Continental tyres as did the Juke Nismo. In light of that fact, given that the less powerful version of the car suffered with limited traction, it should come as no surprise that the Nismo RS feels similarly hamstrung.

The RS's motor feels lethargic at anything less than 2500rpm but potent from there to around 5000rpm

And yet the shortage of traction under this car’s front wheels is so serious that it couldn’t fail to surprise most who drove it. We figured the car on a fairly chilly day, but on drying asphalt it took plenty of attempts to balance the laggy power delivery of the engine against the easily breached adhesiveness of the driven axle.

A bit of deliberately managed wheelspin is what you want for the optimum getaway, but that can be devilishly hard to come by in the Juke Nismo RS – a fact evidenced by its inability to outpace the 7.5sec 0-60mph time set by its predecessor (on an admittedly tackier surface).

The 1.6-litre DIG-T petrol engine has been overhauled, and it now produces 215bhp and 207lb ft – 18bhp and 23lb ft gains on what it made in the old Nismo, and just enough to position this car among the fiercest hot superminis of the moment.

Turning up the boost on the 1.6-litre turbocharged engine has done more harm to response and drivability than you may think it’s worth in outright performance terms. The RS’s motor feels lethargic at anything less than 2500rpm, and while potent from there to around 5000rpm, it is also considerably less willing to work over the final 1500rpm of the rev range.

As a result, keeping the car going at full tilt requires too much concentration on the tacho needle and staying within the confines of a fairly narrow rev band.

Gone, too, is the nicely composed soundtrack of the regular Juke Nismo. From the driver’s seat the RS’s bigger-bore exhaust is too often drowned out by the hissing and fizzing of the engine’s hard-working turbocharger, leaving the Nissan with a thin and underwhelming audible character. It’s less modern WRC contender, more handheld vacuum cleaner.

RIDE & HANDLING

Nissan Juke Nismo RS
Firmer suspension fails to control the Nismo RS's high-level mass

The way the Juke Nismo RS goes down the road smacks damningly of overcompensation.

Somewhere between the softer and more civilised handling tune of the old Juke Nismo and the heavy-weighted, hyperactive set-up of this RS is the perfect dynamic compromise for a car that will inevitably suffer for its relatively high roll axis. Far from hitting that bullseye, the RS ends up missing it by a considerably wider margin than the original Nismo.

The greatest dynamic talent the Juke Nismo RS has by some way is its incredible capacity to deal with sleeping policemen with total impunity

There’s just no pragmatism – little apparent acknowledgement of Newtonian physics, even – about the way this car has been configured. You can feel the unforgiving firmness of the car’s spring rates and anti-roll settings in the excessive and unhelpful weight of the steering before you’ve hardly turned a wheel.

And all in order to wage a futile war on body movement that the car was fated to lose the instant Nismo decided not to sacrifice a bigger chunk of its crossover ride height for this ultimate performance version.

Ultimately the Juke Nismo RS rolls on its long springs to relatively pronounced angles when you lean on it, just as the Juke Nismo did. The firm coils keep roll rate quite low, but they also serve to affect your confidence in the remaining grip level because you’re never quite sure at which point the car has finally settled in a steady cornering state.

Moreover, the traction problem described in the previous section becomes greatly exacerbated the moment you turn the steering wheel off the straight-ahead. The car transfers its weight to its outside wheels very quickly indeed, and to such an extent that little more than half throttle will often cause wheelspin in a second or third gear corner. That, in turn, brings about unwanted understeer.

It’s at this point you’ll realise that helical limited-slip diffs are no miracle cure. They maximise traction, sure, but they can’t create it out of thin air. So while you’ll feel its presence feeding back interference through the steering and making the car more directionally sensitive on the overrun, the LSD is of little help in keeping the front wheels glued to your intended line under power.

The car’s ride on typical British roads is agitated and reactive. It’s not especially noisy or harsh, but it’s wearing all the same. Much more disappointing is that while the RS is responsive and apparently agile in a fairly superficial sense at low speeds, the car simply doesn’t grip the asphalt hard enough when pressed, or generally come to heel obediently enough, to justify its otherwise demanding temperament.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

The Nissan Juke Nismo RS
The first Nissan Juke Nismo was launched in 2013

The Nismo RS comes well equipped. The 5.8in touchscreen is fully loaded with DAB, reversing camera, sat-nav and the NissanConnect system, while around it sit cruise control, heated front seats, climate control and automatic wipers and lights.

This was a factor in the original model’s popularity and will need to be again with a starting price worryingly close to that of an entry-level Ford Focus ST – a car less stocked with kit but hugely superior in every other way.

The Juke Nismo RS averaged a reasonable 34.3mpg in the hands of our True MPG test team

Given the paucity of traction, all-wheel drive seems like a good idea. But at nearly £24k, the all-paw RS isn't much cheaper than an Audi S1 - a car with power, quality, and capability to go with the outlay. The Juke Nismo RS also trails rivals such as the Ford Fiesta ST and Mini Cooper S when it comes to residual values, taking a big hit after the first 12 months.

Predictably, given its extra size, weight and aerodynamic attributes, the Juke doesn’t claim quite the same parsimony as its smaller competition. Where most of them will edge close to 50mpg in combined tests, the RS can’t better 40mpg.

However, the 34.3mpg average it returned while under the True MPG microscope isn’t unreasonable, and the 129g/km CO2 emissions are decent for its power and proportions.

VERDICT

Nissan Juke Nismo RS

Two extra letters have made a world of difference to Nissan’s go-faster Nissan Juke.

The evolution from accessible, easy-going performance machine to something fundamentally harder-edged was logical enough, but in the process of rendering a more physical experience from the RS, Nissan has subverted far too much that was likeable about the original Nismo.

Efforts to extend the Juke Nismo's repertoire fail to enhance its appeal

Compromise has to be at the core of anything that is both crossover-based and performance-led, and a failure to balance the key elements stands out from a mile away.

Here, it’s not just because the car fails to impress at its new limits, but because the means used to achieve them so obviously worsen the overall experience.

The Nissan Juke Nismo RS’s imperfections take just minutes, not days, to become wearisome. The Japanese brand relied on the emotional appeal of the Juke Nismo to win buyers, but now it can only hope that customers remove their critical faculties altogether before trying the RS.

Nissan juke

Steve Cropley

Steve Cropley Autocar
Title: Editor-in-chief

Steve Cropley is the oldest of Autocar’s editorial team, or the most experienced if you want to be polite about it. He joined over 30 years ago, and has driven many cars and interviewed many people in half a century in the business. 

Cropley, who regards himself as the magazine’s “long stop”, has seen many changes since Autocar was a print-only affair, but claims that in such a fast moving environment he has little appetite for looking back. 

He has been surprised and delighted by the generous reception afforded the My Week In Cars podcast he makes with long suffering colleague Matt Prior, and calls it the most enjoyable part of his working week.

Nissan Juke Nismo RS 2015-2019 First drives