Live from the launch - the Nissan Juke
Autoblog UK is in Frankfurt today to take a closer look at the new Nissan Juke, the diminutive crossover aimed squarely at the crowded small hatch market.
The competition couldn't be any tougher. The Juke's broad shoulders will have to muscle for space alongside some household names, and unlike the ultra-successful Qashqai it does not have the benefit of being the new kid on the block – the Suzuki SX4 and Kia Soul have already introduced the nation to the concept of a pseudo-SUV appearance in a supermini mould.Nevertheless, Nissan - fast becoming a past master at finding a gap in the market - believe it has found an unexplored niche to squeeze the Juke into. Rather than positioning the car as a straight crossover, the manufacturer is punting the idea that its new model is a seamless blend of compact SUV looks and sports car character.
It's a bold strategy, but has it worked? Well, the car looks the part. The Juke isn't suited to dark colours and the midday sun, but put it under a street light at dusk and the high-waistline body glistens with the masculine bulge of a nightclub doorman.
That's no accident, of course. Nissan is aiming the car at (cringe) 'urban players' or, more specifically, men in their late twenties and early thirties. That's a tough market to crack, but the Juke is awash with features to drag its intended audience away from conventional fare.
Behind the butch bodywork lies a brand new 187bhp 1.6-litre DIG-T petrol engine. The turbocharged lump is specifically designed to jam a finger in BMW's eye and provide the Juke with enough pep to compete with the forthcoming Mini Countryman, the car closest to the Juke in concept, if not price (it's £15,695 for this Juke compared to £17,510 for the 1.6 Cooper).
The direct-injection unit does make the Nissan feel pokey, but its performance is slightly compromised by the tone of its shrill voice. The engine will pull all the way to its redline, but that cannot be achieved without pulling a face at the noise coming from under the bonnet.
This is a shame because the Juke's handling deserves a willing companion. The car will be available in both two and four-wheel drive, and although it isn't that nimble or sharp, its wide track means it corners with enough vigour to make quick progress a cinch. It's also quite comfortable. The ride isn't as cushioned as we'd expected, but it was certainly better than a number of its supermini rivals.
As the car has no off-road pretensions, Nissan has been able to concentrate on controlling its high-sided bulk without the usual compromises, and as a result there is very little lean mid-bend. The manufacturer has also thrown in the Nissan Dynamic Control System that allows the driver to choose between Eco, Normal and Sport settings.
These adjust steering feel and throttle response, but only the four-wheel drive version gets the torque vectoring traction control system which feeds power to the outside wheel in the event of a loss of grip.
Switching between Climate and D-Mode changes the function of a number of buttons, thus reducing the number required. It's a neat idea slightly foiled by its setting. The facia has the chintzy tactility of an aftermarket Halfords Superstore special.
The rest of the interior isn't completely without fault either. Nissan claims it based the centre console on a motorbike's. Well, ok, but these aren't blighted with gear levers and are made of metal not plastic. If you really want to compete with the Mini, Fiesta, Mito and DS3 on more than just price this kind of thing has to be better thought out.
Ultimately, that theme defines the Juke. The car is by no means bad – in fact, it's by some distance better than the all the other compact SUVs in the segment – but Nissan has such lofty ambitions for its new crossover that it must be judged against the market leaders in the supermini sector. In that rarefied company, it cannot quite compete.
However, we offer that verdict with one major proviso. The Qashqai sold like hot cakes against the Ford Focus and the VW Golf off the back of its decent handling, sensible pricing and unique styling. The Juke enters the fray holding the precisely same trump cards. Bet against it at your peril.