The opportunity Nissan missed with the new Juke NISMO

Alex Lloyd

The 2013 Chicago Auto Show brought few surprises, but a number of notables did materialize. Ford and Ken Block showcased a racy Focus, Volkswagen offered a Beetle that was a little yellow in the gills, Toyota unveiled their latest Tundra, while Chrysler bared its new fat-lipped commercial van. Then there was Nissan who unclothed a refreshed 370Z NISMO as well as a sporty NISMO version of the quirky Juke. The latter, I believe, has the potential of being brilliant, but has Nissan missed the mark?

Sensible people find the Juke too weird. Its slick back headlights, bulbous front end, fat backside, and massive flared arches are never going to appeal to a mass market. Its funky looks make it somewhat of a niche vehicle

But with the announced NISMO version, Nissan could have found the Juke’s rightful home. A more aggressive, sporty appearance plays nicely with the machine’s wacky costume. The exterior offers more bite, while the interior boast Alcantara upholstering, bolstered seats and a red dash at the top of the steering wheel to make you feel like a fully-fledged World Rally driver. The engine produces more power; an all-wheel drive version is available as well as a 6-speed manual.

Suddenly the Juke seems to make sense. As we said yesterday, this barmy looking machine has all the ingredients to become a raucous animal, suggesting a much-needed alternative to the WRX and EVO. I, for one, love the Juke NISMO’s look. While I may be in the minority in this department, I have also been lusting over a WRX as of late. I was even on the phone to my wife yesterday when strolling through the Nissan stand at the Chicago Auto Show, and gushed about how I needed to buy the Juke NISMO. I genuinely thought I had found my car.

But there’s a problem.

The power has only been upped 9 hp to 197. Hardly puny, but a far cry from the similarly sized 5-door WRX, that offers 265 raging ponies. I’m also willing to wager that the noise exuded from its single exhaust will be inferior to the captivating growl of the WRX’s quad pipes, too.

If the lack of power isn’t enough to distract the boy racers with a reasonable credit score, then the transmission will almost certainly derail it entirely. The Juke NISMO is, thankfully, available with a manual gearbox. But only on the front-wheel drive model. The superior all-wheel drive version only equips itself with a pesky CVT transmission. Front-wheel drive won’t cut it, but what baseball cap wearing speed demon would buy a spiced up Juke as a WRX alternative if it has a CVT gearbox?

Then there's the rest of the competition. Just across the Chicago auto show floor sat Kia’s Forte 5-door hatchback. That too has a 1.6-liter turbo engine, and it musters 201 hp. The motor is mated to a 6-speed manual and all the power is delivered to the front wheels. Sounds eerily similar.

The difference is that buyers in the market for a small, sporty hatchback will take a gander at the VW Golf GTI, Ford Focus ST, Mazdaspeed 3, Honda Civic Si or perhaps even the Kia. A quirky (likely more expensive) Juke NISMO would, undoubtedly, not make the cut.

The Nissan Juke NISMO could appeal to buyers of the WRX/EVO, or, in this particular case, me. Its mad styling plays to an audience that may actually embrace its uniqueness. But they didn’t go whole hog. They teased us with fancy bodywork and a racy steering wheel. They made gearheads believe we had a legitimate alternative to our prized rally racers.

The Juke NISMO is the “almost” car of the Chicago Auto Show. It’s nearly perfect, but the numbers don’t lie.