Nissan's urban SUV looks like it was inspired by man's best friend. But the Juke's not exactly a pedigree.
Top speed 109mph
On the website of the London branch of the Pug in the Park monthly meet-up, one happy mutt posted this message last week: “Hi, I’m Big Dave. I like eating, chasing cars and having my belly rubbed. I dislike water and strangers. I have an uncontrollable urge to bark at them.” Big Dave is a black pug and a park regular. I’m not sure if he’s friends with Popeye, an eccentric four-year-old beige pug (the owner described the colour as “champagne”), but the two usually attend the Regent’s Park meet-and-bark which is organised by fans and friends of the short-muzzled, curly tailed, frog-eyed toy dogs.
It was apposite beyond my imaginings that the car I happened to be in when I stumbled across the event was Nissan’s new Juke – a vehicle that is also short-muzzled, frog-eyed and magnificently ugly.
Car designers have long turned to the animal kingdom for inspiration – powerful haunches and long graceful lines are ripe for emulation in the motoring world. But the Juke’s designers have clearly become confused along the way and gone for a pug-hog hybrid which doesn’t make us want to have our bellies rubbed.
At some point, deep in Nissan’s design HQ, possibly during a refreshingly frisky blue-sky session, the question of what would happen if you attached a miniature 4×4 body to the underpinnings of a world-beating supermini must have arisen. Clearly they decided there was only one way to find out – build it. So the wags at Nissan metamorphosed the conservative Micra (long-term squeeze of blue-rinsed grannies and faithful servant to BSM) into a diminutive urban sports utility vehicle which looks like it’s been up all night partying on horse tranquillisers.
The car’s front end is particularly provocative. It has large headlights, a recessed air intake that makes it look as if it shares a dentist with Homer Simpson and sidelights that bulge above the bonnet like the eyes of a crocodile swimming in a Florida swamp. It’s not an easy look to carry off.
On the one hand I want to applaud Nissan for daring to break the tiresome monotony of most of today’s cars; on the other it’s difficult not to burst out laughing. And if Nissan were intending to make a joke of the Juke, they should have really gone for it. Instead, they’ve stranded the Juke in a no-man’s land of ugly without charm. The colour scheme of the test car I drove, for instance, was middle-aged silver. Yet this car is clearly aimed at the younger driver. When Fiat first produced its aesthetically challenging Multipla – a car so hideous it resembled a medical condition on Embarrassing Bodies – the Italians found themselves with a surprise hit on their hands. I think the Juke loses out not because it’s ugly, but because it’s not ugly enough. The French have a term for this – jolie laide.
If you can get past the looks, and it will appeal to many, what’s left? I tested the 1.5-litre diesel which managed to be a perfect storm of disappointment – noisy, under-powered and inefficient. Although the quoted figures boast of a top speed of 109mph, 0-62mph in 11.2 seconds and 55.4mpg combined fuel economy with 134g/km of CO2, I managed only about 40 to the gallon. It felt sluggish on the open road and the six-speed gear box was clunky and vague.
Inside, the car is remarkably roomy, but also feels strangely unloved. The plastic finishes seem cheap and tinny and the whole gives the impression that no one expects this city SUV to hang around for long. Given that it fits into Nissan’s line-up as a slightly shrunken Qashqai – one of Britain’s most popular cars, the Sunderland plant simply can’t churn them out quickly enough – it feels like a wasted, if courageous, opportunity.
Back in the park, I learn that pugs themselves suffer from a number of difficulties, including overheating, obesity and a pronounced gag reflex – something Juke owners, too, may have to learn to live with…
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010