No, the MINI doesn't count. That's a plus-sized tribute to a car that really was unique, forty years ago. What about the New New Beetle? Of course not. Even the trend-setting Kia Soul is really just a plus-sized variant of the Japanese kei-vans which have been trolling Tokyo since Blade Runner was filmed over there.
If you want unique - if you want something that is truly individual - Nissan has the answer, and it's called the Juke. Think of it as a front-engined Porsche 911 on stilts. Or a Sentra SE-R with a turbo and a CVT. Or a Murano left in the dryer too long and tied-up in the back to shrink unevenly. No, it's not really like any of those ideas. Instead, it's something special: a car aimed directly at the urban poser.
"Urban poser," in this case, isn't a bad thing. The Juke poses, but it doesn't pretend to be a supercar and it doesn't send subliminal signals about your wealth or eco-cred. Instead, it's simply different.
The odd exterior proportions are immediately recognizable from any angle, but for most people the Juke's face is the most memorable aspect, with an Alfa Romeo-style face and additional, insectoid headlamps above the grille. The rear is a riff off the Murano and Infiniti FX SUVs, tailored around the much smaller platform.
Inside, the exterior design makes itself felt in the ultra-small rear quarters and the urban-friendly elevated driving position. It's easy to see all four corners of the car; this is one that most people will have no trouble maneuvering in a city.
The handling mostly answers the promise of the compact dimensions and outstanding visibility. The turning circle is very small for an FWD vehicle and the steering is a reliable indicator of available grip. Best of all, transient response - think fast lane change - is outstanding, even for a "normal" small car.
Nissan's new small turbo four-cylinder is jam-packed under the hood, along with a couple of drivetrain options. We took the AWD variant with CVT transmission. It works well with the turbo, offering a fast dip in ratio while the turbo spools and then expanding the main drive roller to ride the torque wave all the way to redline. It can be "manually" shifted, creating six artificial "gears" from the available CVT range, but what's the point? Let the tech do its work, and the Juke will run with anything short of a Tesla in the short spaces between downtown stoplights.
Nissan's unique thinking continues in the gauges and center stack, which offer different "modes" depending on one's mood. Normal mode offers a set of climate controls, but change to "Sport" and those buttons light up with a different set of labels, enabling the driver to change the behavior of the steering and transmission. A boost gauge appears where an "Eco driving indicator" normally sits. It's a fun party trick and it's particularly effective at night.
So far, the Juke hasn't lit the sales charts on fire. There's a reason for that. The mainstream winners in this class offer space, and lots of it, at a friendly price. The Juke, by contrast, is priced halfway to the Euro-credentialed MINI and doesn't offer anything like the same snob appeal. The Juke driver will have to be somebody who understands the car's assets - handling, visibility, engine response, unique aesthetics - and doesn't want to fit in with the crowd. In other words, he or she will have to be a real individual. How many of them are out there?
Words by Jack Baruth
Photos by Nick Aziz
Video by Matt Sargent / Nick Aziz