Jolly Juke is a genuine fun car

DAVE MOORE
Last updated 05:01 03/08/2012

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At one time, the majority of the cars we drove were British, along with a smattering of Australian and American offerings. Since the 70s, when Japanese cars finally built up to a gush from a previous trickle and started to show up the British and European cars for the often unreliable, under-developed machines they were, things have changed.

There is just a single English brand left building small cars in the "old" country: Vauxhall, and even then they're Opel designs with different badges and grilles and their steering wheels and pedals on the right-hand side.

Ford doesn't make cars in the UK any more - just engines - and Rover is long gone, while MG builds cars from kits sent out from the company's new Chinese owners.

But it's not all bad news if you're an Anglophile, for Britain makes and exports more cars than it ever did in the good old, bad old days. It's just that apart from GM Vauxhall and BMW-owned Mini, they're mostly Japanese brands. It's a case of: "if you can't beat them, build them" and while some of the cars are also built by their Japanese masters' plants closer to home, as it were, a few are even supplied solely from the UK.

Honda's new five-door Civic is a Swindon-only produced product. It's stamped, machined and built alongside Jazz and CR-V models. Honda is the biggest employer in the Wiltshire town, and builds 250,000 cars there a year.

Toyota has similar loyalty at its Burnaston plant that builds the Avensis and some Auris/Corolla models to the tune of more than 300,000 units a year.

But the biggest star in the British car industry's firmament is Nissan's Washington operation near Sunderland in the country's northeast, which uses its Geordie workforce to build just under half a million Qashqai, Note and Juke models a year.

The Nissan Juke, sampled here, was even designed in Britain. It's a mini-crossover based on the Nissan Qazana, a concept car first seen at the 2009 Geneva Motor Show. The Juke was designed at Nissan Design Europe in London, with the model's final signoff occurring in Japan. They obviously got it right, as the predicted first month's orders of 1300 sales in Japan were closer to 11,000 units, and since its launch the UK plant has been flat- out building the two-wheel-drive versions, with Nissan's Oppama plant doing the same for the four- wheel-drive models.

It has to be said that it's a bit of a polariser, being a high-waisted coupe with all sorts of blisters and excrescences on it that gives it a toadish look, albeit one with a pleasant enough face, even if the clusters of forward-facing lights are a bit of an acquired taste.

Prominent wheel arches and canted-back glasshouse give the car's profile a sportingly muscular look, though that roof angle does create a rear headroom issue for taller occupants.

Inside, the shock factor continues with a centre console that is deliberately created to look like a motorcycle tank, and finished in cherry gloss metallic against the classy grey cloth of the rest of the interior. It's a startling but not unpleasant look.

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I was stopped several times in the street by passers-by, and apart from an exceptionally rude bloke with an over-tyred Impreza, everyone loved its quirkiness, and I have to say I enjoyed its "stuff- you" look. It's impossible to ignore and, among usually disinterested traffic, that can be an advantage.

I'm old enough these days not to care what people think about what I'm driving. In fact, the more contentious the better, as at least it gets opinions.

I'm pleased that Nissan's bringing the car to New Zealand, not least because the Aussies aren't. It appears the nation that has just put Christchurch on the same tourist danger footing as Afghanistan and Iraq has decided that the Nissan Juke is a little over the top for its car buyers. So until Nissan fronts up with a new model, if Aussies want a sub- Qashqai-sized car they'll have to make do with the tedious Tiida - a car which is everything the Juke isn't.

The Juke is here with a single mechanical specification and uses a 1.6-litre DOHC 16-valve injected four, driving the front wheels only through one of Nissan's excellent CVT transmissions. Nissan New Zealand is looking at other configurations for the car like a turbocharged engine and possibly all-wheel-drive, but with sales running right on its 70 to 80 units a month target, there's no sense in tempting fate. Yet.

The Juke has two versions: the $31,990 ST and the $33,990 Ti, with the main visual difference being lower-profile 17-inch alloy rims on the more expensive car, to the entry-pointer's 16-inch steel items. I have to say that though the alloys look brilliant, the steel-shod car rides just a little more quietly and feels a little more composed over quake bumps.

Both versions are well equipped, with air conditioning, excellent connectivity, and a classily clothed - tricot in the ST, alcantara in the Ti - and painted interior that I never tired of clambering into. This is an individual and very special wee unit to sit in. Both models have ESP, ABS, six airbags, cruise control and a great CD AM/FM stereo with auxiliary slots and USB, iPod and bluetooth connectivity. The Ti adds two more speakers to the ST's four, has a switchable dynamic drive control that sharpens up the car's driving responses or goes into fuel-sipping Eco mode when required, and furnishes climate control instead of the cheaper car's simpler air conditioning along with automatic headlights and darker rear privacy glazing. For an extra two grand, the Ti's spec is good value.

The Juke is no rocket ship, though Nissan has built one for publicity purposes by slipping the mighty GTR's turbocharged V8 running gear underneath the Juke's unsuspecting body. There's also a turbocharged four-cylinder variant on offer from Sunderland, but with just 86kW on tap, and a nice flat plane of torque in the mid range to the tune of 158 Newton- metres. The car is smoothly brisk, thanks to that lovely CVT, and while it won't set the world on fire, it'll hit 100kmh in under 11 seconds and won't make a fuss.

The car points and squirts much as you'd expect a hachback of this size to do. The electric steering is precise, the car's body well-controlled and with that extra bit of height over a normal five- door, you have the advantage of a better view. While the cabin took four adults very well, surprisingly comfortably in the rear according to my father-in-law, the boot is laughable. True, it can be expanded from just 251 litres to 830 litres if you tumble the rear seats, but I'd like just a little more without having to do that, thanks Nissan.

I guess it's the price you pay for a quirky, head-turning body design, and it certainly wouldn't put me off, if I was in the market for a C-segment hatch.

I feel quite smug that we get this car and the Aussies don't. Perhaps we've grown to accept the unconventional a little more readily than they have.

I'm also pleased that a British- based car operation can come up with something so whacky. Producing such a car smacks of a confident and innovative industry, though the car's gene strand is quite diverse. It's the product of a French-partnered Japanese company, from a design team based in London and a factory in the heart of what was a shipbuilding and trawling hub.

More of the same, please Nissan from your Geordie shore, for sure.

NISSAN JUKE

Drivetrain: Transverse, FWD 1598cc fuel-injected DOHC 16v four, with a continuously variable transmission.

Performance: Max 86kW at 6000 rpm, 158Nm at 4000rpm. Max 170kmh, 0-100kmh 11.5secs, 6.3L/100km, 147g/km CO2.

Chassis: Front MacPherson struts, rear torsion beam. Electric power steering. ST - 16 inch steel wheels Ti - 17 inch alloy.

Safety: Five-star EuroNCAP tested; six airbags, ABS, ESP, two Isofix rear child seat tethers.

Dimensions: L 4135mm, W 1765mm, H 1570mm, W/base 2530mm, F/track 1525mm, R/track 1525mm, Weight 1230kg, Fuel 46L.

Pricing: Juke ST $31,990, Ti $33,990.

Hot: In-your-face exterior; nice detailing; willing engine; ease of use; safety; equipment.

Not: In-your-face exterior; tiny boot; no turbo version, diesel or all-wheel-drive version here.

Verdict: Japanese-accented Geordie proves there's life in the British car industry yet. A genuine fun car. More of these, Nissan.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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