Now that the 24 Hours of LeMons season is in full swing, I'm getting more opportunities (in my role as Chief Justice of the LeMons Supreme Court) to bring new cars to racetracks and study their utility, their driving qualities, and the impressions they make on a paddock full of car-crazed road racers.
Our previous Race Organizer Review took 4,600 pounds of Korean luxury to Sears Point in California, so it seemed to make sense to go smaller and faster for the Cure For Gingervitis race at Michigan's Gingerman Raceway. As my Autoweek colleagues have already written, the Nissan Juke Nismo that served as transport is funny-looking, pretty quick, and cheaper than you'd expect.
I picked up the Juke at Chicago's Midway Airport and then proceeded to drive it 120 miles around the edge of Lake Michigan to Gingerman Raceway in South Haven. With 197 turbocharged horsepower and a six-speed manual transmission, the Juke Nismo hits redline quickly and accelerates much harder than its external cuteness would suggest. However, the unusually harsh winter was hard on the pavement in the Upper Midwest, and two hours on the potholed and ill-patched surface of the highways around the bottom and eastern coast of Lake Michigan was about 100 minutes more than I'd recommend in a bouncy little car with an angry stiff suspension.
I wasn't able to steady my fingers enough to work the radio controls for lengthy stretches of road and my vision was blurry due to my glasses bouncing on my nose. And the noise! The sound of the wind wasn't a problem, but the steady symphony of howls, groans, honks, ululations, and bangs conducted from the road through the car's structure reminded me of the nihilistic noise music I listened to 25 years ago.
My solution to the harshness/noise problem, were Nissan to ask my opinion of such things, would be to go all-out and make the car harsher. Jack up the turbo boost, strip the interior down to lightweight gray fabric and thin plastics, lower the whole thing a couple inches, and apply a merciless race-ification to the suspension. I didn't mind the highway-drive punishment meted out by the Mitsubishi Evo GSR when I had it at Road America last year, because that car is so ridiculously fun, and a wilder Juke Nismo would be similar fun for 10 grand less.
Anyway, back to the world of practicality: the Juke has plenty of room for all the crap hauled around by your on-the-go Race Organizer, and the back seats fit my fellow LeMons Supreme Court justices just fine. It would be a very useful machine for everyday use, with its small footprint and healthy cargo space.
Once at Gingerman, the reaction of the racers to the Juke Nismo wasn't overwhelming; a few recognized the car and asked about its fun-to-drive quotient, but mostly it blended in and did not cause much comment. I think a louder exhaust would help in this department.
I thought the car would get more attention from the racers, what with the big Nismo badges all over the car's interior and exterior, but road racers tend to be a jaded lot. I didn't take the Juke onto the track proper, but we did stage a rental-car drag race featuring a Maxima versus an Impala down the front straight (the Maxima won by a car length).
An important part of the Race Organizer Review is the test of the sound system in the infamous Macho Man penalty, where miscreant racers must don Village People hats and dance behind the Judgemobile. The optional Rockford Fosgate ecoPUNCH (no, I didn't make that up) rig performed well.
I didn't get any chance to hurl the Juke Nismo with abandon around twisty mountain roads (you won't find many of those on the shores of Lake Michigan), so I can't say how the car performs when pushed to the limit, etc. It's very quick for 25 grand (as tested), though I think that a regular Juke plus a beater '92 Sentra SE-R with a turbo kit and suspension upgrades would yield more fun -- and practicality -- per dollar.
By the end of the weekend, I'd decided that I could imagine owning a regular Juke, and I could imagine owning a spirally eyed full-race Juke, but that I wouldn't want to daily-drive something halfway between. I've been disappointed for a couple of decades that Japanese auto manufacturers gave up on building cars that looked like something from Mars Base, 2075, so I think the odd appearance of the Juke is a good thing.
Race Organizer verdict: Fun car, reasonably quick, noisy/unpleasant on rough highways, lots of interior space, good audio system, doesn't attract much racer attention in spite of its semi-radical appearance; would be improved by getting more extreme with suspension and engine, but a non-Nismo Juke makes more sense for everyday use. Mine got as-advertised fuel economy: 27.47 mpg for 259 miles of mixed driving.
2014 Nissan Juke NISMO
Base Price: $22,990
Drivetrain: 1.6-liter turbocharged I4; FWD, six-speed manual
Output:197 hp @ 6,000 rpm, 184 lb-ft @ 2,000-5,200 rpm
Curb Weight: 3,172 lb
Fuel Economy (EPA City/Highway/Combined): 25/31/27 mpg
AW Observed Fuel Economy: 27.47 mpg
Options: Center armrest ($245), Navigation package including Nissan navigation system with five-inch color touch screen display, XM NavTraffic, Rockford Fosgate ecoPUNCH premium audio with subwoofer, USB connection port for iPod and other compatible devices, rear view monitor ($1,170)
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