I FIRST BECAME AWARE of Nismo because of an advert in this very magazine. It was 1999, the height of the grey import fever, and the ad in question had a picture of a bright red R33 Skyline GT-R with ‘400R’ written down its flanks and the coolest wheels I’d ever seen. I didn’t know much about it or Nismo, but what a car. And what a name. Nismo seemed exciting and exotic, and ever since I’ve wondered why Nissan has left the Nismo (Nissan Motorsport, naturally) name to languish in relative obscurity outside of Japan and the hardcore gaming community.
Well, somebody at Nissan felt the same and a full range of Nismo variants will soon hit the UK. What’s kicking it all off? The Juke Nismo. Yes, that Juke. This is a new, accessible version of Nismo, a world away from the fearsomely expensive home-market Z-tunes and S-tunes.
Later in 2013 we will see a more extreme Juke Nismo RC, but for now the Nismo name signifies a modest 10bhp boost (compared to the regular range-topper) for the 1.6-litre turbo engine to 197bhp, some 18in wheels, suspension lowered by 10mm and seats with suede trim.
It costs from GBP 19,995 in front-wheel-drive, six-speed-manual guise. For GBP 22,195 you can opt for a four-wheel-drive version with torque vectoring, a multi-link rear axle (instead of the humdrum torsion beam) and, sadly, a CVT ‘box. Here we’re trying the front-driver, which is expected to be the biggest seller.
I have to admit I’m no fan of the Juke’s pudgy look, but the Nismo styling additions are a real improvement, if not exactly aggressive. Hop inside and you’re greeted by superbly supportive seats and a steering wheel and gearshifter covered in Alcantara. The engine sounds flat and dull but the performance is strong – it feels faster than its claimed 0-62mph time of 7.8sec.
However, what really strikes you is the balance of weight and response in the controls and the quality of the damping. Immediately the Juke Nismo feels like a car developed by people who understand how that subtle interplay defines a car’s character. It’s easy to jump in it and drive fast or slow: the gearbox is fluid and precise, the brakes have excellent feel, the pedals are well placed for heel-and-toeing and the steering is light but accurate. You can tweak the steering weight and throttle response too, but it feels pretty spot-on in its ‘Normal’ set-up.
The bad stuff? Well, this is no Clio RS -there’s more body roll, less overall grip and plenty of wheelspin if you really try to lean on the chassis hard. It feels like an eight-tenths car. Try to find some magic at the limit and you’ll be disappointed. There’s not much throttle adjustability and it tends to become a bit scrappy. The ESP never fully disables either, so progress is often clumsily reined in just when you think you’re starting to make everything click.
But that 218bhp Juke Nismo RC is on the way, with a tighter focus and great claims about track performance. A quick drive in a prototype on a narrow coned course suggests it’ll sound much better and ramp up grip, response and performance significantly. Until then, the Juke Nismo remains a quirky hot hatch that doesn’t quite have the teeth to thrill. By Jethro Bovingdon