Price: From £19,995
Engine: 1,618cc, four cylinders, 16 valves, turbo, 200bhp at 6,000rpm
Transmission: Six-speed gearbox, front-wheel drive (4x4 with continuously variable transmission auto optional
Performance: 134mph, 0-62 in 7.8sec, 40.9mpg, CO2 159g/km
What does Nismo mean to you? Nothing at all, I suspect. In Japan, though, it means "Nissan Motorsport", the arm of the car company responsible over many years for racing cars.
Now, the idea is to introduce Nismo to Europe and move it beyond the closed, petrol-soaked world of enthusiasts. The first Europe-available Nissan to gain the Nismo treatment is not necessarily the sort of car you might expect to be reinterpreted as a sporting device, but the fact that the SUV-ish Juke is the subject tells you much about how the car market has changed. Nissan has no obvious middle-sized hatchback to hot up, but the remarkable sales success of first the Qashqai and then the smaller, higher-fashion Juke shows that Nissan's decision to abandon that part of the market has done it no harm at all. SUVs, real or alluded to, are where it's at.
In standard form, the Juke is actually already a convincingly "sporty" drive when fitted with the 190bhp, 1.6-litre turbo engine. It goes well along straights and around bends, and its interior conveys a sense of driving engagement with its racy instruments and graphics showing turbo boost, G-forces and the like. In Nismo form, however, it looks sharper, with black lower valances bordered by red pinstripes, and some very handsome 18in wheels. And, as with other Jukes, the Nismo is UK-built.
Inside, the Nismo has some racy, suede-trimmed front seats and a part-Alcantara steering wheel in the same sportive vein. So, what of the parts you might expect to be closest to the Nismo lodestone, the engine and suspension? Changes here, it must be said, are small: an extra 10bhp, suspension set 10 per cent stiffer, revised and "meatier" tuning for the electric power steering.
Small but well judged, though. Proper car-enthusiast engineers have been at work here. The actions of all the controls flow together beautifully, with just the right accelerator response to smooth a downshift, helped by a smooth clutch, a delicious gear change, and a sweet engine with a keen thrust once the turbocharger is aroused. The steering is accurate and natural – more so in Normal mode than in artificially resistant Sport – and it's hard to accept you're driving something even slightly SUV-shaped.
Having enjoyed threading the Nismo along some bendy mountain roads, I was looking forward to some laps of the Parc Motor circuit near Barcelona to which our test route led. Nismo is a track-flavoured brand, this Juke feels taut and keen on the road. But no. There would be no track time in the Juke Nismo. Why? Because, we were told, "The cars aren't set up for the track." Of course they're not; they're road cars, and that is how they should be assessed, but a sweeping, scenic track can tell us more than speed-limited roads. For what it's worth, I think it would have handled the track very well.
Back to the road assessment, then: the ride can turn choppy on imperfect road surfaces, which doesn't augur well for comfort on Britain's broken roads. One option to please, however: a mounting and interface for an iPad Mini on which detailed information on acceleration, braking, cornering forces, fluid temperatures and much else can be displayed in real-time high resolution.
The Nismo costs around £1,900 more than a similarly equipped Juke 1.6 turbo, but it comes across as a more complete and honed machine, both to look at and to drive. I like it, a lot. Track or no track.