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Going Back In Time with the Nissan Juke

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I only had a short period in the company of Nissan’s high-riding mechanised toad, the Juke, so the following can’t really be called a review. Well, it is and it isn’t, if you see what I mean.

I was certainly able to get an impression of the car. I was able to determine that, give or take, I actually quite like the look of it. If the Juke was a person you were meeting for the first time you would find conversation difficult. His nose would be on his forehead, his eyes would be in his cheeks and he would have several little mouths dotted around his chin- which is in the wrong place in itself. Yet, for all his challenging visage you would probably get on with him all right. He speaks sense and is reasonably witty.

On the face of it he seems reasonably up to date, too. His CV bristles with all today’s De Riguer acronyms, his location is satellite pinpointed and his innards are climatically controlled. Furthermore, his breath is fresh and his stamina is long, thanks to Nissan’s PureDrive Diesel technology. Yes, it’s fair to say that my ugly-handsome new acquaintance can stand shoulder-to shoulder with his peers without being too embarassed.

In private, though, he exhibited one or two character traits that I thought had gone the way of empire building and casual racism. Yes, the Nissan Juke does things that I thought we had moved away from years ago.

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The first thing that surprised me about the Juke was the bizarre artefact photographed above. It’s a key. That’s fine, I’m at peace with the idea of car keys. But it’s the fact that it’s a key, a plain key, just a common or garden cut-metal key that actually shakes me up a bit.

My seventeen year old Audi has a key, but squeeze a tab and the actual blade part flick-knifes into its four-ringed casing. Entry to the car is granted by a button and the transmission of radiowaves, so for all the time where the engine is unemployed you are carrying around a nice, tactile rubberised cuboid. It doesn’t jab you in the thigh when you sit on it, it doesn’t get clogged with all the lint that you collect among the coinage and gum wrappers that it shares your pocket with. When you reach your car, press, open, sit, flick, turn, drive. Great.

The Nissan Juke just gives you a key. OK, it’s got buttons on it for remote locking, but the key itself is still no further evolved than the one for the Sunny that my babysitter drove in the ’80s. To start the car you ram said key into an equally primitive looking ignition slot- it doesn’t slide in or lock home smoothly, more a frictive, reluctant shove- and turn it. Just like you used to in the old days. And that isn’t necessarily a criticism, either. Certain constituent pieces of car, things like keys, doors, the round shape of the wheels, have been right since soon after day one. The out-there looking Nissan Juke still uses a traditional key. That surprised me.

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Behind the wheel I, for a spell, found myself reassured by a contemporary dash cluster. Two nice, clear analogue dials, the speedo being marked crisply with both the all-important imperial units of velocity as well as a translation of that number into farenheit or grammes or whatever metric speed is measured in. Kumquats, I think. Then in a thong-panty shaped orifice sits a VCR-style amber display of fuel level and coolant temperature. Not actual legible dials with needles because that kind of motorist-friendly visual technology has been consigned to the past. Instead brightly glowing, slightly ambiguous digital displays.

Content that I was, indeed, driving a product of today, my next surprise came when I went to top the tank up. On reaching the pump I hopped confidently down from my deceptively lofty perch and strode to the nozzle. I confidently swept it from its holster and pounced at the fuel door. And it didn’t budge. What gives? I tried everything. I pressed down on all four corners, expecting it to pop open, but nothing. Remembering that my Audi flap requires pressure on the leading edge to hinge the door ajar, I tried that. But nothing. I even remote zapped the car, thinking that central locking might have made the flap secure. Nothing doing.

So I ventured back inside in search of a button. That would make sense, this is a modern car. There’ll be a servo or an actuator or something. My Rover does; there’s a button on the centre console, press it, there’s a distant whirring (against all possible odds on a seventeen year old British car) and the flap will be open when you walk around to it. The Nissan will be the same, surely.

Suddenly the sky went very dark. Strange, luminous waves tore through the air and everything stood still. I slammed my ears shut to try in vain to close out the deafening high pitched scream that pervaded on all frequencies, and, when it finally abated I found myself once more back in 1988. Actually, it could have been even earlier than that.

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Ferreting around in the driver’s footwell uncovered two plastic levers marked with recognisable hieroglyphics. For a second or two I was delirious; how clever of Nissan to disguise the electronic microswitch for their digitally regulated fuel-filler-flap release mechanism as a simple lever like the ones you’d find in a Nissan from the ’80s. This is presumably to appease those people who have always had Nissans and won’t, or can’t, adopt to new and confusing ways of doing things. Very considerate. Then I pulled the lever.

And reality struck when I didn’t hear any whirring or click or anything much. I pulled the lever and it felt just as soggy and rubbery as it did in that Sunny or indeed in my ’83 Triumph Acclaim. I pulled it and then went to behold what had happened to the flap itself. It was now open, but something told me that anybody who had watched events unfold, would have creased themselves in two with fits of uncontrollable laughter at the sheer “is that it?”-ness of it all. The door would have flopped open pathetically. Apologetically.

And this isn’t necessarily a criticism. Pull-a-cable-and-it-goes-flop technology has existed for generations. Nissan has rightly seen that there is no reason to move on.

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The exorbitant cost of fuel reassured me that my moment of Final Countdown temporal displacement was just a migraine setting in and that I was genuinely still in 2015. I climbed back aboard the Juke, pausing to try and remember which of my Kenwood food-processor’s attachments the wheels reminded me of (I’m pretty sure it’s the one that slices carrots), turned the vintage key and pootled off down the road.

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Straight back into 1976! The smooth, fine tarmac that I remembered was gone, replaced by rutted, potholed shale, or at least that’s how it felt. No matter what the road surface, even one absolutely perfectly flat on a molecular level, somewhere along the line the tyres and suspension system work together to reinterpret this terrain into something totally different.

By the time the true story told by the road has been Chinese-whispered into the cabin it has become a wild adventure of steps, jumps, hollows and craters. People passing me on the same stretch of road slide by in unruffled stasis, and see me ricocheting around the cabin of my Juke as if my testicles are wired to electrodes. It’s like one of those motion-simulator rides you get at theme parks which recreates the thrills of a rollercoaster or an aerial aerobatic display despite only actually moving ten feet or so. Every microscopic imperfection in the asphalt is amplified to such an extent that you wonder if the suspension was made by the same people who built Spinal Tap’s PA system.

It’s incredible. The last time I felt a ride like this was in a Series III Land Rover, shortly before losing a wheel outside just Coventry after an off-road session in Leicester.

Now this is a criticism. I find it hard to imagine the product development guys green-lighting Juke production with a celebratory “Yeah, I think we’ve cracked it, guys. This is how a family car should ride.” You can’t always have your cake and eat it, with big, stylish wheels, low profile tyres and eerie smoothness. But this thing just seems to magic up gnarly road lumps from nowhere. It’s amazing.

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I parked the car after my spine had been nicely powdered to a pre-liquid Kool-Aid consistency, and pulled on a handbrake that provided no evidence whatsoever that I hadn’t seen it before on a 1995 Nissan Primera. I pulled the cable and it went flop, but the car stayed anchored to the same spot on the ground so however vague the motion was something mechanical must have happened at the other end of the wire.

But God Bless the humble handbrake. A breath of stale air when all that’s fresh brings with it inherent worries. Electronic parking brakes are ubiquitous, but that doesn’t make them a good thing, does it? Automation has run roughshod over a hundred years of automotive thinking that was proven to work; look at Jalopnik’s trouble when the electronic transmission controller on a Jaguar XF went all British Leyland on them. Press the park brake button on your car and electronic whirrings and clankings occur, but what it, one day, they don’t?

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Everything will probably be alright. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a habitual Luddite, technology marches on for a reason, I’ll let that reason be love. We like progress and it is usually for the best. Efficiency, efficacy and reliability are all getting better, at least for the first owner and within the warranty period. Automation and innovation is making life easier for everybody, or at least that’s the plan.

My chance encounter with the Nissan Juke was a happy one. Not for the quality of the relationship; I won’t be overly upset if we never meet again. But for reminding me that things really haven’t changed anywhere near as much as I feared they had. I sometimes worry about my ability to stay up to date. Even in my lifetime cars have changed so rapidly it’s been tricky to keep abreast of developments. But the Juke demonstrated that not only is progress not actually careering out of control across the entire industry, but in some cases the signs of regression can be clearly seen.

The cutting edge exists, but only a tiny number of today’s cars are truly on it. For that, perhaps we can be thankful?

(All images copyright Chris Haining / Hooniverse 2015)

  • Brendan A. MacWade

    Well, we know (and appreciate) a few things about the Juke. It cuts costs everywhere with parts bin pieces. It has a noisy cabin. It has a progressive exterior and retro interior. Part of this is the fact that it is a dotted-line relative of the Pike Factory cars of the late 1980s. It and the Cube are descendants of the Be-1, Pao, Figaro, S-Cargo, and Micra. I like them all, and that’s a big reason I like the Juke.

    The Nissan model archive is a great resource. I don’t know of any other car manufacturer that makes old press photos of their models so accessible.

    http://www.nissan-newsroom.com/EN/PRODUCTS/OLDMODELS/list_b.html#Y10

  • wunno sev

    budget nissans have always been a few steps behind the curve, but i’m surprised the juke is considered budget enough to have such barbarically primitive features.