Among the stars of the upcoming 2010 Geneva Show will be not one, but two crossovers that are small and promise to be fun to drive. One is BMW's Mini Countryman. The other is Nissan's Juke. Once again different parts of the auto industry have come up with the same idea at the same time, from different directions. Meet the sport compact crossover.
Both are compact, 161 inches for the Mini, 163 for the Nissan. Both get top versions with high-tech downsized direct-injection gasoline turbo engines with supernaturally similar figures - 1.6-liters, 182 horsepower (Cooper S Countryman) and 188 horsepower (Juke 1.6-liter turbo). Though both are the Euro-trim outputs, we don't expect great differences when they go on sale here in the U.S.
Both feed their power through optional AWD systems. But neither is even one teeny bit biased toward off-road action. It's all about pavement. Nissan's system even has side-to-side torque vectoring - a principle shared by the previous-generation GTR, and the new-generation Porsche 911 Turbo and the BMW X6M among others. A principle in no way shared with, say, the Toyota Matrix AWD.
The AWD version of the Juke (but not the FWD base cars) gets a multi-link rear suspension. As does the Mini, of course.
You're starting to get the message about sportiness?
True, in terms of design, they convey the same message in different ways, because their brands lead them to. For the Countryman, a palette of well-loved Mini cues, inside and out, does the job instantly.
But for Nissan, aping an existing model -- the Rogue, potentially -- wouldn't have been enough. Instead, the Juke's designers invoked rally cars with bug-eyed accessory-like headlamps, and wild wheel-arch blisters. They drew a fast rear end and tapering side glass. They hid the rear door handles in the C-pillar blackout area. They swooped the rear fenders and installed tail-lamps not unlike that of the 370Z.
Such a melding of influences, especially when riding high in the crossover idiom, could have been a catastrophic visual mess. Nissan knows many will dislike it intensely, but the strategy is that some people will like it a lot. As our community comments perfectly demonstrated when we ran the first photos on motortrend.com. Whatever you think of its looks, there's no denying it has a lot of road presence for a little car.
And the high seating point does mean there's surprising space inside. Not as much as the boxier Countryman, but this is never going to be a family car.
The cabin appeal lies in the design and equipment. Nissan makes a lot of the 'motorcycle tank' shape of the body-color center tunnel. It is a nice little detail, as is the floating shroud over the instrument binnacle. But these aren't earth-shattering novelties. Of more interest is the panel below the nav screen/audio.
This is for the climate control and 'D-mode'. In climate mode, the two knobs control temperature, the buttons air distribution -- all perfectly conventional. But press the 'D-mode' and the buttons magically re-label themselves. You get sport/normal/eco switches -- cycling through the three modes switches between states for throttle map, transmission strategy, steering assist level and engagement of the a/c compressor. And the little color screen is a hugely detailed trip computer. You can call up historical fuel graphs, or display engine torque or turbo boost or and a real-time longitudinal and lateral g. It's more GTR than Versa.
When the Juke launches here this fall Nissan will have three small cars in the U.S. market: Versa, Cube and Juke. That like a recipe for overcrowding the market and confusing the buyers. But think how different each of these three cars are -- mainstream, quirky, and now sporty.