By Alex Taylor III
January 10, 2011

Nissan has been on a tear lately. Its sales for 2010 (including Infiniti) rose 18% (vs. 11% for the industry), and in December they jumped a sparkling 28%.

Playing it safe is not Nissan’s way. In addition to its aggressive leap into electrification with the Leaf, Nissan is developing a reputation for out-there car designs.

For every Altima or Maxima, sleek though conventional in look, there is a Cube or Murano with a body shape and styling details you won’t see anywhere else.

CEO Carlos Ghosn has stated his belief that when Nissan enters a new segment, it must be able to offer something different. The most immediate way of showing that you are different is with an unconventional appearance.

Much of the differentiation comes from head designer Shiro Nakamura, who has unconventional ideas about how cars should look. Instead of “form follows function,” his philosophy is “design follows emotion.” He wants to understand “what emotional value is desired from the customer, and then translate [it] into forms by standing in their viewpoint.”

All of that makes you wonder what kind of “emotional value” the Juke customer is looking for.

By its specifications, the Juke is a subcompact crossover of the sporty persuasion. The key ingredients are body style — four doors plus a hatch — all-wheel-drive, and a new turbocharged 1.6 liter four-cylinder engine that puts out a mighty 188 horses.

Nissan tells us that the Juke is designed for “aggressive attention-seekers,” and the unusual combination of bulges, creases, and components gets the job done.

Looked at head-on, the Juke flies in the face of 60 years of automotive design. There are two round headlights and a grille, but any concessions to convention end there.

Rather than being integrated with the grille, the headlights are attached to the bottom of it with long tubes, creating a frog-eyed look. The headlights are accompanied by a pair fog lamps lower down on the fascia and two lightning bolt turn-signals etched into the top of the bulbous front fenders.

The multiple lamp-look topped by the fender-mounted turn signals is very reminiscent of — dare I say it — the frightening front end of the late Pontiac Aztek. The Juke omits the plastic lower body cladding and narrow opening under the hood that pushed the Aztek over the top, but the entire effect is more startling because it jams more discordant elements into a smaller area.

While less attention-getting, the rest of the Juke is no less radical. All four fenders are raised to cartoon-like heights that nearly reach the beltline at the base of the windows. The roof slants sharply toward the rear, and the windows narrow, creating a scrunched look.

Ditto for the back of the car, where a steeply raked rear window dives into a lumpy tail gate.

Inch for inch, the Juke has more emotional content (to use Nakamura’s terminology) packed into its tiny exterior than any vehicle outside of John Lasseter’s Pixar creations in “Cars” from a few years back.

The interior is more conventional, save for the body-colored painted metal on the lower doors and gear-shift tunnel. It looked great in my Cayenne Red test car, but I worry about its ability to absorb scratches and scuffs.

With its short wheelbase, sharp steering, and easily-available turbo power, the Juke is a gas to drive. Weighing under 3,000 lbs, its combination of light weight and high horsepower is a win-win proposition for brisk performance. The turbo engages almost immediately and you are on your way. Zero to 60 miles per hour has been estimated at under eight seconds, while fuel economy in the all-wheel-drive configuration is an exemplary 25 mpg city/30 mpg highway. Wind noise is a problem though, and the ride is less than cosseting.

Emotional value aside, the Juke is aimed young singles — or couples, as long as both parties are equally attention-seeking. The skimpy back seat and minimal carrying capacity make it unsuitable for most families.

That creates the usual conundrum, since most young people don’t have the income needed to support the cost of a new car plus insurance.

My all-wheel-drive model carried a base sticker price of $24,550, but the sport package with the 17-inch gunmetal wheels brought the total to $27,180. That’s not a problem if you are friends and family of Mark Zuckerberg, but it is for most others of that age.

Still, Jukes are selling well for a vehicle that fills a narrow niche. Nissan dealers moved more than 3,000 in each of the last two months. That’s triple the rate of the Cube or double the rate of the older Pathfinder.

I’m just not sure it is all that comforting to know that there are so many aggressive attention seekers out there on our roads and highways.

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