Nissan’s Juke and all-new Sentra: Dr. Jukyll vs. Mr. Hide

2013 Nissan Juke

Nissan’s Juke fully realizes the company’s ‘Innovate’ marketing mantra.

Innovation – as both a strategy and descriptive – is something in which the folks at Nissan are heavily invested. Nissan’s Juke, the upright, oh-so-feisty crossover, absolutely exudes ‘innovation’, beginning with its love-it-or-hate-it exterior, continuing with its turbocharged 1.6 liter mill and – finally – its position in the lineup as an answer to a question no one (seemingly) has yet asked. For those liking the Juke it serves as a most-unlikely automotive nirvana. And for those less smitten, the Juke – and those upcoming models it has the potential to influence – establishes a less-than-holy trail.

The Nisan Juke (here and here)  daring design came to mind (repeatedly) during Nissan’s presentation of the all-new Nissan Sentra in San Francisco. As you may remember, Nissan’s Sentra has been serving as the entry vehicle – in partnership with the smaller Versa – for over three decades and (now) seven iterations. And while the Sentra has typically taken a conservative – and steadfastly cheap – path to win the minds and wallets of America’s budget conscious, these are different times, and Nissan’s smallish compact faces much stronger competition.

The other Japanese carmakers – Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla and Mazda Mazda3 (here and here) – are the least of Nissan’s problems. Better to keep your eye on the Hyundai Elantra and Kia Rio, both of which provide expressive styling, capable platforms and convenience items laid wall-to-wall within their (respective) interior confines.

2013 Nissan Sentra

New Sentra substitutes ‘innovate’ with ‘resuscitate’.

It was while pondering the Sentra’s new sheetmetal that our mind and eye began to wander back to Nissan’s Juke. While enjoying an obvious connection to the recently released Altima, the 2013 Sentra doesn’t reinvent anything in the compact segment. And that segment now includes – in addition to the aforementioned Hyundai and Kia – Chevy’s credible Cruze and Ford’s more focused Focus. Despite design and spec differences, the contenders are all 3-box sedans or (in some cases) 5-door hatches. To be sure, there’s little innovation among the competitors, but then, no one other than Nissan in the segment is using ‘innovation’ as a tagline. That mantra – we’d argue – begs for a different approach, and we think the appropriate strategy can be found on the same Nissan showroom, wearing the ‘Juke’ tagline.

You’ll know the Juke, of course, as soon as you see it. In profile it looks to be a cross between MINI’s Countryman and Coupe, despite having been formally launched before either one. An upright seating position, high hip points and plausible room for four combine with a longish wheelbase (relative to overall length) and short overhangs. And while the interior suggests some unique stylistic influences, it’s utterly conventional relative to the exterior styling.

The exterior, of course, looks to have been drawn in a studio adjacent to a meth lab. The Juke is Breaking Bad as cast by Pimp My Ride. If the Sentra looks to be appropriate for Mitt Romney’s personal assistant (“As a Michigan native I like cars. In fact, my secretary has two Sentras…”), the Juke is the daily driver for American Idol’s Adam Lambert. From its front fascia to abbreviated rump, the Juke is 3,000 pounds of nothin’ but attitude. Conversely, the Sentra’s design team couldn’t spell ‘hip’ if you spotted them both the ‘h’ and the ‘i’.

There’s even more derivation under their respective hoods. The 2013 Sentra drops the 2.0 liter mill of its predecessor in favor of an ‘all-new’ 1.8 four, offering in its undersquare configuration 130 horsepower and 128 lb-ft of torque. To its credit Nissan continues to offer a manual transmission, but only in its base model and only if a dealer really (REALLY) really wants it. We found the powertrain, connected to either the 6-speed manual or available CVT, responsive – albeit not expansive – in its get-you-down-the-road demeanor.

In bold (BOLD)contrast is the Juke’s powertrain. Rather than employing a ‘cooking’ 1.8 liters, the Juke serves up 1.6 liters of turbocharged four, delivering 188 horsepower and 177 lb-ft of torque (starting at 2,000 rpm). We’ll admit it: the Juke doesn’t deliver the almost-40 miles per gallon of its Sentra sibling, but driven aggressively the Sentra won’t, either. For the few hundred dollars a year you’ll pay with a thirstier Juke, you can drop the Starbucks habit; 177 turbocharged horsepower is all the octane-induced caffeine any driving enthusiast should need.

We’d also note the pricing differences, with the ‘stripper’ Sentra S starting at $16K. The more appropriate comparison is made between the Sentra SV at $18K (plus destination), while the Juke S begins at roughly $20K. That $2,000 will cost you approximately fifty bucks a month on a 4-year loan, but will save you roughly ninety bucks a month at Starbucks.

There’s no doubt this new Sentra offers a responsible alternative to those seeking practical, affordable and economical transportation. But from a company projecting itself as ‘innovative’ we’d ask for something more…like (maybe) an $18,000 Juke! Innovate – we say – the drive…

Want more Nissan small car joy? Consider the Nissan Versa.