Nissan Juke R: First Drive

We exclusively broke the news of Nissan Europe's Juke R project back in September. All we knew then was some strange "super Juke" crossover had been endowed with a GT-R's engine. Since then, we've seen all 11 episodes of its build-video series on YouTube. Now we've driven it. But is it all we hoped for? Let's find out.

Full Disclosure: Nissan wanted me to drive the Juke R so bad, they flew me 13,680 miles (in economy class) and put me up in a Dubai hotel on a half-built, $12.3 billion man-made island that may or may not be sinking.

Like Greek gods or investment bankers, engineers can bend the world to their will. Ask them to bring the broke-down Apollo 13 around the moon with duct tape, a scratch pad and a length of garden hose, and it's done. Ask them to graft a small, crossover SUV onto a super sports car, make it able to destroy a racetrack and make it look like a sugar toad gagging on a Bartlett pear? No problem, esse.

Think back to Ford's Transit SuperVans, or that time Renault put a Formula One engine in a minivan and made it pull 2G on a skidpad. Remember BMW's 700-hp, Le Mans V12-powered X5? These factory-funded displays of slide-rule prowess were breathtaking to behold and made for stellar magazine page inches, but they had as much in common with carmakers' actual products as kobe steak tartare has with a Wendy's double.

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In the company of those unicorn projects, with their fussy racing engines and foie gras suspensions, Nissan's Juke R seems plausible, even practical. A mashup of two production cars, from opposing ends of Nissan's performance spectrum, the Juke R extends the purview of the Juke without diminishing what's great (and not so great) about the GT-R.

Consider a couple of truths. One, the standard Juke is a surprisingly fun drive in an achingly unfun category. Two, the 2011 GT-R — from which the Juke R gets its 485 hp, 3.8-liter, twin-turbo, AWD powertrain and running gear — is a massive performance-per-dollar bargain. The Juke R merely asks, What if those two elements weren't mutually exclusive?

Nissan and motorsports partner RML built two, identical Juke Rs — one right-hand drive (for UK-based hoonage), the other left-hand — each of which began life as a standard, two-wheel-drive Juke. If you've seen all 11 of Nissan's Juke R build videos on YouTube, you know the Rs each ride on a shortened GT-R chassis, use nearly all of the GT-R's drivetrain and electronics tech components, and split the difference between the two models' interiors (GT-R gauges reside in the Juke's dash binnacle and the gearshift rests amid the GT-R's surround). Some hacks were required to shoehorn everything in, including moving the Juke's firewall and seating position back around four inches to accomodate the engine and steering assembly.

Nissan Juke R: First Drive

Engineers attached the Juke body to the shortened GT-R frame through an intermediate jig, onto which they also bolted a roll cage that contributes significantly to the R's torsional stiffness. This hand-made connective part largely disqualifies the Juke R from production as is (although Nissan's implied a sports-minded Juke of some sort will likely arc into dealerships someday). And yet, at around 3,600 pounds to the GT-R's 3,829, the Juke R is no tube-frame race car; it's street-car weighty, having been designed for both street and track use.

A few refresher laps in a 2011 GT-R around the Dubai Autodrome reconfirms that car's amazing capability, and likewise how crucial it is not to overdrive it. Plan entry speeds carefully, and the GT-R is a life-affirming sports car to drive fast. To pivot out of corners cleanly, just get back on the power ludicrously early. Misjudge corner entry speed, however, and the GT-R's advantages wash away with the front tires. The car continues to reserve its rewards for those who can, shall we say, keep it in their pants.

Nissan Juke R: First Drive

In contrast, the Juke R's shorter wheelbase (by almost a foot!) gives it a more manic temperament than the tank-like GT-R. It's more direct and edgier, changing direction with extra sparkle, but still feels as neutral and easy to predict as its chassis-mate. The higher seating position affects the brain's equilibrium center, amplifying body roll — tweaking the suspension's street tune would correct that — but it's not a distraction during transitions. Juke R chief development driver Michael Mallock says the Juke R's got stiffer anti-roll bars to compensate for a change in center of gravity, which is slightly higher than the GT-R's, but, he says, "not as much as you might think."

At full throttle down the front straight at the Autodrome, where the Juke R had done pace-car duty at the Dunlop 24 Hours Of Dubai the weekend before, the Juke R feels 100 percent GT-R. There's that ludicrous thrust, the straight-line stability, the quick shifts. The engine moans inductively with that sound, more GE industrial turbine than GT car.

Nissan Juke R: First Drive

A long braking zone, in which the Brembos (2011 GT-Rs in front, 2010s rear) draw down the weighty Juke's bulk — with a bit more tail shimmying under calipers than the rock-solid GT-R — and then the machinery wakes up, turning crisply down, into a right-handed trough that rises through a late apex. My co-driver, Lucas Ordoñez, gestures me to get back on the throttle, in a place where the GT-R demanded an extra beat to settle. The Juke R rotates into line and snaps through the turn in balance, and with no push.

Just like the GT-R, the Juke R's front and rear diffs are in constant and copacetic communication, which allows for early power-on to exit corners quickly. One nerdy point: After the conversion, engineers didn't need to reprogram the AWD controller that decides how much torque to apportion to each of the Juke R's four wheels. The system did the math, and the algorithms had no quarrel with the car's chopped wheelbase. "The computer doesn't know it's not a GT-R," Mallock says.

Nissan Juke R: First Drive

But if the Juke R benefits from the GT-R's power bounty, it's also prone to the same peccadillos as the GT-R; it's got some of the same weight-transfer issues as the GT-R if overdriven. Also, the Juke's narrower windshield and larger A-pillars make setting up for corners a bit trickier, and like the GT-R, the Juke R's forced-induction engine kit lags somewhat under 3,000 rpm, an issue that appeared on a short succession of quick turns on the Dubai track.

But these are generic complaints. If Nissan ever went insane and offered the Juke R for sale, I would still line up at the dealership tomorrow (after a stop at eBay to put a few household items on sale), though I'd have to compete for this particular Juke R with a member of the Dubai royal family, who's apparently made an offer for it (Nissan says it's not for sale — yet). I could even learn to live with the Juke R's slowness (wink, wink) — 0-60 in at 3.7 seconds (according to Nissan), or around five tenths of a second off the '11 GT-R — because the arse-o-meter says the Juke R is even quicker than that.

The Nissan guys tell me the Juke R was conceived as a premium-sports crossover — a less-swank version of, say, a BMW X5M. It's fully street legal, but we didn't get to drive the Juke R on public roads — apparently the United Arab Emirates frowns mightily upon non-citizens populating its highways.

So what is the Juke R? It's a halo car for the Juke line — a conversation-starter that suggests the Juke's sporting potential. Nissan's already telegraphed that a higher-performance version of the Juke is somewhere on the horizon — by way of the Juke NISMO concept shown in Tokyo last year — so that halo may soon get its very own angel.