One of the tired old clichés of motoring journalism – and there are many – is the alleged maxim that ‘there is no such thing as a bad car’. It’s usually hauled before the reader shortly before being ‘demolished’ by the writer. ‘And yet…’, they will begin, ‘then we drove Vehicle X.’ We’d like to parade a new automotive aphorism: there’s no such thing as an ugly car. This is a rather subjective statement, but when one considers the sheer amount of time, energy, skill and money that goes into creating a single automobile, it makes a bit more sense. An ugly car would be one that wouldn’t sell, so creating one would be entirely counter-intuitive for an industry that relies on shifting units, not acquiescing to aesthetes.
And so we come to our exception. Like so many ’design driven’ car models, the Nissan Juke began life as a concept, the Nissan Qazana, shown at the 2009 Geneva Show. By the time the concept was wheeled out, the styling for the associated production model would have been fully signed off, so the Qazana’s bulbous curves, sci-fi wheels and quasi-armoured appearance were something of an aesthetic sleight of hand. True, the Juke shares the concept’s size and stance, being tall of flank but somehow squat of cabin. That gaping front maw, complete with stretched running lights that reach all the way back over the bonnet also survived. At the rear, the boomerang style rear lights are faithful to the concept, while the interior console is similarly minimal.
However, no amount of designer sprinkle can save the end result. The Qazana’s virtues were its cartoon-like qualities, a piece of exaggerated sculpture with more in common with computer games or comics than the average family car. Standard wheels, dull colours and a relatively stock interior dissipate almost all of the thrill. It’s frustrating, especially when given the skill, ability, geometric spasms and complex modelling behind a form as visually tricky as the car’s rear light clusters, for example. The end result is wilfully odd but strangely without character.
Aesthetic grumblings aside, the Juke drives well. You sit up high, in the fashionable manner of the modern ‘crossover’ city car (there is a four-wheel drive version available), and the compact centre console packs plenty of functions into a small space (although quite why Nissan thinks Juke drivers will need a G-meter is beyond us). Any space age sensation is quickly dispelled by the builder’s bucket-style plastic sheath around the gearstick, about as unpleasant a tactile experience as one could wish for. But behind the wheel it’s really not unpleasant, being zesty with well-balanced handling. The back seats are rather cramped and that high-rising rear end and stubby doors give it a stagecoach-y type of feel. It’s also one of those cars whose profile can be immeasurably improved by the simple act of opening the boot (see also the previous generation BMW 6 Series). This is a giveaway sign of inherently wonky proportions at work.
In Europe (the Juke is built in the UK), Nissan’s marketing is all quirky urban chic, empty cityscapes slashed with neon. In America, Nissan has resorted to advertising the car by jokily using Sports Illustrated’s infamous Swimsuit Issue, a marketing move that pitches the machine at red-blooded males, claiming it as a tougher, almost tongue in cheek alternative to a Mini Cooper. Neither approach is entirely right. We reckon the Juke is the automotive equivalent of Philippe Starck’s Juicy Salif, an object that people buy because they’ve heard it’s been designed, never mind what they personally think of its looks. Despite its visual faults, the Juke is definitely above average to drive and sit in. But it succeeds best of all as an object lesson in the quirks and eccentricities of advanced visual culture: for an object to confer creativity, innovation and excitement upon its buyers, those qualities need to be spelt out in fifty foot letters. Design museum director Deyan Sudjic once wrote a book called ’Cult Objects’, long before the designer cult had really taken hold. With hindsight, Sudjic’s roll-call of sleek things by the likes of Rams, Corb and Jensen would now be termed ’design classics.’ By the same token, the Juke is certainly no classic, but it might just cut it as a cult.