VANCOUVER – The theory persists that American car buyers, especially young ones, like weird, quirky, and often ugly, vehicles.

Despite General Motors Co.’s embarrassment with the Pontiac Aztek, and Honda Motor Co. Ltd.’s slow-selling Honda Accord Crosstour and Acura ZDX, Nissan North America Inc. releases the Juke in October.

The last thing the industry needs is another blandmobile. But the Juke cross/utility vehicle, the U.S.’s only wagon-type B-segment CUV, doesn’t push the design needle in the right direction.

With its oddly proportioned grille, its round, low-positioned headlamps that look like ginormous bug eyes, and its high-mounted turn indicators protruding like larva on the underside of a picnic table, the Juke’s face is one only a chief designer could love. Thinking outside the box can go too far.

That’s a shame because the rest of the Juke is great, barring some minor annoyances.

The all-new fuel-sipping-yet-powerful 188-hp 1.6L 4-cyl., making 177 lb.-ft. (240 Nm) of torque, is first-rate.

With gasoline direct injection – using two injectors per cylinder instead of one – and a single-scroll turbocharger, not to mention an optional continuously variable transmission, lots of racket emanating from under the Juke’s hood might be expected.

But Nissan engineers have done a good job quieting any clatter or whine. Only when pushing the CUV to its limits climbing hills here, or under hard acceleration in Eco mode, does the 1.6L groan.

Otherwise, the Juke accelerates quickly, cleanly and quietly.

As with other CVT-equipped Nissans, the ability to downshift through pseudo-gears makes the transmission much more enjoyable. And downshifting is needed to summon torque, severely lacking in high gears.

While worried early on by fuel economy barely breaking 20 mpg (11.8 L/100 km), Ward’s ended our time in an all-wheel-drive SL-grade Juke with a CVT at a middling 24.9 mpg (9.4 L/100 km). Most of the route was traveled in Eco mode on mid-speed 2-lane roads.

An afternoon drive down a mountain in an SL front-wheel-drive Juke with 6-speed manual and in Sport mode was a blast.

While the AWD Juke with CVT is a peppy ute, the FWD 3-pedal model is a sports car in disguise. With the manual, the I-4 has power to spare in sixth gear, unlike the nothingness encountered in the CVT’s fake sixth.

What’s more, the manual returned an astonishing and hybrid-like 30.1 mpg (7.8 L/100 km). Granted, the downhill route helped.

The Juke’s AWD system incorporates torque vectoring on the rear axle, which apportions more torque to the outside wheel while turning, ostensibly helping reduce understeer and improve cornering. Up to 50% of total engine torque can be channeled to either rear wheel.

But the system makes little difference on the twisty mountain roads here. In AWD variants, the torque-vectoring system provided no noticeable benefit over FWD models.

On the chassis front, the Juke suffers from significant body roll in the twisties. During dynamic driving, an interior G-Force meter on the dashboard displays how much body roll is at play.

The Juke’s speed-sensitive electric power steering is appropriately heavy under moderate and hard acceleration but needs more resistance during low-speed driving to emphasize the CUV’s sporty character; ditto for the feather-light accelerator pedal.

Nissan designers did a fine job with the interior. Lots of hard plastic doesn’t read cheap, thanks to its matte finish, clean edges and tight-fitting panels. The high-gloss trim and an optional red-and-black interior scheme create the right vibe.

The tank-style center console resembles that of a motorcycle. But the CUV’s instrument-panel air vents call to mind torpedo-chute styling cues from 1950s American cars.

The star of the SV- and SL-grade Juke’s interiors is an Advanced Integrated Control (I-CON) interface. It does double-duty, containing both climate and drive-mode functions to de-clutter the center stack. It also boasts a multi-Mylar-layered screen.

With the push of the Climate button, I-CON’s switches show heating, ventilation and air-conditioning functions. A push of a “D-Mode” button changes three HVAC-related switches to Normal, Sport and Eco, the available drive modes.

A window pops up on the screen whenever one of the drive-mode buttons is hit, with a static list of calibrations for the throttle, transmission and steering in that particular mode. Note that steering in Eco mode remains normal. (Also, despite claims of a more urgent throttle in Sport, feel was on par with Normal mode).

Our only quibble with I-CON is having to hit “Climate” first to change fan speed when in D-Mode.

As a B-segment CUV, Nissan has a great niche with the Juke. Most other small CUVs have grown bloated, morphing into midsize models over the years. The Juke’s size is just right. Despite riding on the same platform as Nissan’s Versa subcompact, the Juke is almost 7 ins. (17.8 cm) shorter than the Versa hatchback. But thanks to Juke’s additional 3 ins. (7.6 cm) in width over the Versa, all five seating positions feel spacious for an average-sized adult, including second-row middle.

’11 Nissan Juke SL
Vehicle type Front-engine, FWD, 5-passenger, 4-door cross/utility vehicle
Engine 1.6L DOHC DIG turbocharged inline 4-cyl. with aluminum block, head
Power (SAE net) 188 hp @ 5,600 rpm
Torque 177 lb.-ft (240 Nm) @ 2,000-5,200 rpm
Bore x stroke (mm) 80 x 81
Compression ratio 9.5:1
Transmission 6-speed manual
Wheelbase 99.6 ins. (253 cm)
Overall length 162.4 ins. (412 cm)
Overall width 69.5 ins. (177 cm)
Overall height 61.8 ins. (157 cm)
Curb weight 2,952 lbs./1,339 kg
Base price $22,550 (not incl. $750 destination)
Fuel economy 24/31 mpg (9.8-7.6 L/100 km)
Competition Mini, Mazda3, Scion tC, Suzuki SX4
Pros Cons
MT, FWD Juke blast AWD of questionable value
Primo engine, features Pricey for small CUV
Well-done interior Out-there face may limit sales

Of the Juke’s three grades, S, SV and SL, only the S base grade doesn’t offer the 6MT; all three offer FWD or AWD.

The Juke S, at $18,960-$20,460 for a FWD model, has 4-wheel-disc brakes, remote keyless entry, Bluetooth connectivity, iPod jack and steering-wheel switches for cruise control and audio functions.

The SV grade, $20,260-$22,260 adds push-button start, XM Satellite Radio, USB port and premium cloth fabric.

The $22,550-$24,550 SL grade Juke has leather seating and heated front seats, fog lights, a rearview monitoring system and navigation.

The latter, supplied by Robert Bosch GmbH, is dubbed “low-cost” but is not low-feature, with a 5-in. (13-cm) color touch screen and XM’s NavTraffic capability. It proved easy to use after missing an exit on our route.

Nissan is aiming the Juke at coveted young, upwardly mobile males driving used BMW 3-Series cars or sexy Nissan 240SXs, but that would seem to be an unlikely group to buy an entry-level Japanese CUV.

Women young and old who encountered the Juke during the media drive here were taken with it. As small CUVs already are a popular choice for females – and sporty driving can be appreciated by both genders – it wouldn’t be surprising if the Juke misses Nissan’s marketing target.

But with its odd styling, it likely will be a small group of women who buy the Juke. And Nissan knows this. Without releasing a specific sales target, officials here predict demand well below that of Nissan’s C-segment Rogue CUV, which sold 77,222 units in the U.S. in 2009.

Look for the Juke to rack up about 20,000 units annually.

But sales could skyrocket with a more attractive front fascia, as good fuel economy, a powerful engine and lots of creature comforts abound in a perfectly sized package.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com