A month or two ago I stumbled across a quote in some article that was talking about car design, I think I found it on Automotive News. Sadly, the article and the overall topic are now completely lost to me, but it was generally about the current state of car design. The quote was about SUV styling, and how the 5th generation Jeep Cherokee started a styling trend that the rest of the market was forced to react to. The quote stuck out to me in an otherwise completely forgettable article because it was incredibly wrong.
I'm no fan of the SUV or the CUV. But mine is not a baseless dislike arranged around an ideology about what a car should or should not be, oh no. My dislike of SUVs is based around the fact that I hate to drive them, even though I do so with some regularity. Nevertheless, you just have to try new stuff, don't you? It was this mentality that lead me to go to the Nissan dealership and test drive a Nissan Juke when I was car shopping. You remember the Juke, right? That little Nissan that was a pit of despair in the looks department? Yeah, you do. Here's a picture:
Are we all on the same page? Okay, good. The kindest thing you can say about the looks of the Juke is that they are distinct. I don't think I've ever come across a positive review of the looks of the poor thing, though it was and indeed still is absolutely a volume seller for Nissan. It's their second-highest selling car in Europe behind the Qashqai, and it averaged about 20,000 units a year in the US during its run here (though the Juke has been discontinued in the US, it is still in production internationally).
The Juke was a good car! Or at least better than average. As a small SUV it was ahead of its time in offering a turbocharged engine with some notion of performance (200 HP in the Nismo Juke) AND AWD AND a high-tech interior with all the fixins. You could even get a manual Juke, though you couldn't get a manual and AWD together. Like with the Sentra Spec V, in the Juke Nissan had truly built a car for car people, but the Juke was for the car people who don't quite know that they like cars. After my test drive, I can honestly say that I stepped out of the Nismo Juke surprised with exactly how much I liked the thing. Wallowing in the corners aside, it felt good to drive. The cockpit was well-laid out and very intuitive. The space inside was fine, and I actually liked the slightly raised, stadium-style rear seating. The trunk space was nice. And as I beheld the car after driving it, I began to think that maybe it didn't look so bad either. Those looks, those boomeranging looks, are the Juke's legacy. And no matter what your personal feeling are about the way the Juke looks, it no longer matters. That look is what inspired the supposedly trend-setting Jeep Cherokee, that look is what made the Hyundai Kona, the Toyota C-HR, the Chevy Blazer, and the Hyundai Santa Fe possible. And those are just the SUVs with looks that follow the Juke.
In attempting to write about the styling of the Juke, I ran across an issue: I don't know the right words for this. I could kind of stumble around and try and describe things, but I knew there had to be some actual vocabulary for the way the lights are arranged, the way the body panels are shaped, that kind of stuff. So I did what anybody would do, and turned to Wikipedia. There, in a paragraph mostly devoid of citations, I found some useful design terms that I'm going to use to illustrate. But first, here is an image orgy featuring all the SUVs which have followed the design trail blazed by the Juke (Toyota C-HR, Jeep Cherokee, Chevy Blazer, Hyundai Santa Fe, Hyundai Kona):
The first and most obvious design influence of the Juke is the stacked light array. On all of these models save the C-HR, the main headlights are located farther down the front fascia of the car than the marker lights, which are near the top of the hood line. On the C-HR, the front of the car makes it appear that the headlights should be located further down the front, but instead they are placed directly on the hood line. On vehicles with stacked headlights, the fog lights, if present, are typically located even lower down the front, near the very bottom of the front of the car. The second major design element from the Juke is the "coke-bottle styling", meaning the car has, or appears to have, a coke-bottle shape that narrows in the middle. This design element is least prominent in the Jeep Cherokee, but very noticeable on the Blazer, Santa Fe, and the Kona. Third, there's the coupe-style rear styling, most prominent on the Kona, the Blazer, and the C-HR, where the rear door handles are tucked up near the belt line of the car, higher than the front door handles. On the C-HR, exactly like on the Juke, the handles are placed to the rear of the door, tucked right up next to the window (now that's actually a Hyundai Veloster trick BUT ANYWAYS). Of course, there's more that goes into design than just three elements, but it cannot be denied that these three elements comprise the primary design direction of these five cars, just as they did when they all appeared on the Juke. These elements establish the overall shape of everything but the rear of the car. And all of those elements first came together in the Nissan Juke. Hell, if you squint hard enough, it's pretty clear that Hyundai wholesale ripped off the entire design of the Juke for the Kona and then translated that design into majuscule for the Santa Fe. Though knowing Hyundai's modus operandi, they probably just hired the Juke's designers. Hey, it's cheaper than a lawsuit.
So, really, how can you hate the Juke? It is, if nothing else, an important car because it dictated the design direction of the best-selling automotive segment for coming up on a decade. And it's not that brands are taking the Juke's styling without reason: Brands that want their new SUV to sell are copying the Juke's looks. Chevy wanted to build huge hype for their mid-size SUV, so they brought back an old name, and mixed a lot of Juke with a touch of Camaro. Hey, don't look now, but Chevy also used some of these design elements on the new Traverse. Hyundai wanted to enter the small SUV market with a bang, and the Kona has been selling so well they copy-pasted the exact same design onto their large SUV. Toyota wanted their small SUV to have some flair. Jeep wanted their Cherokee redesign to be memorable, and it was, even though the Cherokee has been recently redesigned again. All of those manufacturers have to thank the Juke, no matter how grudgingly.
But of course, this isn't a love letter to Nissan. This is part II of the Dear John letter. The Juke is dead in America, and therefore this must be a remembrance of it. By 2015, consumer interest in the Juke was starting to wane. It wasn't selling like it used to. Granted, it had never really been updated, never been redesigned, but Nissan did the full-on Ford and decided to kill the car off completely in America. Here's the pathetic also-ran they decided to replace the Juke with:
That is the Nissan Kicks. It has a dumb name. It looks very pedestrian. It is slow. You can't get it with a manual. You can't get it with AWD. It is not turbocharged. It is the automotive sequel equivalent of Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights, making you need to ask first "But why?", and then "But why did you do such a bad job?" See, there's a pattern forming here: Nissan is capable of making truly great cars, truly special cars, and yet in recent years they have shrunk away from daring and made boredom and tedium their bread and butter, which is pathetic. The end result of this strategy is perfectly evident in this personal anecdote: When my wife and I were shopping for a new car for her, we decided to stop at the Nissan dealer, because neither of us really knew much about the cars that Nissan made. I think we ended up test driving a Nissan Sentra, the top-of-the-line model at the time (this was before the Turbo and the Nismo), and it was...fine, but it wasn't really memorable for any reason, not even while we were actually driving it. I asked the salesman why we should think about buying a Nissan, because not one of our family members or friends had ever owned one, and his answer was "Well, Japanese reliability of course, you can't beat that." I reminded him that Toyota and Honda are also from Japan, and I swear that his actual response - as a person who has the JOB of selling Nissan vehicles - was "Yeah, Honda, Toyota, Nissan, you can't really go wrong with any of them." That was what he said. The salesperson had NOTHING to say about Nissan as a brand. Could the guy have been off that day? Sure. Could it have been an issue of dealer culture? Maybe! But I'll tell you that 2 years later when I went to a Nissan dealer to drive the Sentra Turbo, it wasn't any better. There wasn't any passion, nor even any salespersonship on the floor. Everyone we talked to just kind of shuffled around like it didn't matter if we bought a Nissan or bought something else. It was bizarre. Looking at Nissan's lineup, is it really that much of a stretch to say that they've given up? I don't think it is. Again Nissan took away something good and replaced it with something bad. Again Nissan cut out car people from their lineup. Again there's no reason for it. Nissan as a brand just doesn't seem to care all that much right now, so why would the salespeople care?
Part III of the Dear John is coming up for my next blog, and this time, we're going to talk about Nissan's Godzilla, and why that nickname is far more accurate than Nissan wants it to be. I swear I could make these blogs go on for another 3 or 4 weeks. We could talk Xterra, we could talk Infinity in general, we could talk about the cancelled Eau Rouge performance model, we could talk about the constant missed chances to rebadge Renaults and bring them stateside, there's lots of stuff left. But I won't do that. We'll talk about the GT-R and then we'll be done. The hell, Nissan doesn't talk this much about Nissan, they can only get so much for free.