In mid October I evaluated a Nissan Juke, a brash, sassy, one-of-a-kind runner that Nissan classifies as a “sport cross.” There is no sport cross category in the auto business, but the label serves to show that Juke is like no other model. Its sport aspect comes from Juke’s quick, small-car maneuverability and from its peppy, turbocharged four-cylinder engine – and also from Juke’s rowdy, stand-out appearance that draws attention because it is so unique. The cross elements of Juke are attributes of a crossover SUV, especially generous road clearance and all-wheel drive available as an option.
But October is a mixed-weather month that is nothing like the harsh season we’re now just entering. Driving a Nissan Juke then, I couldn’t test those cross characteristics that would make the model an appealing winter fighter.
A second chance came last week, when I happened to be driving a Juke during our first snowfall that stuck. I ventured out early Monday morning to push the sprite, spunky Nissan over roads that wore enough snow, ice and heavy slush to delay the opening of schools in Salem and Windham, N.H. Sure, we’ll see mornings far worse. But Monday’s snow was enough to try the traction of an all-wheel-drive Juke.
There’s no mistaking the fact that, around here, all-wheel drive is a primary selling point for most vehicles that offer it. That includes the whole SUV and crossover-SUV class, from hulking seven-passenger sport-utility vehicles that are closed-in pickup trucks, like the Ford Expedition, Dodge Durango and Nissan Armada, to more petite, compact crossovers that are cars with high-wagon bodies, like the Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4, Ford Escape and Nissan Rogue. It includes all Subarus, which owe their local popularity to adept all-wheel traction. It includes the increasing number of luxury cars that augment their allure with an all-wheel-drive option, like the Mercedes-Benz C-300 4Matic, BMW 328i xDrive and Infiniti G37x AWD.
At Salem Nissan in Salem, N.H., sales of all-wheel-drive models increase by approximately 30 percent during the run-up to winter, estimated Bret Chavaree, co-owner of the dealership. He noted that the Juke and the Nissan Rogue see a particularly big bump in popularity. Their compact size and four-cylinder engines give them appealing fuel economy to go with their four-corner traction, Chavaree explained.
Both models also can be purchased with front-wheel rather than all-wheel drive. And purchased for less, besides. With the Juke, a base model with front-wheel drive starts with a list price of $20,680. All-wheel drive adds $1,750 to the sticker. The Rogue crossover starts at $23,375 for a front-drive version, with four-wheel traction adding $1,300.
But in the Merrimack Valley, you wouldn’t know the front-drive discount exists.
“Overall, pretty much 100 percent of the people buy all-wheel drive,” said Chavaree. With front drive, “we see only one or two a year.”
And just to remind us how lucky we are, he noted that the high-traction feature isn’t nearly as popular outside of New England and across the northern states. “In the majority of the United States, most people buy two-wheel-drive models,” he stated.
Of course, other factors draw people to these cars. With the Nissan Rogue, an important feature is the cargo capacity of the crossover’s wagon-back, Chavaree illustrated.
“People who need the space use the vehicle because they get all-wheel drive along with the interior size,” he said.
On the other hand, the Juke is much smaller. It also is styled to stand out from the mainstream. Those two factors restrict its reach, especially compared to a mass-appeal model like the Rogue. Through the first 11 months of 2012, Nissan has sold 33,619 Jukes across America, compared to 130,861 Rogue sales.
To its fans, the Juke is so bold and original it would probably stand on those merits, even if it didn’t offer all-wheel drive, speculated Charles Daher Jr., manager at Commonwealth Motors, Lawrence. In addition to Nissan, Commonwealth sells Chevrolet, Honda, Kia and Volkswagen vehicles.
“It would still have its niche,” Daher said of the Juke. “It’s a fun car to drive, and it has its unique look.”
Still, Commonwealth customers overwhelmingly buy Juke with all-wheel drive, same as in Salem. Daher said that’s because Juke drivers approach the model as a bit of a personal luxury, certainly more than basic transportation. Therefore they’re willing to pay an additional $1,750 for the four-wheel-drive feature that separates Juke even more from the ordinary. If it also gives the car more road grip in winter, so much the better.
How much more road grip? Driving all-wheel-drive Juke on this season’s first snowy morning last week, I pushed it hard around a corner to see if I could force the car to slide. It gave just the hint of a swerve before it corrected and plowed a straight line through the snow. Approaching a lonely stop, I stood on the brake pedal to get the antilocks to activate. They did, and the Juke maintained its sure footing.
One of the most dangerous mistakes a driver can make is feeling invincible in any vehicle, equipped with any feature. Every model has its limits, and carefully I did not push the Juke far enough to discover its boundary. But I drove hard enough through Monday’s white mush to learn that with all-wheel drive, the Juke’s limits are surely extended.
The same holds for any model that offers it. That’s why all-wheel-drive sales surge so much this time of year.
Jeffrey Zygmont of Salem, N.H., is an author of fiction and nonfiction, and a long-time auto writer. Contact him at www.jeffreyzygmont.com.
The all-wheel-drive difference 2013 Nissan Juke sport-cross vehicle Base price with front drive: $20,680 Base price with all-wheel drive: $22,430 2013 Nissan Rogue compact SUV Base price with front drive: $23,375 Base price with all-wheel drive: $24,675