The next time you're testing a car at Dubai Autodrome, kindly note that turning a metre or two early into the third-gear, right-hand Turn One at the end of the starting straight, is a perfectly safe error to make. Oh sure, it'll slow you down a little as you correct your line to the apex, but basically, there's no harm done.
Turning in one or two metres late is, however, a completely different story. That's because barely one metre beyond the well-established racing line, lies an inevitable dusting of sand just waiting to teach you a lesson. Now I like driving on sand in powerful four-wheel drives. In fact I thoroughly recommend the experience, particularly when the sand is piled hundreds of metres high, and making good speed means averaging 25kph across the Rub Al Khali. Unfortunately, when the 485 horsepower Nissan Juke-R, allegedly under your control, is one of only two in the world, and the sand you caress at 100kph is just a few millimetres thick, detests the word friction, and does a shockingly good impression of ball bearings on ice, things begin to get interesting. And loose.
But let's step back from the sand for a moment, back to a point where the marketing guys at Nissan sat around a table in early 2011, under instruction from their senior managers to "come up with a high-profile way of promoting our funky Juke crossover or we'll slash your expense accounts". Now that's serious pressure. "How about a viral video of a pretty girl driving a Juke through a field of sunflowers?" suggested an intern. Hours later she was looking for a new job. "We could paint each wheel a different colour and call it the Juke Rainbow," proclaimed another. He's not been heard from since. And then the quiet one in the corner, the one with oil under his fingernails, the menacing gaze and a scuffed brown leather jacket, whispered, "Let's carve a GT-R down the centre of its very being, and transplant its beating heart into the chilled carcass of a Juke's body. We'll twist and contort its features, paint it as black as a cold winter's night and call it ‘AAARRRRGGGHHH'."
The marketing team gave his proposal due consideration. And since he was sitting between them and the room's only exit, they immediately agreed, although they were careful not to make eye contact whilst doing so. Admittedly I wasn't there myself, but a friend of a friend's mate said he was pretty sure that was how it went down. And thus the Juke-R was conceived. (The name was shortened so the badge would fit the rear hatch, but the concept's the same.) Now a company the size of Nissan isn't exactly geared up to make one-off, or even two-off specials like the Juke-R, so they gave the job to trusted experts RML of Wellingborough, UK. RML has previously built cars that have won the World and British Touring Car Championships, European Le Mans Series Championships, British Rally Championships and many others. In the past they'd also created the unique mid-engined Micra R and SR specials, so it has a history of producing high-performance, high-profile Nissans.
To make matters more interesting, Nissan told RML they needed two Juke-Rs, one left- and one right-hand drive, in a timescale commensurate with their performance, which is to say, ridiculously quickly. Just 22 weeks later, after RML's crew had — Godzilla fans look away now — removed the running gear from two Nissan GT-Rs and sliced 250mm out of them to match the Juke's 2,530mm wheelbase, the cars were delivered on schedule. Fortunately for me, both cars then made their way to the Dubai Autodrome, where they performed Pace Car duties for the 24-hour race last month, and happily they remained there for testing. Thus I was able to experience the pleasure of taking one of these automotive freaks for a blast around a track. And what a blast it was.
As I approached the car, it did strike me that the Juke-R has a look that only its mother could love. In fact if I hadn't known the true origin of the name, I'd have assumed that the R was an abbreviation of Rhinoceros; with its matt black colouring and bulky armour-plated look, it wouldn't be out of place on the African plains. At 1,830kg, it's pretty much the same weight as an adult black rhino, and rhinos are aggressive and surprisingly fast, just like the Juke-R. Of course a rhinoceros isn't the sort of thing you'd pick a fight with, not unless you could outrun it, and with a 0-100kph time of 3.7 seconds — that's Ferrari 458 territory — you might find your options rather limited in that respect.
Since it's equipped with both the brawn and the brains of Nissan's über sportscar, it's no slouch in the handling department either. An explanation of the ATTESA-E-TS all-wheel drive traction control system used in the GT-R, and consequently the Juke-R, would take up half the pages of this magazine, but fundamentally drive to the rear wheels varies between 98 per cent and 50 per cent of the available torque. The rear wheels are governed by a limited slip differential, and the car is set up with a tendency to oversteer, not understeer. All of which means that when its driver inadvertently puts two wheels onto the sand outside of Turn One, rather than immediately doing an impression of Bambi on ice, instead he finds himself enjoying a gratifying four-wheel drift, all controlled with the bare minimum of opposite lock. There was a fleeting moment, as the back began to come round, that the letter R crossed my mind. It started out as more of an "Aahh!" but I didn't have time to complete the thought; by then my pet Rhinoceros had already taken the corner by the horn, given the rear wheels a good stiff talking to, and quite literally, adjusted their attitude. There was no drama, just a cloud of dust and, I would imagine, a scattering of bemused wildebeest.
Other than that, my time in the Juke-R was fast, amusing, and somewhat confusing. Fast, because it's got the engine from a 2010-spec GT-R, 587Nm of torque, big fat wheels and an aggressive identity complex. It weighs about 100kg more than a GT-R, so the ride is firm to say the least, but then no-one ever claimed this thing was built for comfort. Amusing, because you can't fail to have fun in a crossover that will leave a Gallardo in its wake and which lets you play in the sand without demolishing itself or other people's castles. Fling it into a corner too quickly and it just shrugs its wheel-arches, sorts itself out and sneers at the driver. Confusing, because you know darn well crossovers don't do 257kmh, yet this one does. Nor do crossovers have roll cages, race harnesses, paddle gear changes, bionic digital dashboards, splitters, spoilers, diffusers or ATTESA-E-TS. But this one does.
So what exactly is the point of the Nissan Juke-R? The answer, is Tom Cruise. Let me explain; if you were to ask "What's the point of the Burj Khalifa?", looking at it from a purely practical point of view, building a cluster of glass towers on the edge of the desert, which reach up to the sky, makes no sense at all. But that's precisely why the world's highest-paid, shortest-trousered actor, came to Dubai; because it's heroic. The tower, not the Tom. Likewise, for the next few months, you'll find the world's lowest paid, longest lunched motoring journalists, flocking to the Juke-R. Simply because it's heroic.
Nissan commissioned it because it wanted it to work. RML built it because it knew it could work, and I rushed to drive it because that was better than going to work. And having enjoyed every second tearing around the Autodrome circuit, what I can tell you is that this wonderful car is clearly the brainchild of someone who drinks five double espressos for breakfast. It thinks it's a sportscar, ought to be a crossover, it's ugly yet good looking, fat but fast, and is the result of a deranged union between Godzilla, bewilderment, gas torch and black rhino. Thank you Nissan. It's my kind of ca-R.
Specs & ratings
- Model Juke-R
- Engine 3.6-litre V6 turbo
- Transmission Six-speed auto, AWD
- Max power 485bhp @ 6,400rpm
- Max torque 587Nm @ 3,200rpm
- Top speed 257kph
- 0-100kph 3.7sec