By Derek Price
CNHI News Service
— There are plenty of people who love continuously variable transmissions — CVTs, as they're often called.
Their appeal is simple enough. Because they lack "gears," even the fanciest, most advanced luxury cars with seven- and eight-speed automatics can't match the smoothness you get with an economy-car CVT. They also tend to offer better gas mileage than other transmissions.
Still, I've never liked them much.
Nissan has been a major promoter of this technology for years, offering CVTs across a wide swath of its lineup. But the reason I'm no fan has nothing to do with their inherent smoothness and better fuel economy.
It's because they mask the greatness of cars like this, the Nissan Juke.
The Juke is available with a CVT automatic, but I never realized what a brilliant driver's car it could be until I drove one this week with a manual transmission.
And jeez, what a difference it makes.
With the CVT transmission, the Juke drives with a silky, rubber-band blandness that most drivers would be perfectly happy with. It's great for comfortably, smoothly scooting around town.
With the six-speed manual, though, its spirited side shines through so much better, enough to make it feel like a completely different car. Instead of a fun, slightly funky economy car, it transforms into something that feels more like a sports car — with a quick-revving engine, instant response and an eagerness to be pushed hard in corners.
It helps that the six-speed is one of the best I've ever used, rivaling the Mazda Miata and Honda S2000 (God rest its soul). It has such short throws and such a tight, mechanical feeling that it would seem perfectly at home in a two-seater sports car.
Nissan is emphasizing this aggressive, sporty side of the Juke with a new appearance package called the Midnight Edition that makes it look sinister. It comes with 17-inch black wheels, a black spoiler and black mirror caps.
Coupled with a sparkly, almost pearlescent white paint job, my Midnight Edition tester looked like it could have come from a custom car show. It doesn't look stock, even though you can order it straight from the dealer.
One of the most noteworthy things about the Juke remains its funky but controversial styling. Even three years after its introduction — and the launch of even funkier competitors like the Hyundai Veloster — the Juke still seems modern and forward-looking with a youthful vibe that feels more contemporary with each passing year. Visually, it was ahead of its time, although the frog-face front end won't appeal to everyone.
Pricing starts around $20,000, or around $25,000 for a high-end SL model that comes with a navigation system, leather seats and excellent Rockford Fosgate stereo. The Midnight Edition adds $1,200 to the price.
Derek Price is an automotive columnist for CNHI News Service. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.