The Nissan Juke invented the supermini crossover class in 2010 and has reaped the rewards since, selling almost 29,000 units in the UK last year. But now a glut of new competitors, such as the Peugeot 2008 and Renault Captur, has forced Nissan to up its game.
The result is this high-performance Nismo version with more power, a tuned chassis and a striking new look. You'll be seeing a lot more of the Nismo badge in the future, too - the Juke is the first in a series of Nismo models designed to take on Renaultsport and Vauxhall's VXR range. Next in line is the 370Z, with an even-faster Juke Nismo 'RC' after that.
Formed back in 1984, Nismo (Nissan International Motorsports Co. Ltd) is the official racing arm of the company and it's that track-bred DNA that Nissan has attempted to infuse into the Juke Nismo. And unlike some performance sub-brands it isn't achieved through brute power, the focus has been more on tuning the chassis for handling finesse.
The engine is the same 1.6-litre turbocharged unit as the current 187bhp DIG-T range-topper (and the extravagantly-styled Deltawing race car), tuned to produce a modest 10bhp and 10Nm of torque more. That means the 0-62mph time drops from 8.0 to 7.8 seconds in the front-wheel-drive manual model, while the four-wheel-drive version (only available with a CVT automatic and costing £2,200 more) takes 8.2 seconds.
More dramatic changes have taken place under the skin with 10 per cent stiffer springs front and back, plus retuned dampers to improve body control. The steering has also been recalibrated for more immediate reactions.
On super-smooth Spanish motorways, the changes aren't immediately obvious, except for the car bobbing up and down a bit more on short-frequency bumps. Turn onto some quieter roads though and the Nismo's mischievous character begins to shine through - this is a car that encourages you to to behave badly.
It's not the best-sounding engine on the planet, making a droning noise like a hoover on full throttle, but the slightly manic power delivery and sharp throttle response (especially in Sport mode) is great fun to try and tame. Pick up the throttle too early and you can feel the front wheels spinning and scrabbling away underneath you, but even so it sticks faithfully to your chosen line. The four-wheel-drive version will clearly be grippier, but we'll have to wait and see whether the CVT gearbox saps the fun.
The suspension never feels as stiff as you'd expect, which means body roll is more pronounced than a traditional hot-hatch, but managing the weight transfer from side-to-side in the corners adds to the involvement. There could be more feel in the steering, and the fact that it only adjusts for height, not reach, is a shame, but the new Alcantara trim feels fantastic in your hands.
Even when static, the Nismo distances itself from the standard model with new bodywork, styled at Nissan's design studio in London. Gone is the distinctive 'wine-rack' front bumper with five holes punched into it, replaced with a mesh grille. The fog lights have also been replaced by thin LED daytime running lights above a pair of new vents.
Offered in three colours - Silver Grey, Pearl White or Metallic Black - all versions come with bright red mirrors and a thin red pinstripe around the bottom of the car. Swollen front wheel arches, side skirts, lower bumpers and a roof spoiler are all designed to decrease lift at high speeds, as well as beef up the Juke's appearance. Larger 18-inch alloys, fitted with wider tyres are also dual-purpose, offering extra grip and more visual punch.
On the inside there's a predominantly black colour scheme interspersed with flashes of red. New suede-covered sports seats with red stitching are the highlight, managing to be soft and comfortable as well as hugging you tightly in the bends. Other upgrades like the red rev counter, the suede steering wheel and metal instead of rubber pedals make a big difference, especially as interior quality was never the Juke's strong suit.
At under £20,000 for the manual, front-wheel drive model (£1,700 more than the 187bhp DIG-T), the list of standard equipment includes everything you could need, such as a new 5.8-inch sat-nav, climate control and those Alcantara sport seats. The only option is a sticker pack that adds a stripe on the roof and chequered decals on the sides.
Owners will soon be able to download a Nismo iPad app too which connects to the car through Bluetooth and stores all your driving data, including lap times, on the device. It might sound trivial to some, but it positions this car right where Nissan wants it - aimed squarely at the Playstation generation.