Quite honestly, this segment seems to have appeared out of nowhere. The sport crossover is yet another chapter in peoples' effort to downsize from large and fuel thirsty SUVs. While most buyers do not require the off-roading capabilities of a V8-powered 4x4 SUV, the idea of a mountainous adventure is still very much there. And two automakers are looking to fill that demand with a couple of quirky, yet serious new rides that each offer optional all-wheel drive.
Both new for 2011, the Mini Countryman and the Nissan Juke are the products of creative design, packaging, and marketing. Both are meant to appeal to younger, more active buyers who enjoy driving and need space to cart around everything from skis and snowboards to children. Both offer front-wheel-drive and all-wheel-drive variants, 1.6-liter inline-four engines, and features such as Bluetooth, navigation, and solid audio systems. If you're looking for a simple daily driver about town, then it's best to stick with front-wheel-drive.
However, all-wheel drive does make both of them capable for hauling duties to a weekend ski resort. While the Juke may not look like much from the outside, under the hood you'll find a highly capable engine. The 1.6-liter I4 has 188 hp and 177 lb-ft of torque and is mated to either a six-speed manual or an optional CVT transmission (which is also found in the Maxima). Surprisingly, this combination is more than adequate and makes the Juke a joy to drive. The Countryman's naturally-aspirated 1.6-liter comes standard with 121 hp and 118 lb-ft of torque.
However, opting for the all-wheel-drive ALL4 trim will automatically upgrade the engine to the turbocharged version, which produces 181 hp and 192 lb-ft of torque and is mated to a six-speed automatic. The Juke can also be had with all-wheel-drive in SV trim. Styling wise, the Countryman is the hands-down winner. Why? Perhaps it's because the Juke, from the front angle at least, looks like a distorted frog. Yeah, it's weird looking. The side and rear views are better, especially the taillights which resembles those from the 370Z.
By contrast, the Countryman's simpler, more straightforward stance is a welcomed sight. Stepping inside, both offer comfortable seating for five and decent cargo space. As many would expect, build quality in the Countryman is top-notch. As in other modern Mini's, there's a premium feel throughout. The same goes for the Juke. Seriously, Nissan surprised just about everyone by using upgraded materials everywhere instead of opting for the cheap stuff.
The dash is extremely well laid-out, with a sport steering wheel, large and easy-to-use controls, and a painted "motorcycle tank" center console. The Countryman features the typical Mini interior layout, with a central rail piece that's in place of a traditional console. While it can hold accessories such as phones, iPods, etc, it's clearly meant for style over substance. But it looks cool and that's what matters to many potential owners. So is the Juke a poor man's Countryman? Kind of, yes. It's also the smart buyer's choice.
With a base price starting at $19,340, you can go all-out with extras and opt for all-wheel-drive, while still coming in at a reasonable $23,820. The Countryman, however, is going to cost you. Starting off at $22,350, a fully-loaded Cooper S ALL4 will set you back $35,150. It's hard to justify an $11k + premium over the Juke, considering its smart packaging, great handling by use of Nissan's new Integrated Control (I-CON) system, and respectable fuel economy (25/30 mpg city/highway). While the Countryman returns 23/30 mpg, it still has BMW engineering and refinement that's hard to beat.
So if you have the extra dough to spare, the Mini Countryman is the preferred choice. And for those who justifiably want to save some cash, the Nissan Juke is without question a stellar choice. Just be prepared to hear endless comments about its resemblance to tailless amphibians called frogs.