Driving the Nissan Juke Hybrid Rally Tribute in the desert

The hybrid Nissan Juke Rally Tribute crossover pays homage to the rally-winning Datsun 240Z sports car

Scrambling along brutal rutted tracks in the Sahara desert, kicking up dust and nipping at a hydraulic handbrake was not how we envisioned our first acquaintance with the Nissan Juke Hybrid. Even so, the new powertrain’s first application comes in the form of a hulking, toughened-up rally car built to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Datsun’s East African Rally-winning 240Z, and we’ve driven it.

It’s difficult to fathom how an electrified crossover could pay homage to the dainty, straight-six-engined coupé that danced through the desert 50 years ago, but Nissan has had a fair crack at it. The Juke Hybrid Rally Tribute evokes the seventies classic with a red livery, Shell branding and the original car’s number 11 stamped on the flanks. As on the 240Z, the bonnet is painted matt black to prevent reflections beaming into the driver’s eyes as they negotiate rocks and dunes.

A standard Juke would shake itself to pieces from the shattering loads of a desert stage, so the Rally Tribute version has been suitably beefed up. This is not a full competition-spec machine in the mould of a junior Rally4 or Rally5 car, but Nissan has fitted chunky 275-section off-road rubber, underbody protection and uprated, long-travel Ohlins suspension to cope with rough terrain.

From the driver’s seat, though, the Juke Rally Tribute is somewhat incongruous. You slip into a cushy, road car-style seat, gripping a standard steering wheel (albeit clad in Alcantara), staring at a fully trimmed dashboard. It’s very much the usual Juke affair, until you strap into the four-point harness, and notice the industrial-metal lever sprouting from the centre console. That’s the hydraulic handbrake – or drift stick to you and me.

Thumb the starter button and the hybrid motor blares through the straight-pipe exhaust. It’s not a cultured soundtrack but then, the engine is lifted directly from the Juke Hybrid road car that you’ll be able to buy this summer.

It’s a 1.6-litre four-cylinder unit that, combined with an e-motor and an electric starter/generator, sends 141bhp to the front wheels alone. It’s far from a hair-raising output, then, but on a gravel track and without a locking differential, you’re not left wanting for stacks of power. The front tyres scrabble and wander with greedy throttle applications, but progress is much neater if you meter out the torque. Doing so isn’t quite as easy as it could be, because the Juke’s clutchless multi-modal gearbox muddies the connection between your right foot and the car’s powerplant slightly.

The hybrid system prioritises electric power at town speeds and leans on the petrol engine when going quicker, although it did occasionally switch to EV mode while barrelling through the desert. Aside from a sudden boom from the unsilenced exhaust, the transition is smooth.

However, the rally car’s taller tyres in effect lengthen the gearing and blunt the Nissan’s straight-line performance – not ideal when you’re trying to make the best of just 141bhp – so it quickly becomes clear that momentum is your friend. And when you begin working the chassis at speed, the Juke is a surprisingly willing companion.

The chunky tyres and Ohlins dampers absorb the biggest hits when in the desert and the raised, compliant set-up unlocks another dimension to the driving experience. There’s pronounced weight transfer and the Rally Tribute has no driver aids, so each input you make has a tangible effect on the car’s attitude. Commit to a turn on the brakes and the rear tyres skate across the loose surface, and for more rotation, tugging on the hydraulic handbrake locks the wheels for an intuitive drift.

What does this tell us about the Juke hybrid road car that will be in UK showrooms later this summer? Not a lot, truth be told, because the rally treatment in effect masks anything we’d like to know about on-road performance in terms of ride quality, refinement, handling or even power delivery. Sadly, Nissan has also denied that this one-off rally Juke hints at any plan for a Nissan WRC entry, or even a racy road-going model instead.

Still, while the Juke Hybrid Rally Tribute might not reach the highs of that world-beating 240Z, it’s an undeniably fun tribute to one of Nissan’s (nee Datsun) most significant sporting endeavours. Hopefully the road-going Juke hybrid will be just as engaging.

Making of a champ

In 1971, Edgar Herrmann and co-pilot Hans Schüller slithered their way through the punishing Kenyan stages in a Datsun 240Z, which saw off Mk1 Ford Escorts and Porsche 911s to take overall victory at the event.

It was the pair’s second win on the trot at by far the toughest rally on the world championship calendar, where relentless wheel-work, harsh terrain and sweltering heat tested car and driver to breaking point.

A 2.4-litre straight-six lies beneath the 240Z’s long bonnet, sending drive to the rear wheels alone. The competition car uses a racier iteration of the L24 motor that powers the standard 240Z, with a power uplift to 207bhp.

Like the Juke tribute, the rally-winning coupé was fitted with raised suspension to clear rubble-strewn tracks, and underbody protection to shield it from hard knocks. A roll cage was also added, along with knobbly tyres to find purchase on slippery surfaces.

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