If I'm being honest, the prospect of driving the 2018 Nissan Kicks did not have me jumping for joy. Small SUVs might be my least favorite class of vehicles, partly because I think they're usually too expensive and lack the practicality that should be requisite to having "utility" as a part of the vehicle's designation.
That's why the Kicks felt like such a breath of fresh air to me. It has the right price, the right amount of cabin and cargo room, and the right amount of styling customization to appeal to a wide range of buyers. (It also has a name that's ripe for puns, but I will try to resist.)
Nissan curiously refused to call the Kicks an SUV at the drive event, at least in part because it doesn't offer all-wheel drive (the Kicks is front-wheel drive only) but also because it believes the Kicks can compete with the Hyundai Kona and Kia Soul, which one could argue are more hatchback cars than SUVs. But if you go on Nissan's website, it's listed under "crossovers and SUVs," so who knows. I'll just say this: The Kicks has enough value, features and usable space to work in either vehicle category.
How It Drives
There is only one powertrain: a 125-horsepower, 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine that makes 115 pounds-feet of torque and is mated to a continuously variable automatic transmission. Though the Kicks is surprisingly light, with all three trim levels weighing less than 2,700 pounds, the engine still feels pretty sluggish on the road and especially from a stop. And when you do put your foot into it, the engine gets noisy in an unpleasant, droning way.
One aspect of the driving experience did surprise me pleasantly: The Kicks has some cornering competence. I tested an SR trim level, which comes with a few added dynamic control features including Active Trace Control and Active Ride Control, and it feels better off for them. (ATC uses the stability system and braking to help control trajectory, and ARC uses the throttle and brakes to minimize body pitch when going over certain types of bumps.) It's no sports car, but the Kicks stays composed in turns and rides confidently with a composure that's greater than its price tag would suggest.
Another thing you'll notice from the driver's seat of the Kicks (and from the rest of the seats, for that matter) is great visibility. A tall windshield and giant side windows give good sightlines, especially to the sides where the roofline of the car sat 4 or 5 inches above my eyeline (I'm 5-foot-11).
Interior Hits and Misses
Overall, roominess is a big plus for the Kicks, which Nissan says has best-in-class front headroom and legroom. Like the Nissan Rogue, the backseat is expansive as well, especially in terms of headroom — there was a good 3 or 4 inches between my head and the headliner, as there is in the front seats, and a few inches of legroom to spare as well. This combines with the high windows to make the Kicks feel a class above in terms of interior size and volume. Behind the seats is 25.3 cubic feet of cargo room, which puts the Kicks near the top of the class alongside the Honda HR-V's 24.3 cubit feet. For added perspective, the Hyundai Kona has 19.2 cubic feet and the Toyota C-HR 19.0 cubic feet.
Technology offerings in the Kicks are good, too. A 7-inch touchscreen comes standard, and the higher SV and SR trim levels feature Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. There are three USB ports, one up front and two in the center console between the front seats far back enough that backseat passengers can easily reach them to charge mobile devices. Nissan also offers a premium Bose audio system as a part of the Premium Package that incorporates a speaker into the driver's head restraint. This is one of the better budget-friendly sound systems that I've heard, and the head restraint speaker is well-executed if you enjoy feeling like the sound is getting pumped right into your head (as I do).
The interior has a few places where corners get cut, which reminds you of the Kicks' affordable roots. There are hard plastics on the window sills, and the front passenger doesn't get an inboard armrest. It's also missing a feature that I really like: a covered center storage bin. To store valuables safely, you'll have to go with the glove box.
Then again, the Kicks makes up for the cut corners in a few weird ways. It has a padded center console, something usually found only in premium or luxury cars, and the artificial leather is so convincing that it initially tricked me when I first saw it.
Value, Value, Value
The Kicks starts at $18,965 for S models (all prices cited include destination charges), with the SV starting at $20,665 and the top-of-the-line SR finishing things off at $21,265. For some perspective, that means the most expensive Kicks SR starts at just $40 more than the cheapest version of the Nissan Juke SUV crossover, discontinued after the 2017 model year, and $1,350 less than the starting price of the 2018 Nissan Rogue Sport, Nissan's other subcompact, undeniable SUV model (coupled with optional all-wheel drive). And for that money, the Kicks represents an insane value proposition given its feature set, utility and fuel economy.
Looking at the Kicks' safety features provides a good illustration of this. Forward automatic emergency braking comes standard, and the SV trim adds blind spot warning and rear cross-traffic alert. The SR adds a 360-degree camera system on top of that, which is a ton of content for that sticker price.
On top of that, Nissan also says the Kicks has best-in-class fuel economy (excluding hybrids) at an EPA-estimated 31/36/33 mpg city/highway/combined on regular gasoline. Unless you consider its class as widely as all hatchbacks, including lower-riding cars, Nissan appears to be correct.
Kicks or Punt?
I came away from my day with the Kicks pretty enamored with it, something I rarely say about vehicles that aren't very fun to drive. The more I think about it, the more I come to really appreciate the things that it does well. Though I'll miss the Juke, which was one of the most fun vehicles to drive in this segment, it wasn't a very good utility vehicle — and the Kicks is a great one.
Nissan stated that the Kicks is aimed at a "multicultural audience between the ages of 25 and 35," which is ... hey, that's me! But I think that might be a bit limiting. I found the Kicks to be good enough that it works in a wide variety of situations and environments. It's small enough to be great in the city, has enough passenger and cargo room (and safety features) to be suitable for small families and is priced low enough to be in range for younger drivers, as well.
The lack of all-wheel drive is a big omission for that will understandably turn off some shoppers. But if you don't need all-wheel drive, the Kicks is worthy of your attention and a great addition to a Nissan lineup that was in need of a kickstart.
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