Nissan had a pint-size SUV before they were cool in the Juke, known for quirky looks, a fun turbo, all-wheel drive — and a high price for what it was. In its place, Nissan now has the 2018 Kicks, which has absolutely none of these things. But Nissan recently dropped off a bright-orange-and-black 2018 Kicks SV just in time for Halloween, and the trick turned out to be that it’s a treat as a city runabout.
Didn’t see that coming. The Juke was an acquired taste, but I loved the audacity; the Kicks is the opposite, an econobox that takes no risks. But it ticks all the boxes to be just right for urban street life, and to rival competent city tall cars such as the Kia Soul and Toyota C-HR (we call these tall cars rather than SUVs because none offers all-wheel drive). When I saw the Kicks unveiled at the 2017 Los Angeles Auto Show, I thought Nissan would sell a bunch, but no one would actually love it. I was wrong.
The Kicks makes up for what it lacks in excitement with endearing fun and utility, and on the streets of Baltimore and Washington, D.C., I was impressed with just how well-matched it is with city life. Here are six reasons why it could be your choice for a city runabout.
1. It’s Cute
Why do you care? Fun is free, and let’s be honest: No one wants to drive an ugly car unless they’re making some ironic point. The Kicks is inexpensive but doesn’t look cheap. The joint endeavor by Nissan’s Brazilian and North American designers has expressive lines and sculpting, and I even see a nod to the Juke in its taillights. Floating rooflines don’t always work, but this one does, even more so if you get a contrasting color. Starting with the mid-level SV model, there is a palette of fun body colors, plus Nissan also offers contrast-color trim pieces to personalize a Kicks like a pair of custom Nikes.
2. Safety Is Standard
Every Kicks has the best city safety feature: good visibility. The upright shape, low beltline and big windows give you very good front views. And rear blind spot angles are much smaller than expected with its fat pillars; that’s thanks to long double windows in the rear doors and a big, low back window.
Kicks also earned a Top Safety Pick award in Insurance Institute for Highway Safety crash-testing. Every Kicks has a standard front collision mitigation system with automatic emergency braking that IIHS gave a top superior rating. The mid-level SV adds city-essential blind spot warning and rear cross-traffic alert. And the top SR trim adds rarity for this price range: a 360-degree camera system. You’d have to be on your phone or high to ding the car or skin the wheels in city parking. (A word of caution: In the tough IIHS headlight testing, only the LED units on the top SR trim rated acceptable; the S and SV trims’ halogen headlights scored poor.)
3. It’s Practical Inside and Nicer Than Expected
The tall shape and smart packaging deliver a lot of space for the small footprint. There is ample headroom and legroom in the front seats, and the backseat can fit two adults. Both rows have a comfortable, high seating position, and a deep rear cargo floor offers 25.3 cubic feet of practical cargo space for errands or weekend trips behind the second row.
While the interior is not a rolling living room, it doesn’t feel cheap. There is plenty of plastic; it is a cost-conscious economy car and you can console yourself with what you aren’t spending. But the SV model has just enough quality trim touches, including piano-black pieces, nicely patterned dashboard trim and a chunky, flat-bottom steering wheel with controls, as well as stitched padding on the sides of the console where your knee meets it. Another unexpected upscale touch is a large configurable display in the instrument cluster along with the big analog speedometer.
The cloth seats are commuter-comfortable and stitched with an interesting pattern. There are cupholders and door pockets, as well as a front console bin with a device-friendly pair of USB ports (though no center console bin for hidden storage). Another USB port on the console is within easy reach of the rear seat. A 7-inch touch is standard and, starting with the mid-level SV, includes Apple CarPlay and Android Auto for features including Waze navigation to dodge the worst traffic.
4. It’s Not Fast, but It’s Not Sloppy
The Kicks is not powerful — and not just by comparison to its Juke predecessor. With just 125 horsepower, it’s on the slow side even among rivals who also are in no hurry to get anywhere. But Nissan tuned the throttle response and standard continuously variable automatic transmission for minimal lag to feel plenty peppy in city traffic. And artificial steps mask the worst tendencies of the CVT to whine while still delivering CVT efficiency — an EPA rating of 31/36/33 mpg city/highway combined, which is significantly better than rivals (compare them here). Even with a heavy foot, I was able to stay around 30 mpg in city driving.
The Kicks also has respectable handling. It feels light (it’s about 2,600 pounds) but nimble, and the ride is comfortable even on rough pavement. The steering is too light and too slow (3.08 turns lock-to-lock) for my taste, but parkability is enhanced by its 169.1-inch length and 34.1-foot turning diameter. There is corner lean, and some pitch and bounce from closely spaced bumps, but neither is out of step for a small economy car.
It would not be my pick for long road trips, but it handles urban highways and weekend trips without being as noisy or fatiguing as many small cars. The top SR trim level also adds dynamic control features. They weren’t on my SV test car, but Cars.com reviewer Brian Wong tried them and says the Kicks “feels better off for them.” They include Active Trace Control (the stability system and braking help control trajectory) and Active Ride Control (the throttle and brakes minimize body pitch over certain types of bumps).
5. It’s a Value
This is the Kicks’ hole card. The low price and modest presence are just what you want for peace of mind for street parking and unforgiving traffic. I could go about my business on city streets without concern — and also without feeling cheap.
To get the most value, though, don’t buy the base S. With a starting price of $19,335, including a destination charge, the cheapest Kicks has a lot of standard equipment (including automatic transmission, automatic braking, a 7-inch touchscreen and three USB ports). But you’ll be missing a lot of things that can make for a better daily companion. For one, you’ll get 16-inch wheels with plastic covers, a real self-esteem challenge. And you don’t get the fun paint choices.
The real value for me is the mid-level SV. For $1,700 more, the SV is safer (adds blind spot and rear cross-traffic alerts), more enjoyable (a much better multimedia system with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, satellite radio, automatic climate control, nicer upholstery, a rear cargo cover) and better looking (17-inch aluminum-alloy wheels, body-color mirrors and door handles). The test Kicks SV also had $525 premium orange paint (a color-shifting metallic) with a gloss-black roof. The look is worth it, and the sticker totaled just $21,580.
The top SR really is just icing, though it does have that useful 360-degree camera system, as well as slightly better handling, some exterior trim upgrades, more stitching inside and a leather-wrapped steering wheel. It also offers a $1,000 SR Premium Package with a nice eight-speaker Bose stereo, heated front seats and an impressive grade of leather-like vinyl upholstery. With the package and a paint upgrade, you’re still at $23,180 all in.
What I Would Change
I do have a wish list, though not a long one, for what Nissan should add when the Kicks gets a mid-cycle refresh, starting with a moonroof option (I wouldn’t care, but my wife would write a big check for that).
Also, the lack of a passenger-side inboard armrest just seems stingy. The driver’s seat has one, and surely there’s one seat on the parts shelf with an armrest for right-hand-drive markets. While you’re at it, please put a height adjustment on that passenger seat (a beef of mine with a lot of cars).
And available adaptive cruise control with stop-and-go would be great in traffic. I also use it liberally for stress-free cruising of streets with speed cameras. Even better would be Nissan’s excellent ProPilot Assist system with adaptive cruise and including lane centering.
But even without any of these, the Kicks really is a kick for the price as an urban runabout and commuter – a friendly companion without pretense and with surprising competence.
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