2018 Nissan Kicks First Drive - Commuting With Value

Tim Healey
by Tim Healey

The subcompact crossover class may possibly offer more varieties of flavor than most. Not in terms of available models, but in types of mission for each model.

You have rugged off-roaders (Jeep Renegade), quirky runabouts (Toyota CH-R, Kia Soul), jack-of-all-trades (Honda HR-V, Hyundai Kona), urban scooters (Chevy Trax/Buick Encore, Ford EcoSport), tall wagons (Subaru Crosstrek), and now the Nissan Kicks.

Nissan employees will quickly correct you if you assert the Kicks is a replacement for the company’s previous entry in this segment, the Juke, which is no longer on sale in North America (but remains available in other markets across the globe). They’ll tell you the Juke was/is aimed at a different customer than the Kicks.

That may or may not be true, but if it is, it also evades at least two other truths about the Juke – it was too weird and too pricey for our market.

Enter the Kicks. Although it still has plenty of quirky details and styling, the overall look and feel is much more conventional. And the price tag is much, much lower than not just the Juke, but some of the key competitors.

Full disclosure: Nissan flew me out to San Diego, put me up in a nice hotel, fed me three excellent meals plus snacks and drinks, and let us see a small portion of its local design offices, including a demo on how virtual reality is used in car design. They offered a piece of artwork that was signed by the artist, which I forgot to take (and I’m fine with that), and gave us journalists a Bluetooth speaker that I will likely never unbox, a beach towel, a luggage tag, and a USB cable (which truth be told, could be the only thing that may influence a journalist. We always need cables).

Editor’s Note: Sorry for using press shots, but a poorly timed camera malfunction rendered my photos unusable.

On paper, the Kicks’ specs look underwhelming. Built on the same platform the underpins the unloved Versa econobox, the Kicks has a 1.6-liter, four-cylinder engine that makes 125 horsepower and 115 lb-ft of torque. That’s not a lot.

Those numbers sound better when you see the curb weight – 2,672 pounds, tops. That’s light by today’s standards.

Of course, keeping weight and costs down means some tradeoffs. Most significantly for snow-belt buyers – there’s no available all-wheel drive. Not to mention that the Kicks actually has drum brakes on the rear. Rare for a new car, as you know.

Nissan loves its continuously variable automatic transmissions, so of course the only transmission in the Kicks is a CVT. This one has a “sport” mode button attached to it, but there’s no reason to bother with it – I noticed very little difference in terms of throttle response, steering feel, or transmission behavior whether “sport” mode was engaged or not.

Steering feel is the largest letdown here. No one expects the Kicks to be sporty, but there’s just no real sense of engagement from the speed-sensitive electric power steering. My drive partner also noticed a disconcerting habit – initial turn-in was often too aggressive and required a mid-turn dial-back. Probably the result of the steering being so damn light.

No one expects the Kicks to be fast, either, but thanks to the light curb weight, it’s reasonably swift in traffic. You don’t get dropped back into your seat when you slam on the gas, and the engine makes a lot of ugly noise, but you will be able to merge without sweating.

The strongest dynamic elements are the ride and the sound dampening. The ride is smooth with just a touch of stiffness, while outside noises stay there, provided you haven’t matted the throttle. It’s shockingly quiet for a car of this price point.

So yeah, it’s not fun to drive from an enthusiast’s perspective, but the commuter won’t care. He or she will happily accept a little boredom in order to keep their bank account a little fuller.

This is where the Kicks shines – it’s not only not a bank-breaker, but save for AWD and a few other features (such as factory nav), Nissan hasn’t been stingy with the content.

Let’s start with the base S model. For $17,990 plus D and D ($975 across the board), you get automatic emergency braking, keyless entry and starting, Bluetooth, three USB ports, rearview monitor, cruise control, automatic headlights, 7-inch touchscreen, Nissan’s “zero gravity” seats, and power windows/locks. Not a long list of standard content, but enough to avoid the penalty box label.

Nissan believes the SV trim will be the most popular, and that comes with Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, a driver-assist display, satellite radio, blind-spot warning, rear cross-traffic alert, remote start, 17-inch wheels, and automatic climate control, among other things. That’s all for $19,690.

The “loaded” SR adds features such as fog lamps, LED headlights, different seat fabric, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, a roof-mounted rear spoiler, around-view monitor, and a module that controls some of the drive dynamics such as ride. An available Premium package adds key features such as heated seats, premium audio, and a security system. The SR is $20,290 and the Premium package costs a grand more. Various accessories are available, as well.

My SR tester ran $22,630 thanks to D and D and floor mats ($215), plus $150 for two-tone paint.

Value pricing sometimes comes with cheap quality, but while the interior offers a lot of hard plastics, there isn’t the usual sheen that’s seen with really poor plastics. Perhaps the biggest flaws of the interior involve a center screen that doesn’t quite line up with the HVAC controls and a steering wheel that looked off-center. Otherwise, the controls and gauges were simple and easy to use/read.

Legroom and headroom were plentiful, and ease of ingress/egress was good. The rear seat was a little tight for my long-legged frame but most adults will fit fine. The 25.3 cubic foot cargo area offers plenty of space for gear, and it’s a larger space than what’s offered seats-up in CH-R, Soul, EcoSport, or Kona.

Exterior design, while being far more conventional than the Juke, is still on the wilder side. There’s five ways to get a two-tone look, and Nissan is giving customers the chance to further customize their rides via a “Color Studio” and available accessories, such as color wheel inserts. Whether this strikes you as another example of a corporation desperately attempting to court Millennials or a cool way to personalize a car is up to you.

Accessories aside, I found the look to be generally pleasing to the eye, although the weird angle of the hatchback and the blacked-out C-pillar look too fussy. From up front, the Kicks looks to have a sporty stance that gives the impression of performance – which, as noted above, is just an impression. I also noticed a misaligned panel gap on the pre-production car I drove.

The two-tone look mostly works, although some combos are better than others.

For the fuel-conscious, the EPA rates the Kicks at 31 mpg city/36 mpg highway and 33 mpg combined. I did notice a relatively low range in the trip computer (Nissan’s spec sheet doesn’t list the range yet), which could be due to the driving styles of myself, my drive partner, and whoever drove before us. The tank capacity is 10.8 gallons.

Nissan has come up with a subcompact people-mover that looks quirky in a good way, is priced right, and has a fair amount of content for that price. That’s a recipe for a lot of sales.

Yes, all-wheel drive is noticeably absent, but I am not convinced you need AWD even in the snow belt. The other key omission – factory nav – is made unnecessary if you get CarPlay or Android Auto.

If you need to be coddled, or want something fun to drive, shop elsewhere. The Kicks knows what it’s about – value pricing without sacrificing too much content. That makes it an ideal choice for the value shopper who gives not a whit about how it handles.

Cheap doesn’t have to punish. While Nissan would be well served to apply that mantra elsewhere (Sentra, I’m looking in your direction), that’s the case with the Kicks.

Value buyers, your ride is here.

[Images © 2018 AutoGuide/Craig Cole and Nissan North America]

Tim Healey
Tim Healey

Tim Healey grew up around the auto-parts business and has always had a love for cars — his parents joke his first word was “‘Vette”. Despite this, he wanted to pursue a career in sports writing but he ended up falling semi-accidentally into the automotive-journalism industry, first at Consumer Guide Automotive and later at Web2Carz.com. He also worked as an industry analyst at Mintel Group and freelanced for About.com, CarFax, Vehix.com, High Gear Media, Torque News, FutureCar.com, Cars.com, among others, and of course Vertical Scope sites such as AutoGuide.com, Off-Road.com, and HybridCars.com. He’s an urbanite and as such, doesn’t need a daily driver, but if he had one, it would be compact, sporty, and have a manual transmission.

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  • Asphaltcowboy Asphaltcowboy on Jun 12, 2018

    I've noticed how Americans are now starting to warm to the compact hatchback car. The Kick joins the CX-3, CH-R, Kona and HR-V etc. They just had to call them subcompact crossovers instead of hatchbacks - although hatchback is quicker to say. I still can't tell the difference between an Mazda 3 Sport and the CX-3 at a glance.

  • Tankinbeans Tankinbeans on Jun 14, 2018

    Is each new, smaller "cuv" (there's a letter combination that's gotten old fast) segment bringing us back to the days of cheap - even if not particularly cheap - and cheerful hatchbacks? It seems they're trying to condition the buyers back into hatchbacks because functionally I see very little difference. Are hatchbacks (not SUVs) cheaper to manufacture being essentially one big box with a nipple? That said the proportions on the EcoSport, Trax/Encore and CH-R are an assault to anybody who has working eyes. This car, the CX-3, and the HR-V seem to nail it. I'm not familiar enough with the rest in the segment of cheap and cheerful hatchbacks by any other name to be able to say.