2018 Nissan Kicks first drive review

Not an SUV, not a hatch, Nissan's Kicks is whatever you want it to be

The 2018 Nissan Kicks will disappoint buyers looking for a real SUV, but still has plenty to offer.
The 2018 Nissan Kicks will disappoint buyers looking for a real SUV, but still has plenty to offer.
The 2018 Nissan Kicks will disappoint buyers looking for a real SUV, but still has plenty to offer.

Highs

  • Pleasant driving experience
  • Roomy interior
  • Nifty two-tone paint options

Lows

  • No Apple CarPlay/Android Auto on base trim level
  • Merely adequate power
  • More like a small hatchback than an SUV

The 2018 Nissan Kicks blurs the line between crossover SUV and small hatchback. It has a tall roof and seating position like and SUV, but is based on the same platform as the Nissan Versa and Versa Note subcompacts. It also lacks a crucial SUV element: all-wheel drive. We went to San Diego to drive this unusual new breed of vehicle, and see if Nissan has found a different way for utility-minded buyers to get their kicks.

The Kicks serves as the de facto replacement for the Nissan Juke, ensuring Nissan still has an entry into the hot subcompact crossover segment. Major rivals include the Chevrolet Trax, Ford EcoSport, Honda HR-V, Hyundai Kona, Mazda CX-3, and Toyota C-HR. While not always thought of as a crossover, Nissan also name-checked the Kia Soul as a competitor. Like the Kicks, the Soul has a small footprint and boxy profile.

Pricing for the Kicks starts at $17,990 for a base S model. Nissan also offers higher-level SV and SR trim levels, starting at $19,690 and $20,290, respectively. We drove an SR, which added features like a 360-degree camera system and LED headlights (low-beam only). Our test car also had the optional ($1,000) Premium Package, which adds a Bose Personal Plus eight-speaker audio system, heated front seats, and leatherette upholstery. 

Interior and tech

Nothing in the Kicks’ interior looks expensive, but everything feels well put together and of reasonably good quality for this price point. Some details, like big round vents at either end of the dashboard, the flat-bottomed steering wheel shared with other Nissan models, and our SR test car’s contrast stitching added a bit of visual flair. The boxy exterior shape makes for easy ingress and egress and good outward visibility.

All Kicks models come standard with a 7.0-inch touchscreen display, which is mounted within easy reach from the driver’s seat. Three USB ports are standard as well, including one at the front of the center console and two in back. But the base S trim level does not offer Apple CarPlay and Android Auto; you have to upgrade to the SV or SR to get them. SV and SR models also get a 7.0-inch digital driver-information display in the gauge cluster.

Our test car was equipped with the optional Bose Personal Plus audio system. One of its eight speakers is mounted in the driver’s headrest, and the distribution of sound can be controlled by the touchscreen. You can switch from front-focused sound to something more like surround sound. Overall sound quality was good, but not game-changing.

The 2018 Nissan Kicks blurs the line between crossover SUV and small hatchback.

The Kicks is not a big car, but buyers in this segment still expect a decent amount of interior space. So how does Nissan’s latest measure up to the competition? The Kicks offers more front headroom and legroom than the Honda HR-V, Kia Soul, and Hyundai Kona, but the Honda and Kia have more space for rear-seat passengers (the Hyundai also has more rear legroom).  The Nissan also has more cargo space with the rear seats in place, but the Honda and Kia offer more space with the rear seats folded. The HR-V’s Magic Seat also offers more options for seating and cargo hauling.

The Kicks comes standard with autonomous emergency braking, something most of its competitors only offer as an optional extra. A rearview camera is also standard. The SV model adds blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert, while the SR adds Nissan’s AroundView Monitor 360-degree camera system. However, adaptive cruise control — which is becoming a common feature on new cars — isn’t available at any price. 

Driving experience

Don’t expect too much excitement from the Kicks, but don’t expect it to be a terrible econobox, either. The sole available engine is a 1.6-liter four-cylinder, which produces 125 horsepower and 115 pound-feet of torque. Despite the Kicks’ crossover SUV pretensions, it’s only available with front-wheel drive. The only available transmission is a CVT.

Competitors offer more power. The Honda HR-V comes standard with 141 hp, while the Hyundai Kona gets 147 hp out of its standard engine. But we didn’t have issues with the Kicks’ relative lack of power while cruising around San Diego. The Nissan was slow to respond to very aggressive throttle prodding in some situations, but we had no issues with freeway merging or passing. The Kicks isn’t underpowered, but it’s not exactly sporty either.

The lack of all-wheel drive and merely adequate power were part of a play by Nissan to attain better fuel economy than rivals. The Kicks gets an EPA-rated 33 mpg combined (31 mpg city, 36 mpg highway). That does put the Nissan ahead of its main competitors.

We didn’t have issues with the Kicks’ relative lack of power while cruising around San Diego.

Fuel economy may be the most remarkable part of the Kicks driving experience. A popular automotive maxim states that it’s more fun to drive a slow car fast than to drive a fast car slow, but there’s little fun to be had in pushing the Kicks’ limits. The CVT is better than others we’ve experienced in the past, but we’d still prefer a conventional geared automatic or, better yet, a manual. Ride quality and overall refinement are fairly good for a car of this price, however.

Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration crash-test ratings for the 2018 Nissan Kicks are not available at this time. 

Warranty

Nissan offers a three-year, 36,000-mile basic warranty, and a five-year, 60,000-mile powertrain warranty. Because the Kicks is a brand-new model, it is difficult to predict reliability. 

How DT would configure this car

Getting Apple CarPlay and Android Auto requires stepping up from the base S trim level to the SV, but we see no need to upgrade further. While we liked the interior upgrades of the SR—like its leather-wrapped steering wheel and model-specific seat upholstery—we don’t think it’s worth spending the extra money on. The same goes for the SR’s Premium Package. The Bose audio system sounded good, but isn’t a must-have item. The AroundView Monitor camera system doesn’t seem necessary in a car this small, with such good outward visibility.

We’d rather focus on making the Kicks look cooler. The exterior design doesn’t make a strong impression on its own, but Nissan offers five two-tone color combinations that really give the car more character. Through the Color Studio program previously offered for the Juke and Versa Note, buyers can add color-contrasting parts like mirror caps and wheels to really up the Kicks’ style. 

Conclusion

Overall, the 2018 Nissan Kicks is a solid, affordable car. But certain content choices by Nissan, such of the lack of all-wheel drive, and Apple CarPlay/Android Auto compatibility on the base trim level, mean it doesn’t pull off a clear victory over other subcompact crossovers, or even traditional hatchbacks. Buyers will have to seriously assess their priorities to determine if the Kicks is right for them.