It was easy to be underwhelmed by the 2018 Nissan Kicks when it was revealed. Its styling wasn’t as distinctive as the Juke it replaced, it wasn’t turbocharged like its predecessor and, worse, its engine boasted worst-in-segment power. The lack of an all-wheel-drive option also strained its credibility as a crossover. Ah, but first impressions don’t tell the whole story.
True, the Kicks is just as underpowered for highway duty as feared, but around town, its powertrain actually masks its deficiency quite well while achieving a best-in-segment 33 miles per gallon in combined driving. Then there’s its interior space, which not only dwarfs the Juke’s, but nearly everything else in its subcompact crossover segment. The cargo area, though, is genuinely impressive for a car with its exterior proportions.
Finally, there’s the price. Even the range-topping SR trim level barely clears the $20,000 mark, which is about where most competitors start. Equipment is generous, though, with automatic emergency braking standard on every Kicks and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity among the SV trims’ many desirable upgrades. Plus, with its available two-tone paint schemes and handsome interior, it may not be as stylistically challenged as we originally thought. In other words, the Kicks may never overwhelm, but it’s definitely worth a closer look.
What’s New for 2018?
The Nissan Kicks is an all-new model.
What We Like
Huge cargo area for a car its size; lots of equipment for a low price; high seating position with good visibility; excellent fuel economy
What We Don’t
Slow and unusual steering; highway on ramps are not its forte; all-wheel drive is unavailable
Every Kicks comes with the same powertrain. Its 1.6-liter 4-cylinder engine is good for a modest 125 horsepower and 115 lb-ft of torque and is paired to front-wheel drive and a continuously variable transmission (CVT) that mimics the stepped gear ratios of a traditional automatic, while providing the fuel economy benefits of a CVT. While acceleration is definitely not this powertrain’s strength, fuel economy is, with estimates of 31 mpg in the city, 36 mpg on the highway and 33 mpg in combined driving.
Standard Features & Options
The 2018 Nissan Kicks is available in three trim levels: S, SV and SR. The price gap between them isn’t that considerable, and there’s only one optional package, making your selection rather easy.
The base Kicks ($17,990) comes standard with 16-in steel wheels, a spare tire, roof rails, automatic headlights, a backup camera, automatic emergency braking, cruise control, a height-adjustable driver’s seat, cloth upholstery, a 60/40-split folding back seat, Bluetooth, a 7-in touchscreen, three USB ports and a 6-speaker sound system with a CD player, auxiliary audio jack and a media player interface.
The SV ($19,690) adds 17-in alloy wheels, heated body-colored mirrors, proximity entry and push-button start, blind spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic assist, automatic climate control, a color digital instrument display, a cargo cover, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and satellite radio.
The range-topping SR ($20,290) gains special exterior trim, a rear spoiler, LED headlights, fog lights, surround-view parking cameras, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and simulated leather dash trim. Optional only on the SR is the Premium package, which includes heated front seats, Prima-Tex simulated leather upholstery, a security system and an 8-speaker Bose sound system.
Every Kicks comes standard with seven airbags (front, front-side, side-curtain, driver’s knee), antilock brakes (front disc, rear drum), stability and traction control, automatic emergency braking and a backup camera. The SV and the SR add blind spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert systems into the mix.
The nonprofit Insurance Institute for Highway Safety named the Kicks a Top Safety Pick for its performance in crashworthiness, crash avoidance and headlight testing.
Behind the Wheel
With only 125 hp, the Kicks has one of the lowest engine outputs of any car on sale, let alone other subcompact crossovers. As a result, you’ll need to forcefully lay into the accelerator when merging onto a highway, and even then, you’d better make sure you have a wide gap to the car behind you.
That said, the Kicks does an impressive job disguising its power deficit around town. The throttle response is eager, and its CVT admirably maximizes the little engine’s potential, while also mimicking the stepped gear ratios of a traditional automatic, avoiding the irritating drone CVT’s are notorious for. We were also impressed with the CVT’s performance on a mild grade where it perfectly held the engine at a just-right rpm for the situation — a traditional automatic probably would’ve inconveniently upshifted for fuel economy or been forced to downshift into too low of a gear.
The Kick’s chassis and suspension are also ably tuned. On our mountain road test, it maintained its composure through midcorner bumps and remained poised through successive corners. Unfortunately, the steering is curiously slow, which is a detriment for driver engagement, but more importantly, when puttering around town or parking. It feels like Nissan wanted the Kicks to feel more SUVlike, so it gave it a truck’s steering ratio (16.8 versus most competitors in the 13s). The steering’s weighting also inconsistently goes from heavy assistance to barely any when maneuvering at low speeds. Strangely, you never quite know what you’re going to get.
The cabin is more agreeable. The cargo area is legitimately huge, besting all subcompact crossovers behind the back seat. Only the Honda HR-V is bigger with the rear seats folded away, but just barely. The back seat also affords a generous amount of legroom for the segment, but that’s largely because of the high-mounted seat — the gap to the front seats isn’t large enough for rear-facing child seats to fit easily. The front seats are also mounted quite high, which, in conjunction with the elevated ride height (a decent seven inches of ground clearance) and tall greenhouse, makes for a vaguely SUVlike feel behind the wheel.
Interior quality is also above average for this segment, and interior controls are both easy to access and use. We do wish there was a proper center armrest with a storage compartment below, though. Not only could the Kicks use a bit more interior storage, the vanlike driver armrest leaves the passenger’s arm literally hanging. Door armrests are also positioned too far forward.
Other Cars to Consider
2019 Honda HR-V — If you like the Kicks’ combination of maximum interior space in a minimum exterior package, the HR-V is your best alternative. Its available all-wheel-drive system gives it a potential advantage.
2019 Hyundai Kona — The Kona can’t match the Kicks’ interior space, but from a driving perspective, it’s the more engaging and the considerably quicker car. It’s one of our favorites.
2019 Honda Fit — The Fit has basically the same interior space as the HR-V, but comes at a lower price that’s more akin to the Kicks’ and is only offered in front-wheel drive. It would be more fun to drive, but has no SUV pretenses about it.
Used Kia Niro — Though you could consider a new Niro, this hybrid crossover would be pricier than the Kicks. Still, some should be available used, and with it, you get big-time fuel economy, a pleasant driving experience and plenty of interior room.
Skip the base model. For less than $2,000 more, you get a variety of desirable safety, infotainment and convenience features with the SV. However, even a fully loaded SR comes way under most comparably equipped competitors in the subcompact SUV segment, so it’s really hard to go wrong from a value perspective.