First Drive

2018 Nissan Kicks First Drive Review: Millennials Are Gonna Love It

Nissan gives young buyers everything they want. Well, almost everything.

Say what you want about the Nissan Juke's looks. At least it was an attempt to be interesting in a world filled with humdrum crossovers. Buyers can’t have it both ways – it isn’t fair to complain that all crossovers look too similar, and then go crazy when a company finally tries something new. It seems Nissan grew tired of hearing people criticize the Juke for its polarizing looks, and decided to kill it off in the United States. Now the company has an all-new CUV, one that is ready to capture the hearts of young car buyers: the all-new 2018 Nissan Kicks.

Although it is not a direct replacement, the new Nissan Kicks has arrived for the 2018 model year, looking to forge a very different path than the quirky looking Juke.

Nissan has targeted models in the compact CUV segment including: Ford EcoSport, Kia Soul, Honda HR-V, Hyundai Kona, Mazda CX-3, and Toyota CH-R. The Kicks looks to attract younger buyers by focusing on three pillars: expressive style, incredible value, and unexpected technology. Aesthetically, the styling of the new Kicks is not as controversial as the old Juke. Since most of our readers seemed to be less than enthralled by the Juke, we’ll chalk the Kick’s styling as a win. Like other CUVs in the segment, Nissan has styled the Kicks with some quirky touches to capture the imagination of a young audience.

The company’s signature V-Motion grille is still prominent, as are boomerang taillights and an exaggerated floating roofline. Seven colors will be available, including: Brilliant Silver, Gun Metallic, Super Black, Cayenne Red, Deep Blue Pearl, Fresh Powder and Aspen White. In addition to the seven colors, five two-tone combinations will be available with white, orange, black, and red roof options. Buyers who want to customize their Kicks even further can choose options from the Color Studio, which contains 12 accessories that can be painted in one of five colors. During the launch event, we saw a Gun Metallic car with orange accents – reminding us of the customization options on the old Juke.

In terms of styling, we prefer the slightly subdued looks of the Kicks to more wacky options such as the Toyota C-HR, but few CUVs will dethrone our styling favorite: the Mazda CX-3. Where the Kicks scores its biggest win is with it's incredible value. The base S trim starts at just $17,990 before a $975 destination fee. The higher SV and SR trims start at $19,690 and $20,290 respectively, and the only available option is a $1,000 premium package on the SR trim. Even a well-optioned Kicks will top out below $22,000, which is a impressive achievement by Nissan. And that's before you consider the Kicks' third big draw: unexpected technology.

Even the base S trim comes with automatic emergency braking, Bluetooth, rear-view camera, three USB ports, roof rails, intermittent wipers, automatic headlights, easy-fill tire alert, push-button start with keyless entry, tilt and telescoping steering wheel, and a seven-inch color touchscreen. Unfortunately, there is no built-in navigation on any trim level, and Android Auto and Apple Car Play aren't found on the base S model. Stepping up to the SV adds: Apple Car Play and Android Auto, seven-inch advanced driver display, satellite radio, blind spot monitoring, rear cross traffic alert, intelligent key, remote start, 17-inch alloy wheels, body color mirrors and door handles, and automatic temperature control.

The SR trim brings: LED headlights, fog lights, a leather steering wheel and shift knob, special seat fabric, an around-view monitor, and Nissan's Integrated Dynamics-control module. That last feature helps modulate engine braking, intelligent trace control and active ride control using the brake system, to help give the Kicks a more compliant ride over large bumps. Most drivers will never notice this system working in the background, but it came to our attention when the Kicks remained extremely level and planted when we crested a large bump on a mistimed highway exit. A $1,000 Premium Package rolls in an eight-speaker Bose audio system with headrest mounted speakers, Prima-tex heated seats, and a security system.

We tested the Bose audio system by blasting some Spice Girls that had just come on the radio, and found the system to be extremely impressive for an inexpensive car. The headrest-mounted speakers can even be tuned to produce optimal sound for the driver, or for the whole cabin. We didn't get to play around too much with the NissanConnect infotainment system, but with Android Auto and Apple Car Play available on most trims, it seems like a winner. The seven-inch touchscreen is a bit small and can receive glare from the sun, but it's a simple system to learn. In terms of technology, Nissan continues to offer features normally reserved for more expensive competitors at a lower price.

The Kicks also beats several of its competitors on space, including the Kia Soul, Hyundai Kona, and Ford EcoSport. The Kicks bests the Soul on front head and legroom as well as rear cargo space. It also beats the Kona and EcoSport on overall interior volume. If you are looking the most spacious CUV with the most technology at the lowest price, Nissan has firmly checked off those boxes. Nissan has also dominated the competition in terms of efficiency. The Kicks is best in class in every fuel efficiency statistic, with ratings of 31/36/33 mpg city/highway/combined. These numbers are certainly impressive, but how Nissan achieved these figures is slightly less inspiring.

So far, the Kicks has looked great on paper, but there is a huge catch preventing us from loving this little CUV. The Kicks is only available with one drivetrain option - a 1.6-liter normally aspirated four-cylinder producing 125 horsepower and 115 lb-ft of torque. Power is sent to the front wheels through a continuously variable Xtronic transmission, and all-wheel-drive is not available. Nissan didn't quote a 0-60 time, but we expect it to be in the double digits. Even with a low curb weight of only 2,672 pounds, the Kicks is simply too slow to be driven with confidence.

We understand not everything needs to be a roaring sports car, but Nissan's decision to sell the Kicks with such a low power figure must be proof that young millennial buyers just don't care about driving pleasure. Low power by itself is not the end of the world, but Nissan also decided to provide the Kicks with joyless steering. Behind the wheel, it is nearly impossible to feel what the front wheels are doing, which is a bit disappointing in this segment. The Kia Soul is a very competent backroad cruiser, as is the Mazda CX-3. Even though the EcoSport we tested felt as slow of the Kicks, it made up for it with enthusiastic steering feel.

Even on a winding backroad, we struggled to derive any joy from driving the Kicks, which is a bit sad considering how much fun could be had in a Juke Nismo with a manual transmission. On the bright side, the light steering rack made for impressive maneuverability. When analyzing what younger customers want, maneuverability through traffic was clearly paramount, while being fun to drive was less relevant. In the real world, we had to mash the throttle to get up to highway speeds, so we'd like to spend a bit more time in the car to see if those fuel economy figures live up to Nissan's claims. Aside from a lack of oomph, the Kicks' ride is extremely compliant and even curvy backroads didn't throw us out of our seats.

Nissan's NASA-inspired zero gravity seats were extremely comfortable, although the mounting of the driver's armrest on the seat was a bit high for our taste - we'd prefer a centrally mounted armrest between the front seats. With 43.7-inches of front leg room and 40.7-inches of front head room, the Kicks is best-in-class, and it certainly felt like it. The gliding wing dashboard felt very cohesive and freed up a lot of space in the interior. There were plenty of places to store our stuff, and most of the materials felt decently upscale for an affordable car. A few spots, such as the door cards and headliner, felt slightly low-rent but this is an inexpensive car after all.

Moving into the cargo area, the Kicks has 25.3 cubic feet of space behind the second row (better than Soul, Kona, EcoSport, and C-HR), which was plenty to accommodate all of our camera gear. Overall, Nissan hit on all three of its goals with the Kicks: expressive style, incredible value, and unexpected technology. Young buyers who are looking for an interesting CUV with best-in-class features and space will absolutely adore the Kicks. By abandoning the quirky segment that was once occupied by the Juke, Nissan has all but guaranteed a sales success with the Kicks. On paper, it satisfies everything younger buyers want in a CUV, but clearly fun isn't on the shopping list anymore.

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