Nissan's subcompact crossover doesn't hit all the notes, just the right ones.
When we reviewed the 2019 Nissan Altima recently, the theory was put forward that Nissan’s design team hates the crossover. Having spent a week with the Nissan Kicks, we may have found some more evidence. The Kicks is technically a crossover if you consider the definition of a crossover SUV to be an upright seating position and a little extra ground clearance. If you need the option of all-wheel drive and some off-road ability to define a crossover, then the Kicks is simply a practical vehicle with easy entry and a seating position a lot of people want. Strip away the marketing, and what you essentially have is a very competent hatchback at an excellent price point. What you don’t have, however, is a replacement for the Nissan Juke.
Instead, the Kicks has a smaller engine, more room inside, and doesn’t suffer from the curse of extremely divisive looks. The Kicks also understands people want a good car, but may not want to pay for features they may not need. In fact, once we dig into the Kicks in depth, it may actually be the best deal to be had in the subcompact vehicle segment.
The bold body lines, floating roof, large V-Motion grill, and boomerang headlights don’t give the Kicks away as the being the lower end of Nissan’s crossover and SUV line. Neither does it look like it’s trying too hard to turn heads although our tester's two-tone color scheme roof did attract positive attention. The Kicks Color Studio has the option for seven exterior colors and five two-tone combinations and allows customization of trim color as well, including the wing mirrors. Adding all of that together with the roof bars and we can see the kicks is clearly aimed at the younger end of the market.
Looking at the Kicks from the back, and it does look more like a crossover than a hatchback. Although the black plastic across the rear bumper and across the wheel arches can look cheap, they don’t look as out of place as on some crossovers. The rear light clusters lack the accenting of the more upmarket vehicles in the Nissan range, and the only option for LED lighting is for the front low beams. Our test vehicle is in the top of the Kicks range SR trim and includes the 17-inch aluminum wheels, the LED headlamps with Nissan’s signature accents, and the rear roof spoiler.
The 1.6-liter engine doesn’t quite live up to the sporty image the Kicks gives off with just 122 horsepower and 114 lb-ft of torque hooked up to a continually variable transmission (CVT). Acceleration wise, 0-60 mph is not a rapid affair and attacking big hills or racing to join freeway traffic is a strain. However, it is a very light vehicle and there's ample power when driving around town. Mix that with the light and direct steering, and getting around a city briskly is where the Kicks really shines. The CVT doesn’t need to change gear as it doesn’t have cogs, but Nissan has programmed steps into it to feel like a traditional automatic transmission. This feels unnecessary, and without those steps the Kicks would likely be an even smoother ride.
One of the big benefits of that smaller engine and Nissan’s Continuously Variable Valve Timing Control System is the fuel economy. The Kicks is rated at a wallet-friendly 33 mpg combined city and highway and achieved that easily with a full mix of driving styles. The 1.6-liter engine and CVT transmission with front-wheel drive is the only drivetrain available, so if all-wheel drive is a must have then the Kicks is out. Nissan has done everything they can to keep the pricing simple and low, but we’ll get to that.
Opening the door to the SR trimmed version and the first impression given is that the Kicks is more refined inside than pricing suggests. A closer look though shows where costs have been controlled. There’s no center console storage and only the driver has a small flip-down armrest. The seats are all mechanical to adjust and have no lumbar adjustment at all, but that comes with the price point. After that the Kicks does start to shine.
There’s no flash here unless you go up the trim levels, but the basics have been done very well. The 7-inch touchscreen display is crisp, clear, reactive, and well laid out with the heating controls in a small unit underneath that is simple to understand and use on the fly. The gauge cluster is also well laid out, with a mechanical speedometer taking up the right side and the left side made up of a digital display that can be customized to show the information you want.
Our Kicks came with the optioned leatherette covered seats with contrast stitching as well as the leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob as well as the Bose Personal Plus audio system. The Bose system includes what they call UltraNearfield speakers built into driver's headrest that help focus the sound. That sound is quite good and somewhere up the scale between what you expect from a base level car and full-on premium sound.
Interior space is good for a subcompact, and although rear legroom can be eaten up by the front seats there’s good headroom for adults and children will definitely be comfortable. The Kicks real party trick for the subcompact segment is that it does all that and has plenty of cargo space as well. There's around 25 cubic feet of space behind the hatch and some storage options underneath the floor.
Despite the hammering the Juke gets from the internet, in the right configuration it was a fun car to get out and just drive. However, the Kicks sporty styling gets found out as just styling with a trip out on the backroads. Through corners the Kicks wants to turn in and the back is willing to rotate more than you expect but the lean from the chassis isn’t inspiring. A stiffer version of the Kicks with a bigger engine could be a wonderful thing, but this isn’t what the Kicks is about.
The Kicks comes into its own getting around the city. The steering is light and on point, and the turning circle is tight. The Kicks itself is also light and small, so nipping through traffic and then parking is a breeze and parking is helped by the Intelligent Around View Monitor system the SR trim provides. Having a bird's eye view for parking assist is not something we expect from a budget-priced subcompact, but Nissan has picked its safety and convenience features well.
While there’s no lane keep assist or radar cruise control the base trims comes with Automatic Emergency Braking and Rear Cross Traffic Alert. In any trim, there’s no fear the Kicks is going to try and nanny you and those features are simply there if you ever need them. Saying that, we really would like to see Blind Spot Warning as standard on the base model, although it is included in the SV and SR trim levels.
That minimal but essential approach mixed with the logical layout of all the controls and how light the Kicks is to move around makes it a very easy car to drive. Although it’s most at home in the city, highway driving isn’t a chore by a long shot. Seats are always hard to call as everyone is built differently, but we aren’t totally convinced by these for long journeys and neither were our passengers. What they do well is keep you in place and in our experience are comfortable enough for everyday use.
The ride is smooth as a whole and the suspension takes the sting out of the worst roads California has to offer without letting the chassis roll around too much in normal driving.
We managed to drive the Kicks for a week of heavy rain in California and although it handled a flash flood and waterlogged roads with no sweat, water on the front camera did lead to short periods of the warning light telling us the Automatic Emergency Braking wasn’t working. How you stop water landing on a camera lens at the front of a car is beyond our engineering capabilities though, and not an uncommon issue with cars using sensors.
Although there are plenty of accessory options, Nissan has kept the price band narrow with three solid trim levels. The base S level is priced at just $18,550 and comes with 16-inch steel wheels, the 7-inch touchscreen display with Bluetooth hands-free, Automatic Emergency Braking, cruise control, keyless entry and push-button start.
Going up a level, the SV trim starts at $20,250 and adds things like the 17-inch alloy wheels, the roof rails, blind spot warning, the 7-inch LED gauge cluster, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, automatic climate control, remote start, and 60/40 folding seats. It’s also the SV trim that starts giving the option for premium and two-tone paint.
For the SR trim we drove the Kicks in, it starts $20,870 and includes everything from the SV trim as well as the roof spoiler, LED headlamps, fog lamps, the 360-degree camera system, plus the leather-covered steering wheel and shifter knob. The tester had the $1,000 SR premium package installed that includes the Bose audio system, Prima-Tex seat trim, and heated front seats and the dual-tone paint option.
If you like what you see there, the sticker price reads at a very competitive $22,650 including a $995 destination charge.
In a segment that has exploded in the past few years, Nissan has delivered something that looks unique, makes use of the limited space well, has more cargo space than many of its competitors, and solid technology for its price point. There’s not a lot to dislike unless you expect a truly sporty experience. In fact, there’s a lot to like. At its base level, the Kicks stacks up very well against the competition in value for money. In the highest SR trim, the only way to really beat it in features will cost a few more grand to get things like radar cruise control and lane keep assistance, and those are two things we’re not convinced the Kicks would actually benefit from.
The bottom line is that the Kicks isn’t as dynamic to drive as others in the segment or as luxurious as some options. What it does offer is an all-around package that’s a contender for being the best value for money proposition on the road today. Whether it's for a young new driver, a family runaround, or as a daily commuter, the Kicks is a very smart choice for those on a budget.