Not an SUV, but determinedly SUV-adjacent, the 2018 Nissan Kicks is a testament to the elasticity of consumer opinion and a preview of the small car of the future.
The Kicks is most accurately described as a compact station wagon, but clever design and engineering imbue it with the visual and practical appeal that have made SUVs the dominant class of vehicles in the United States.
The Kicks also demonstrates General Motors and Toyota’s fundamental misreading of the market when they killed the Pontiac Vibe and Toyota Matrix, which helped create the market for affordable little SUVs. Toyota and GM dropped the Matrix and Vibe during the Great Recession, and have been trying to recreate the cars’ appeal ever since.
To its credit, GM more or less replaced the Vibe with the Chevy Trax and Buick Encore subcompact SUVs, both of which sell for prices comfortably above what Pontiac charged for Vibes.
That’s what fuels automakers change of emphasis from sedans to SUVs: higher transaction prices.
That’s a plus for automakers, but not buyers, particularly many who bought compact and subcompact cars. Nissan hopes to address that with the Kicks, which looks like an SUV but has prices starting $50 below a 2018 Honda Civic compact sedan.
Behind the Wheel
2018 Nissan Kicks SR
Front-wheel-drive, five-passenger compact utility wagon
Price as tested: $22,050 (excluding destination charge)
Rating: (4 out of 4 stars)
Reasons to buy: Looks; price; fuel economy; room; safety features; audio system.
Shortcomings: Rear seats don’t fold flat; interior materials; steering feel.
How much: Kicks prices start at $17,990. All Kicks models have front-wheel drive, a continuously variable transmission and 125-horsepower naturally aspirated 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine.
The Kicks offers two trim higher trim levels, the $16,960 SV and $20,290 SR.
I tested a Kicks SR with features including automatic emergency braking, blind spot alert, Bose audio, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, Bluetooth, voice recognition, 7.0-inch touch screen, heated front seats, LED low beams, remote start, 17-inch aluminum wheels, striking two-tone paint with a glossy black roof and pillars over a metallic orange body. It’s a well-equipped, attractive vehicle for its $22,050 sticker price. All prices exclude destination charges.
The Kicks competes with the front-wheel-drive versions of small SUVs like the Chevrolet Trax, Ford EcoSport, Honda HR-V, Hyundai Kona, Mazda CX-3 and Mitsubishi Eclipse Cross. The Subaru Crosstrek has standard all-wheel drive, but also belongs in the competitive set.
The Kick costs less than comparably equipped models of the competition. Its standard driver assistance features and optional Bose audio and two-tone paint set it apart.
Competitive base prices
Excluding destination charges, automatic transmission; front-wheel drive models where available:
Nissan Kicks SR: $20,290
Chevrolet Trax FWD LT: $23,200
Ford Ecosport SE FWD: $23,000
Honda HR-V EX: $23,720
Hyundai Kona SEL w/contrasting roof: $21,300
Jeep Renegade Latitude: $23,440
Mazda CX-3 Touring: $22,400
Mitsubishi Eclipse Cross ES: $23,595
Subaru Crosstrek Premium (AWD-only): $23,895
The Kicks looks like a small SUV, with a higher roof and more ground clearance than small sedans and hatchbacks. That height also translates into good visibility and easy entry and exit compared to a lower slung car.
The optional two-tone paint _ a rich metallic orange body color and glossy black roof on my test car _ makes gives the Kicks upscale looks for an extra $545 on the SR package.
There’s plenty of head and leg room in both rows of seats, and plenty of shoulder room for two. Automatic emergency braking, front seat side air bags and curtain air bags are standard, as are backup cameras with a bird’s-eye view. Blind spot and rear cross traffic alerts are standard on all models but the base.
The optional Bose audio system in my test car had speakers discreetly mounted in the driver’s seat headrest to deliver excellent sound without high volume at a reasonable price. Passengers don’t benefit from the feature.
The standard touch screen, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto provide easy access to your smart phone’s navigation and music. That’s better than some luxury vehicles I’ve tested that cost more than twice as much as the Kicks I tested.
Character lines and flares in the Kicks’ bodywork are a reminder that an attractive design doesn’t cost more than a bland one, just creativity and talent.
Competitive EPA fuel economy ratings
Automatic transmission; front-wheel drive models where available.
All vehicles use regular gasoline
Nissan Kicks SR: 31 miles per gallon city/36 highway/33 combined.
Chevrolet Trax FWD LT: 25/33/28
Ford Ecosport SE FWD: 27/29/28
Honda HR-V EX: 28/34/31
Hyundai Kona SEL w/contrasting roof: 28/32/30
Jeep Renegade Latitude: 22/30/25
Mazda CX-3 Touring: 29/34/31
Mitsubishi Eclipse Cross ES: 26/29/27
Subaru Crosstrek Premium (AWD-only): 27/33/29
Fuel economy, power
Most new small cars and utilities use a little turbocharged engine to combine decent fuel economy and performance. The Kicks makes do with a less expensive normally aspirated 1.6L four-cylinder that generates 125 horsepower and 115 pound-feet of torque. That’s less power than the competitors I’ve named, but acceleration is acceptable around town. The Kicks labors a bit passing on the highway.
The continually variable transmission is smooth and quiet, even under strong acceleration.
The EPA rates the Kicks at 31 miles per gallon in the city, 36 on the highway and 33 combined. The key combined figure beats all the competitors I’ve named.
The Kicks’ looks, safety features and smartphone integration recall more expensive vehicles, but the realities of an entry-level budget enforce themselves on the interior materials. My test car had an attractive soft pad in the middle of the dashboard that looked like leather and had contrasting stitching, but nearly all other surfaces on the doors and dash are hard plastic.
The rear seats fold, but not quite flat. That reduces cargo space significantly. The front seat has a single arm rest built into the side of the driver’s seat, but no center console with storage and a wider arm rest. There are a couple of cup holders, small map pockets and a bin with barely enough room for a standard iPhone 8, but interior storage is not a strength.
The steering is light and a bit loose. It’s not a problem, but a reminder that the Kicks’ chassis was designed and specced with affordability in mind rather than sporty driving.
Note: The rod to prop the hood open is very hard to find. If you need to get under the hood, it’s a short black rod in the rear corner of the hood on the passenger side. The hood is made out of steel and surprisingly heavy.
Specifications as tested
Engine: 1.6L 4-cylinder.
Power: 125 hp @ 6,000 hp rpm; 115 pound-feet of torque @ 1,200-4,500 rpm
Transmission: Continuously variable automatic
Wheelbase: 103.1 inches
Length: 169.1 inches
Width: 69.3 inches
Height: 62.4 inches
Curb Weight: 2,672 pounds
Where assembled: Resende, Brazil
The Kicks is one of the most pleasant surprises of the year. Its combination of classy looks, ride height, visibility and features deserve a look from anybody looking for a good small vehicle at an appealing price.
Key features on vehicle tested
Standard equipment: Antilock brakes; stability control; blind spot and cross traffic alerts; front seat side air bags; curtain air bags; touch screen; Apple CarPlay; Android Auto; SiriusXM satellite radio; remote start; 17-inch aluminum wheels; power windows, mirrors and locks; push button start; LED low beam and signature lights; fog lights;
Options: Two-tone paint; floor mats; Bose audio with speakers built into driver head rest; security system; heated seats.