2018 Nissan Kicks

2018 Nissan Kicks

Nissan’s smallest SUV joins the car world’s biggest craze.

By Nick Kurczewski, Car-ED.com | June 2018


Small SUVs are the next big thing in the car world, and automakers are rapidly adding more of them to their lineups. The 2018 Nissan Kicks joins in as the latest entry in this growing range of subcompact SUVs, which includes similarly brand-new models like the Ford EcoSport and Hyundai Kona. More established competition in this segment – which Nissan expects to more than double in sales volume over the next 3-4 years – includes the Kia Soul, Chevrolet Trax, Honda HR-V and Toyota CH-R.

What is this vehicle?

In terms of its size, the Kicks is right in the thick of its competition. The Nissan stretches 169.1 inches in total length, making it slightly larger than the Kia Soul (163 inches long), a bit smaller than the Toyota CH-R (171.7 inches), and the exact same length as the Honda HR-V (169.1 inches).

Helping the 2018 Kicks stand out from the crowd is an aggressively low starting price of $18,965, including the $995 destination fee. A fully-loaded Kicks SR, such as the one we recently test drove in San Diego, California, still came with an affordable as-tested price of $22,025. Our test car included features such as a 7-inch touch screen, Apple CarPlay and Android compatibility, blind spot monitors, surround-view camera, rear cross-traffic warning, leather-wrapped steering wheel and two-tone exterior paintjob, to name a few.

This range-topping trim level only has one major option, a “Premium Package” that costs $1,000 and includes an 8-speaker Bose audio system, leatherette seating surfaces, heated front seats and a vehicle security system. Throw absolutely every option onto a Kicks and you’ll still struggle to get far beyond $25,000.

The Kicks brings more to the small SUV game than a low price. It’s EPA-estimated fuel economy of 31 mpg in city driving and 36 mpg on the highway makes it more frugal than all of its direct rivals, including the Honda HR-V and Hyundai Kona. The 25.3 cubic-feet of cargo room is also more spacious than you might imagine, given this SUV’s petite overall dimensions.

There is only one choice of engine and powertrain across the entire range, a 1.6-liter four-cylinder that produces 125 horsepower and 114 pound-feet of torque at 4,000 rpm, coupled to a Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT). There is no optional all-wheel drive, the Kicks is only available in front-wheel format.

On the road, it’s immediately apparent the Kicks is no tire-burner.  Your right foot gets a workout when merging onto a freeway, or even into busy city traffic. But the modest power output is aided by the Kicks low weight. Tipping the scales at 2,650 pounds, the Kicks weighs hundreds less than many rivals. The engine doesn’t feel out of its depth, despite the small horsepower figure, and it’s quiet on the highway when you’re at a constant cruising speed.

Nissan has also made the standard CVT much better-behaved than previous efforts. Software helps this automatic transmission mimic the staggered feel and sound of an engine working in cooperation with a traditional gearbox (i.e. one with actual gears, not belts). It can still be a little whiny, especially under hard acceleration, though many buyers might never know this is a CVT – and that’s a good thing.

Who is this vehicle for?

Someday, somewhere, an automaker might admit it’s looking to sell cars to people who are old and don’t care about hashtags or what’s trending. That day is not yet here, as evidenced by Nissan’s assertion that car shoppers interested in the Kicks will be young – between 25-35 years old – and highly tech savvy in terms of their daily lives (think along the lines of leaving Yelp reviews and streaming videos) and their careers (imagine baristas who double as musicians, or perhaps it was the other way around?).

Whatever the case, we agree that the price of the Kicks is going to hold appeal to buyers on a limited budget. Often, these frugal shoppers include first-time new car buyers and young couples looking for their first family car. But it’s also likely that empty-nesters and retirees will appreciate the Kicks’ low price, easy-to-maneuver size, the roomy cargo area, not to mention the easier entry and exit provided by a higher-riding SUV.

The Kicks is most at home in the city, or a leafy suburb. For anyone with SUV aspirations that include bounding over boulders and through muddy quagmires, this isn’t the SUV for you.

Why is this vehicle important to you, the buyer?

Please don’t call the 2018 Kicks a replacement for the Juke, Nissan’s recently discontinued small SUV. These are two completely different vehicles – a fact we’ll notice a little later, when discussing handling – though, at a glance, it might seems the Kicks helped boot the Juke from the lineup.  Since it first arrived for the 2011 model year, the Juke was meant to be a niche product, with an emphasis on sporty handling and a bold love-it-or-hate-it exterior design.

The Kicks’ aim is to be far more mainstream and sensible, though still a little cool and edgy, thanks to options like two-tone paint jobs and flashy alloy wheels. It’s the SUV equivalent to driving your parents in a car while listening to Bruno Mars, then realizing your mom is tapping her foot to the beat of the song.

Since it’s brand new, the Kicks has not been crash tested by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety or the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA). While it’s based on the current Versa sedan and hatchback, the Kicks is taller, long and wider than its Nissan siblings. While those two cars scored four out of five stars in NHTSA’s overall crash test rating, the Kicks could (and probably should) better that score.

Speaking of safety, the Kicks is rare in that it comes equipped with automatic emergency braking as standard. That’s a smart move by Nissan, since the mere availability of crash avoidance technology is being increasingly factored into safety scores. The Kicks is also available with safety-minded options such as blind spot monitors, lane departure warning, rear cross-traffic alert and a surround-view camera.

Interesting facts about this vehicle!

  • While it’s a brand-new model here, the Kicks has been on sale in Brazil for about one year.
  • The Kicks coming to the U.S. will be built at Nissan’s factory in Aguascalientes, Mexico.
  • Nissan representatives explained that, in Brazil, small SUVs like the Kicks are hugely popular with families. That explains why this subcompact SUV doesn’t skimp on cargo room, or space in the rear seat.
  • The cabin is roomy for adults, while the handsome dashboard looks a cut above what you’d expect given this Nissan’s low price-tag.
  • Nissan has not mentioned any upcoming performance variants of the Kicks. The outgoing Nissan Juke was offered in a sport-themed Nismo trim that offered razor-sharp handling. Nissan even stuffed a twin-turbo V6 engine, taken from the GT-R sports car, under the hood of a Juke. Called the Juke-R, this 600-horsepower creation was diabolically fast and astronomically expensive, with an asking price of nearly $600,000. Yes, you read that correctly…$600,000! Don’t hold your breath for a Kicks-R.

What Impressed Us / Top Likes:

1 – There is no doubt you get a lot of SUV for your money in the Kicks. The bargain price could easily have led to a product that feels underwhelming and built with low-quality materials. Granted, Nissan put us in a range-topping model for our test drive, but the Kicks doesn’t look or feel cheap anywhere inside the cabin. A few hard black plastic panels cover the doors, but only a true nit-picking customer (or grumpy car journalist) would find fault with them.

2 – The ride is comfortable and keeps the Kicks nicely balanced at all speeds. There is some engine drone when you need to get moving, but the ride is compliant and quiet.

3 – The automatic emergency braking made itself known during one encounter with a stop sign waving construction worker. Out of nowhere, the sign was flipped from “Slow” to “Stop” as we were traveling at close to 50 mph. The Kicks AEB warning lights flashed and the ABS engaged, though the process wasn’t panic-inducing or hyper-sensitive like similar systems in other vehicles.

4 – There are lots of USB outlets in the Kicks! If Nissan wants to attract young buyers, these are as essential as fitting four wheels and a steering wheel onto the car. The infotainment system is also easy to use – we operated music and navigation via Apple CarPlay – and there are physical knobs to control frequently used stereo and ventilation functions. No, you don’t have to scroll through multiple menus to simply turn up the air conditioning – thank you Nissan.

Items to Make Better (Least Favorite Things):

1 – The steering feel, not the power output, is the item we’d like to see tweaked most of all. Driving through downtown San Diego, the Kicks tight turning radius made navigating city streets a breeze. But at higher speeds, like turning onto a freeway on-ramp around 35-45 mph, the electronic steering feels confused about how much resistance to feed back to the driver. The handling tightens for a moment, then goes limp and feels disinterested. A shame, since the ride really keeps up its side of the bargain. More linear and predictable steering responses would make the Kicks feel much livelier.

2 – The power output isn’t great but, unless you live to drive in the left-hand lane all the time, this isn’t a big deal. Since the Kicks is so light, the 125-horsepower engine doesn’t make this small SUV feel ponderous. A turbocharger would certainly add some more, ahem, kick to this Nissan. Though we were surprised that the dull steering responses were more an issue than any horsepower deficit.

Segment and Competitors:

The field of compact/small SUVs is growing quickly. Rivals to the 2018 Nissan Kicks include the following vehicles:

  • Kia Soul
  • Honda HR-V
  • Chevrolet Trax
  • Mazda CX-3
  • Hyundai Kona
  • Toyota CH-R
  • Buick Encore
  • Ford EcoSport
  • Fiat 500X

Unique Specifications:

There are three trim levels: S, SV, and SR. The options structure has been streamlined to a bare minimum, which is a nice touch for anyone who hates haggling over every little detail. A well-equipped Kicks SR, like our test vehicle, is priced at just over $22,000.

Pricing and Availability:

The 2018 Nissan Kicks is arriving in dealerships right now. While the base price of $17,990 makes for great marketing, that doesn’t factor in the $995 destination fee. Still, the Kicks is a big value for anyone looking at a small SUV with an economy car-like price.