Nissan’s new Kicks compact ute is a back-to-basics conveyance. It delivers reasonable size, driving character, quirky style, and fuel economy without any kind of whizbang trickery. This isn’t a hybrid, there’s no turbocharger, no variable displacement, no slick compression ignition. It’s a small displacement traditional four-cylinder engine with modest but workable horsepower mated to a standard CVT and front-wheel drive. It’s based on Nissan’s Versa platform, so I didn’t have high hopes going in, but the Kicks was capable of something that CUVs traditionally haven’t been, and frankly cars aimed at regular consumers haven’t been for a long time; It was kind of fun.
In the interest of full disclosure, I was flown to San Diego, fed, and lodged by Nissan on behalf of Hooniverse to test drive the Kicks. I have done my level best to ensure my review of this car has not been influenced by their PR staff’s generosity. To get the full story, click the jump to find out more about the Nissan Kicks.
2650 pounds. 125 horsepower. $18,000.
Yeah, you read that correctly. This smallish CUV has a curb weight 1200 pounds fewer than that of Nissan’s ultimate sports car, the GT-R (Hell, this thing weighs less than a Civic). It has fewer horsepower than MINI’s 3-cylinder base engine. And perhaps most importantly, it starts at about the same money as a compact hatch. Even better, a fully loaded Kicks with all the bells and whistles is still under $21,500.
By putting the Kicks on a crash diet with every single part analyzed for strength and weight, they were able to produce a right-sized car that scoots acceptably from a stop light. Most importantly, it’s the right size for most American families. It would ultimately be a great idea for Nissan to further involve this kind of thinking across their entire production line, reducing the weight, power, and cost of their dealership offerings. Sure, the lower horsepower numbers don’t grab headlines, but boy howdy they drive a lot better this way.
You can easily fit four adult people in the Kicks, and while at 6’2″ I’d have trouble sitting behind another person my size, it’s not entirely impossible. Part of the Kicks driving event involved taking selfies with a modern Polaroid camera depicting the features of Kicks, completing a scavenger-hunt-style list in a competition against other driving partner teams. Shown here is myself, Automobile Magazine’s Eleonor Segura, and our flamingo co-pilot demonstrating the rear-seat headroom. Plenty of room there.
Nissan really tried to push the YOUTHFUL aspect of the Kicks with beachy and surf themes played throughout the two-day driving program. It makes sense, as the company recently removed the Juke from their North American lineup, for the Kicks to take over as their Millennial-buyer target. They made it clear several times that this car is not a ‘direct replacement for the Juke’, but that’s basically what it is. The design is funky enough, especially with a contrasting roof color (Nissan will also let you personalize the door handle color, spoiler color, and more with their “Color Studio”. Be careful, however, as some color combos are terrifyingly bad.) Accessories, like the surf board rack below, emphasize the Kicks’ prowess at transporting you to where the real fun happens.
From a styling perspective, the Kicks looks like most any other upright CUV in its class. You could put a C-HR, an HR-V, and a Kicks in a lineup and see a lot of similarities between them. There are some busy moments in the sheetmetal here, like the lower door trim intended to make the Kicks look more off-road capable than it is. Perception is key. As mentioned, the color accented roof (optional) is a high point for me, while the floating C-pillar treatment is the lowest of low points to my eyes.
It should be mentioned that I loathe SUVs, Trucks, and CUVs in general. They’re a plague on our good streets. They’re more expensive for no real added benefit. People commend them for their safety in a crash because they’re big, but the reality is that a more nimble sedan, wagon, or van could potentially have stopped earlier or swerved to avoid the crash altogether. For me to offer praise for any CUV, it would have to be something special, exemplary. That’s exactly what the Kicks is, by virtue of its light weight and small engine. Even with a CVT, this is a case study in returning to smaller and lighter cars, and that deserves applause.
Don’t get me wrong, the Kicks cuts plenty of corners to achieve its low MSRP. The rear brakes are drums, and the rear axle is a twist beam. NVH isn’t great with the CVT holding that small 1.6-liter engine at high revs for extended periods. It’s never going to be an enthusiast’s car, but it’s a pragmatic choice in a world full of horrifyingly expensive and oversized and overweight SUVs. For 98% of Kicks buyers, this thing will drive exactly like any other commuter penalty box, but without most of the penalty.
That 1.6-liter is lifted straight out of the Versa and pumped up slightly to make 125 horsepower against the Versa’s 109. That may not seem like a lot of power, but with the low weight, it doesn’t feel particularly sluggish or anemic. Driving it all day, there wasn’t really a situation where I was begging it for more power. It cruises fine at highway speeds and it’s more than capable of keeping up with traffic in town. CVTs suck a lot, but I suspect this one was responsible for much of the Kicks’ 33 mile per gallon return in combined cycle driving. I saw average numbers over thirty all day, so that’s a pretty real-world number, too. Honestly, that’s not an unreasonable number for a car of this size.
The smaller color-accented wheels on the base Kicks S model are close to good, but miss the mark.
The most expensive Kicks, the SR, is available with a 1000 dollar “Premium Package” option that includes Bose premium audio in the driver’s side headrest, full seat fake leather with heated front seats, and a factory security system. I am usually the last person to admit that premium audio is worth the extra cash, but in this case it definitely is. Were I to order a Kicks brand new, I’d opt for the all-in SR Premium in Deep Blue Pearl with a Fresh Powder White roof. Just personal preference.
The wheels on the higher trim cars are nice.
LOOK HOW ACTIVE LIFESTYLE I AM!
You know what else weighs more than a Kicks? This 370Z.
Kicks SR and Kicks SV both come with Apple Car Play and Android Auto standard.
Maybe the real Kicks was the friends we made along the way.