Just about every week it seems an automaker announces or reveals a new vehicle or puts a new spin on an old vehicle that millennials will just love. Even the pitches that aren’t tone-deaf are usually met with the same eye-rolling response: many millennials are saddled with debt and working a job beneath their education because it’s all they could get. Given enough chances, it was only a matter of time before an automaker actually hit the target, and Nissan may have done it.
Buying the base model of an entry-level car used to mean you couldn’t even get power windows or door locks, and it wasn’t that long ago Bluetooth and automatic headlights were restricted to pricier trim levels. Rear cameras only became standard this year because the government mandated it. Things are getting better for the value shopper in general as customers expect more from their vehicles, but the 2018 Nissan Kicks takes it a big step forward.
The 2018 Kicks’ standard features read like a list of things you normally wish you could get as options on a base model. Automatic emergency braking and forward collision alert. Automatic headlights. Three USB ports (more than some competitors offer, period, let alone on a base model). Tilting and telescoping steering wheel. Automatic up/down front windows. Keyless entry and push-button starte. A 7.0-inch touchscreen infotainment system with Bluetooth phone and streaming audio. All of that for $18,965.
If you can scrape a few more pennies together, though, it’s worth an extra month of eating ramen for the midgrade SV model. The 2018 Kicks SV picks up an upgraded infotainment system (still a 7.0-inch touchscreen) with CarPlay and Android Auto and satellite radio, automatic climate control, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic monitoring, a cargo cover, remote engine starting, and alloy wheels for $20,665 all said and done.
Unless you really want LED headlights and a surround-view camera system, skip past the $21,265 SR trim, as it’s mostly cosmetic, though it does add a few lines of software to the engine and chassis computers that are supposed to make it handle a little better. If you’re going to splurge anyway, beg, borrow, or steal the extra $1,000 and get the loaded SR with the Premium package. To the SR niceties it adds nice faux-leather seats with heaters up front, a security system, and a phenomenal Bose Personal Plus eight-speaker stereo.
Let’s take a moment to talk about this stereo. You’re lucky if you can even get a “premium” stereo upgrade in a car that maxes out at $22,265 before accessories, and it usually just takes you from “it plays music” to “this sounds decent.” The Bose stereo in this Kicks, no joke, sounds better than the base stereo in a $180,000 Bentley Bentayga. Play an uncompressed audio file off your phone, and marvel at the clarity of the individual instruments and the breadth of the sound stage, then remind yourself this is a $22,000 car. Part of the trick is a pair of speakers in the driver’s head rest, which are there to manipulate the stage, not blow out your eardrums, though you can hear a difference if you turn your head all the way to the right or left. The stereo can be adjusted to focus sound at the driver when you’re alone in the car, but personally, I preferred the panoramic setting and its recording-studio feel.
If the SR Premium package really would break the bank, though, rest assured the base stereo is actually pretty good, too.
Fitting all these features into this price point did require decisions on Nissan’s part, some tough and some curious. For example, rear parking sensors, a Rockford Fosgate subwoofer, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, and ambient interior lighting are all either stand-alone accessories or a small accessories package rather than rolled into a trim level or larger package. The upshot here is you can buy exactly what matters to you.
In other cases, though, you’re left hanging. Because the Kicks shares a platform with the Versa and Versa Note, all-wheel drive is not available. Nissan also opted against a navigation option, so your phone will have to suffice when service permits. Adaptive cruise control is also off the menu despite the automatic emergency braking system using a radar module and adaptive cruise only requiring some code and a steering wheel button. If you’d like any of this, you’ll need to step up to the more expensive Rogue Sport.
If you can live without all-wheel drive, however, there’s a lot to like about the way the Kicks drives. A 1.6-liter I-4 with a CVT driving the front wheels is your only option, and despite offering an underwhelming 125 hp and 115 lb-ft, it’s much better than it sounds. Nissan’s got an ace up its sleeve, and it’s a claimed curb weight under 2,700 pounds (200 to 500 pounds less than competitors). I’d estimate its 0–60 time around 9.0 to 9.5 seconds, which puts it in line with the Honda HR-V and Subaru Crosstrek and well ahead of the Toyota C-HR. Critically, the Kicks always feels like it’s trying. This engine delivers a sense of urgency that’s absent from the C-HR, and it doesn’t struggle with hills at freeway speeds like the HR-V does. Yeah, like the rest of them, it’s still slow, but you don’t feel like you need to floor it to avoid being run over. When you do floor it, the Kicks feels like it’s actually moving.
Part of this is thanks to new transmission software that finally whips Nissan’s CVT into shape. The rubber-band feel associated with some CVTs is gone, and when you really get into the gas pedal it automatically begins simulating shifts. It’s much more like the class-leading CVTs from Honda and Subaru—and finally not a liability. On top of that, it facilitates best-in-class EPA-rated fuel economy across the board at 31/36/33 mpg city/highway/combined.
Paired up with the eager-to-please drivetrain, the variable steering rack doesn’t feel variable; it gives you linear and predictable steering response in corners with a nice weight to it. The same can be said of the brake pedal. All of your inputs are met with the exact response you’d expect from them, which makes the Kicks very pleasant to drive. In the city, the super tight U-turn radius is handy, and the surprisingly flat body control makes it fun to hustle. The tires have more grip than you’d expect and don’t make any noise even when you’re pushing them, though they do get loud on a concrete freeway.
However you plan to drive it, you’ll appreciate the large windows and the excellent outward visibility they provide. It’s great Nissan offers blind-spot monitoring and a surround-view camera system, but it’s even better they don’t feel like mandatory equipment, as on some cars with their gun-slit windows. Up front, the cabin feels big and airy, especially for such a small vehicle. There’s tons of leg- and headroom up there, but the space around the driver’s knee is cramped. My right knee was always touching the center console. The rear seat is more cramped, especially for the long-legged. The cargo area is surprisingly large and still fits a space-saver spare tire. Unfortunately, the second row doesn’t fold flat, leaving you a two-level expanded cargo space.
The rest of the interior is what you’d expect for a sub-$23,000 car. It’s all plastic, unless you get an SR with its nice stitched faux-leather wrap on the dash. The quality of the plastic is fine, as is fit and finish. The design is mostly inoffensive, though the door panels are big black slabs with a single trim piece to liven them up. Enjoy all the headroom, and don’t look up at the mouse fur headliner and retro ’90s map light console.
Nissan calls the Kicks stylish and hip and says the kids will love it, but here’s the straight talk: The Kicks is surprisingly well-equipped with features you actually want, and it boasts killer fuel economy. If all-wheel drive isn’t a must-have, it’s hard to come up with another compelling reason to keep the Kicks off your shopping list.