If you think 125 hp isn’t enough grunt for a subcompact crossover like the 2018 Nissan Kicks, take a step back to see the bigger (or smaller) picture. With an as-tested curb weight of just 2,643 pounds, the affordable Kicks is far lighter and more efficient than its competitors. Whether you consider the Kicks a crossover-wannabe hatchback or a genuine entry-level crossover, the Nissan is compelling for the right type of buyer. We tested a loaded $22,630 Kicks SR to determine just how competitive a 125 hp Kicks could possibly be compared to other sub-$25,000 subcompact crossovers and hatchbacks.
Like the popular Kia Soul and bonkers Toyota C-HR, the Kicks doesn’t offer all-wheel drive—so if you live in the Snow Belt, you’ll want to buy winter tires. With the charming Juke gone from Nissan’s lineup, the Kicks is the automaker’s entry-level crossover. When the Rogue Sport is too expensive and the Versa Note doesn’t satisfy your need for SUV-like styling, Nissan hopes you’ll consider the Kicks. All Kicks trims are powered by a 125-hp 1.6-liter naturally aspirated I-4 with 115 lb-ft of torque. That’s less horsepower than almost all of the Nissan’s competitors, but the Kicks’ lighter weight puts the car back in the race.
A 0–60 mph time of 9.7 seconds will sound lazy to those who haven’t driven some of the Kicks’ front-drive competition. A 2015 Chevrolet Trax got to 60 in 9.3 seconds, but the 2018 C-HR took 10.3 seconds, and the three-cylinder 2018 Ford EcoSport made it to 60 in a noisy 10.7 seconds. On the road, the Kicks’ standard CVT makes the Nissan feel a little jumpy at first if you apply too much throttle, after which it eventually gets you to the speed you want. As with most vehicles in this class—the Kia Soul and Mazda CX-3 are two exceptions—passing takes time and planning. Around town, the CVT provides the smooth shift-less performance for which the automatic transmission is known, but it does simulate gear shifts if you’re driving aggressively. No paddle shifters or Sport transmission mode are available, but the Low gear on the shift stalk comes in handy when you want to slow down using engine braking instead of the actual brakes.
The engine makes noise when you’re hustling, but the tires keep surprisingly quiet around curves. The Kicks never feels like it wants to play, but the steering is well-weighted and, as we noted in our First Drive review, there’s some steering feel relative to the competition. On our figure-eight test, which tracks driving characteristics such as acceleration, braking, cornering, and the transitions between them, the 2018 Kicks SR turned in a time of 28.4 seconds at 0.56 g (average), performance that’s on par with the C-HR, Trax, and EcoSport. About the Kicks, road test editor Chris Walton said that turn-in is crisp, and that “there’s good balance with a whiff of understeer. Steering actually has some feel and heft to in on the skidpad.” A 2015 Kia Soul with the mid-level 2.0-liter I-4, however, blows away the Kicks in acceleration (8.3 seconds to 60) and figure-eight testing, taking 27.9 seconds and holding on at 0.75 g (average).
What no new Kia Soul can offer is EPA-rated fuel economy anywhere near the Kicks. In fact, the Kicks’ 31/36 mpg city/highway beats every crossover or crossover-like hatch in this price range. And although the Kicks’ on-paper rear-seat legroom and cargo specs won’t impress, check it out in person—it might feel more spacious than you expect, even if the rear doors don’t open as conveniently wide as the HR-V. Another point for the HR-V: Unlike the Honda, the Kicks’ rear headrests don’t slide out of the way when they’re not being used, compromising visibility. Otherwise, the Kicks benefits from decent sightlines front and rear.
Although the HR-V has a suspension on the harsher side, the Kicks’ suspension provides excellent ride quality over harsh pavement. You shouldn’t need to brace yourself over every road imperfection or freeway expansion joint—though you’ll probably hear them. Inside, our 2018 Kicks SR tester looked impressively decked-out for a $22,630 car. Sure, the door panels are mostly hard black plastic, but there are positive spots, too. Most vehicles at this price won’t offer the Kicks’ 7.0-inch instrument cluster display included on Kicks SVs and SRs (complete with a tire pressure monitoring system with readouts for every tire), or the leather-like material on the passenger side of the dash and the similar material on either side of the center console. Four control knobs (volume, tuning, air temperature, and air flow level) keep things straightforward, though I wish the center-stack touchscreen was mounted higher for better visibility. The Kicks lacks a covered center console storage area, but the driver does get an armrest on the right side. In back, it’d be cool if rear-seat passengers had a central armrest that folds out of the middle rear seat … but did we mention the Kicks starts at just $18,965?
Pricing is key to understanding the Kicks’ appeal. A base 2018 Kicks S still has automatic emergency braking, a rearview camera, a CVT (make sure to add an automatic transmission to your online builds of subcompacts offering a manual transmission) and a 7.0-inch touchscreen display. Features editor Scott Evans suggests in our First Drive review of the Kicks to go for the mid-grade SV model, which adds Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility, 17-inch alloy wheels (instead of the S’ 16-inch steel wheels with covers), a proximity key with push-button start, blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert, and that 7.0-inch instrument cluster display. For $20,665—if you consider the Kicks a front-drive crossover—it’s a great value for the money.
Personally, I would go one level up, spending $600 more for the SR trim. The Kicks SR gets a leather-wrapped steering wheel, LED low-beam headlights, and Nissan’s version of a surround-view multi-camera visibility system. If you’ve ever pulled into a parking space and wondered whether you should pull up a couple more feet or whether you’re centered in the space, this system can help. The SR costs $21,265, and if you really want to splurge, a $1,000 Premium package adds leatherette seats and the superb Bose sound system with two speakers in the driver’s headrest (our tester added to that total a neat $150 two-tone paint job and $215 floor mats).
Let’s be honest, no one needs a crossover-like vehicle such as the Kicks; you want it. If you’re looking to save some money, Nissan offers cheaper and more basic A-to-B transportation in the form of the Versa Note hatch and Sentra sedan. But if you want a bit more design personality, and far better interior style and finish, the Kicks is worth investigating.
At $21,265, a Kicks SR comes in around $2,000 cheaper than a front-drive, automatic-transmission Honda HR-V EX, another spacious option that looks more like a crossover. At least for the 2018 model year, however, the Honda lacks LED headlights and automatic emergency braking, but does offer all-wheel drive and an electric parking brake with the very convenient auto-brake-hold feature. The other car to consider is the Kia Soul. If its sub-par fuel economy doesn’t bother you, the front-drive-only Soul also offers cool exterior customization options, and is much quicker with its mid-level engine.
Then again, maybe you don’t care about quick acceleration. Maybe your current car has a Sport mode you touched once, and that was by accident as you reached for something else. If you fall in that camp and don’t need all-wheel drive, the ultra-efficient Kicks is no slower than the average subcompact crossover, and offers a ton of content for not a ton of money.
|2018 Nissan Kicks SR|
|PRICE AS TESTED||$22,630|
|VEHICLE LAYOUT||Front-engine, FWD, 5-pass, 4-door hatchback|
|ENGINE||1.6L/125-hp/115-lb-ft DOHC 16-valve I-4|
|TRANSMISSION||Cont variable auto|
|CURB WEIGHT (F/R DIST)||2,643 lb (61/39%)|
|LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT||169.1 x 69.3 x 62.4 in|
|0-60 MPH||9.7 sec|
|QUARTER MILE||17.5 sec @ 79.3 mph|
|BRAKING, 60-0 MPH||126 ft|
|LATERAL ACCELERATION||0.83 g (avg)|
|MT FIGURE EIGHT||28.4 sec @ 0.56 g (avg)|
|EPA CITY/HWY/COMB FUEL ECON||31/36/33 mpg|
|ENERGY CONS, CITY/HWY||109/94 kW-hrs/100 miles|
|CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB||0.59 lb/mile|