With new-car buyers hightailing it out of passenger cars in favor of crossovers and SUVs, automakers are busily filling every tall-wagon niche they can dream up, from the big and burly to the small and practical, all directed into the common theme.
Nissan’s latest urban warrior is the compact Kicks, which replaces the stylistically rebellious Juke with a more-straightforward crossover to anchor a lineup that now includes six crossover/SUVs, with the high-and-mighty Armada at the top of the food chain.
The Japanese automaker always has been one for quirky names, and Kicks could be an even riskier choice than the Juke (which critics obviously labeled the Joke). The latest name seems aimed at the young urban hipster, i.e. something you drive for kicks, as in fun and excitement.
Yet it would still seem awkward to tell your friends and relations that your car is a Kicks. Or the parking valet. And why plural? Why not just Kick?
But getting past its name, Kicks is a competent and enjoyable little crossover for those who want something small and practical for the challenges of daily life. The interior is surprisingly roomy for the overall size, and the price of entry even for the top-drawer SR version test car is quite affordable.
The styling continues, on a smaller scale, Nissan’s design touchstones, such as the distinctive grille and the so-called “floating roof” accomplished with an artfully blackened C pillar. What makes Kicks a crossover instead of merely a tallish four-door hatchback is beyond me, but the styling does have much to do with it.
Other than that, Kicks comes only in front-wheel drive – no all-wheel option – and the hard-working 1.6-liter 4-cylinder engine puts out a relaxed 122 horsepower, hardly the stuff of an adventure craft. Yet Kicks manages to come across as a perky contender among the small range of similar diminutive crossovers, such as Kia Soul.
My only real complaint about Kicks is its overly light and numb steering, which was quite unexpected as most automakers seem to have mastered electric power boost, Nissan included, and manage to endow it with at least a modicum of weight and road feel.
The steering stood out as a clinker in a crossover that otherwise drives and handles nicely. The suspension is tuned more for comfort than agility, but Kicks does equate itself well in corners or dicing through traffic. The steering, though, is an issue.
The other beef is a little more subjective, and that’s the engine power. For all intents and purposes, the sophisticated DOHC engine with continuously variable valve timing runs smoothly and efficiently, with enough strength to motivate the lightweight Kicks in its target environment, which is urban and suburban driving.
Even on the freeway, the engine moves the car along well at fast cruising speeds. But it’s when getting on the freeway, or trying to speed up to pass, that you feel the lack of gusto under the hood. The small horsepower output is compounded with light torque, at a maximum of 114 pound-feet, so the get up and go could be better.
And in my Western environment, where vehicles are sometimes challenged by long, steep grades, Kicks might have to stick to the slow lane.
On the flip side, the engine is linked with a continuously variable transmission named Xtronic that seems to wring the most power available. Once again, Nissan is ahead of the curve in CVT technology, even for those of us who hate the slippery feel and the droning engine sounds typical of the breed.
But Xtronic manages to eliminate most of those quibbles by replicating the stepped shifts of a “regular” multi-gear automatic. And it kicks down quickly and appropriately when the throttle is applied. The best part, though, is the fuel mileage accomplished by this drivetrain, EPA rated at 31 city, 36 highway and 33 combined.
I know that I’m just dreaming when I wish Kicks had a manual-transmission option, since the market for such things seems to have dried up for anything except sports and performance vehicles. Sad but true, and the automakers have mostly backed off on producing stick for anything else.
The Kicks SR comes very well-equipped for its price tag of just over $21,000, including shipping. Features include most desirable technology and safety gear, as well as such convenience items as a 7-inch touchscreen, keyless entry and start, and surround-view camera. The base model, starting around $18,540, also has a decent level of equipment, such as a rear-view camera and a decent audio system.
The SR model also has a leather-wrapped steering wheel and 17-inch alloy wheels. The interior of the test car looked considerably more upscale than the bottom line would indicate, such as nicely quilted seat upholstery and contrasting stitching on the dashboard and trim.
But being an inexpensive car means some cheapness is inevitable, such as manual dimming control for the rearview mirror instead of the common feature of auto dimming, and brakes with discs in front and drums in back instead of four-wheel discs like most modern vehicles.
But those are small matters – I can flip to the night mirror as needed and the brakes work perfectly well – for a good little crossover than would serve most people well. Now, if they could just dial in the steering a bit better…
2018 Nissan Kicks SR CVT
Vehicle type: five-passenger, five-door crossover, front-wheel drive
Base price: $20,290 Price as tested: $21,650
Engine: 1.6-liter inline-4, 122 horsepower at 6,300 rpm, 114 pound-feet of torque at 4,000 rpm Transmission: Continuously variable automatic
Wheelbase: 103.1 inches Overall length/width: 169.1 inches / 69.3 inches
Curb weight: 2,672 pounds
EPA mileage estimates: 31 city / 36 highway / 33 combined
Assembled in: Aguascalientes, Mexico