New Kicks CUV on sale now at U.S. Nissan dealers.
New Kicks CUV on sale now at U.S. Nissan dealers.

Nissan Out to Kick Some Butt

The Kicks is the right vehicle in this CUV-crazy time – more understated than the model it replaces and an incredible deal to boot.

SAN DIEGO – Nissan got ahead of the modern small CUV trend when it launched the Juke in the U.S. in fall 2010.

But the now-discontinued vehicle, a hoot to drive due to its strong performance bent, had a quirky look (thanks to its bug-eyed front-end) and sold in relatively modest volumes.

In the eight years since the Juke’s debut a flood of competition has emerged to satiate Americans’ CUV appetite, most offering something less quirky and unusual and seeing greater sales success.

To rectify Nissan’s U.S. misstep with the Juke comes the new Kicks CUV, riding on the same V platform as Nissan’s Versa subcompact sedan and hatch. It is the right vehicle in this CUV-crazy time – more understated than the model it replaces and an incredible deal to boot.

Whereas the Juke ranged from $20,000-to-$30,000 in its final model year of ’17, the new ’18 Kicks starts at $17,990 for a base S grade, is $19,690 for a midgrade SV and tops out at $20,290 for the top-line SR.

Even choosing the SR’s $1,000 option package (Bose 8-speaker audio system, faux-leather heated seats), adding $150-$545 in optional paint offerings and piling on the available $3,170 worth of port-installed accessories would make the Kicks SR a great value as most of the competitive set tops out near $30,000.

However, there are tradeoffs with the Kicks.

Unlike the Hyundai Kona, winner of a 2018 Wards 10 Best Interiors award, the Kicks interior has relatively basic, downmarket materials.

Most surfaces are hard plastic, including upper doors and the upper instrument panel. The plastic has a familiar leather-like graining, unlike the more techno-graphic grain on the Kona’s IP, or the circles-and-squares look of the new Ford EcoSport’s upper doors.

There’s also a scruffy rat-fur headliner, a rare sight these days in a U.S. vehicle interior, although the CUV’s front seatbacks are cloth-covered, something you don’t always get even in luxury models.

The Kicks’s cabin is not without style. In the SR tested here there is faux leather with orange stitching on the front of the IP, as well as a black and orange fabric on doors; seat fabric is a cool cloth with a burnout diamond pattern, accented by the same black and orange fabric from the doors. An SV also tested here has a quilted-like faux metal trim on the IP.

Nissan considers the key competitors to be the EcoSport, Kona and Soul. We would remove the Kona as it, like most of the competitive set, has a higher-output engine.

The Kicks’ 1.6L 4-cyl. makes just 125 hp and 115 lb.-ft. (156 Nm) of torque, compared with horsepower of 147 to 175 for the Kona, along with torque ratings of 132 lb.-ft. to 195 lb.-ft. (179-264 Nm). The Kona has a naturally aspirated 2.0L base engine, but also a 1.6L turbocharged 4-cyl. that gives it those higher numbers.

The EcoSport, like the Kicks originally a Brazilian-market CUV, uses Ford’s 1.0L turbocharged and direct-injected 3-cyl. making 123 hp and 125 lb.-ft. (169 Nm) of torque. Not only is the EcoSport’s torque rating higher, it peaks sooner: at 3,500 rpm vs. the 4,000-rpm peak in the Kicks.

The Soul could be considered a competitor on the low end, as it offers three engines, ranging from a 130-hp 1.6L naturally aspirated four to a 201-hp 1.6L turbocharged four. Like the Kicks, the Soul lacks all-wheel drive, which Nissan officials here point out has not hampered its sales success (Kia has sold more than 100,000 annually for the past seven years, Wards Intelligence data shows).

While the Kicks’ mill on paper looks like a dog, especially compared to the Juke’s 188-hp turbo-4, it moves the vehicle along well and is surprisingly quiet.

Here in greater San Diego (despite Nissan marketing this as an urban CUV, most of our drive route was on suburban/rural two-lane, hilly roads) the Kicks tackles most inclines easily and without fuss. The only real raucousness comes accelerating from a stop going uphill (there’s also a fair bit of wind noise – hey, what do you expect for under $20,000?).

Nissan again relies on a CVT to deliver power to the wheels. Nissan and supplier Jatco have a long CVT history, so the Kicks’ is quite good and lacks the dreaded rubber-band sensation early CVTs were infamous for.

The Kicks uses an independent strut front suspension and a twist beam rear. The latter is great for limiting body roll but reveals its bouncy shortcomings on some of the broken roads around here. However, most roads here are smooth and so is our ride.

The light-feel, high-ratio steering isn’t lovable, tiring our arms as we wind our way through the switchbacks of San Diego county in our Kicks SR.

The Kicks is bigger than the Juke – overall about 7 ins. (178 mm) longer. It is roughly 3 ins. (76 mm) shorter than the Rogue Sport.

Still, it is plenty roomy inside for people and (partially thanks to the twist beam) their stuff. This 5-ft.-8-in. reviewer fit comfortably in the outboard back seats. Meanwhile, Nissan claims cargo-space supremacy over the Soul, Kona, EcoSport and Toyota’s C-HR.

While the center head restraint in the back doesn’t appear to adjust upward to accommodate taller adults, the Kicks otherwise has good safety content. Nissan touts the inclusion of automatic emergency braking as standard technology across the lineup, while the SV gets standard blindspot warning with rear-cross-traffic alert.

For those with safety as a paramount concern, or those who love semi-autonomous technology, the Toyota C-HR offers more tech standard, including adaptive cruise control and lane-departure alert with assisted steering. Neither technology is available on the Kicks.

The new Nissan CUV has a decent infotainment system, with both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto standard on the midgrade SV and top-end SR. Nissan expects the SV to be the best-selling model in the CUV’s lineup.

There also are three USB ports standard across all grades, a good number for a small CUV.

The Kicks edges into the Juke’s quirky territory by offering two-tone paint jobs, from $150 to $545. Buyers can pair a black roof with an orange, red or white body, an orange roof with a gray body or (our favorite) a white roof with a blue body.

While we can’t say it’s the best small CUV we’ve driven, the Kicks is a good value for what it brings to the table.

Nissan isn’t releasing sales expectations, but the 45.8% growth in Wards Intelligence data’s Small CUV segment through May, and Nissan’s forecast for projected growth of 156% in the segment by fiscal year 2022, indicate the Kicks could kick some butt in the segment.

The ’18 Kicks, assembled in Aguascalientes, Mexico, is on sale now at U.S. Nissan dealers.

'18 Nissan Kicks SR Specifications

Vehicle type  4-door, 5-passenger CUV
Engine  1.6L DOHC 4-cyl., all aluminum
Power (SAE net)   125 hp @ 5,800 rpm
Torque  115 lb.-ft. (156 Nm) @ 4,000 rpm
Bore x stroke (mm)   78.0 x 83.6
Compression ratio  9.8:1
Transmission  Continuously variable
Wheelbase  103.1 ins. (2,619 mm)
Overall length  169.1 ins. (4,295 mm)
Overall width  69.3 ins. (1,760 mm)
Overall height  62.4 ins. (1,585 mm)
Curb weight  2,672 lbs. (1,212 kg)
Price as tested  $21,630, incl. $975 destination and handling charge
Fuel economy  31/36 mpg (7.6-6.5 L/100 km) city/highway
Competition Buick Encore, Chevy Trax, Fiat 500X, Ford EcoSport, Honda HR-V, Hyundai Kona, Jeep Compass, Jeep Renegade, Mazda CX-3, Mitsubishi Outlander Sport, Toyota C-HR, Subaru Crosstrek, Volkswagen Tiguan
Pros Super affordable; some funky interior elements; some standard advanced safety tech
Cons Lacks some features comps have; materials not greatest; trails C-HR on safety tech
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