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Andrew Wendler • Filling the void left by the funky Juke (in the US, that is - Ed), the new-for-2018 Nissan Kicks focuses on offering value and versatility in a package designed to appeal to a broader audience.
Sensibly styled and light on pretense, it excels in no single metric yet manages to feel balanced rather than cut-rate despite a sub-$20,000 starting price.
EDITOR'S NOTE: You're reading a story by American title Car and Driver. We're bringing you a handful of C/D stories each month, focused on vehicles we've either not yet driven, or models not offered in Australia. Where appropriate, we'll add metric measurements for reference, but grammar and terminology will otherwise remain unchanged.
The Size Situation
Thanks to a more traditional profile, the Nissan Kicks offers far more interior room than did the style-conscious Juke. There's 94 cubic feet of passenger room plus 25 cubic feet of cargo (707 litres) behind the back seat (the Juke had 87 and 11 cubic feet (311L) but felt far more cramped). That translated to comfortable front-seat accommodations for this XXL journalist and his linebacker son, while still leaving enough space for fully formed humans in the back seats.
Interior materials are a mixed bag. While the quilted-fabric seating surfaces in our SR test car are attractive and the contrasting panels add a splash of liveliness, it's clear that a few pennies were pinched in designing the headliner and door panels. Unfortunately, the rear seats, when folded, create a ledge of sorts instead of a flat floor ideal for cargo duty, and for that the Kicks earns a demerit.
The fabric-covered dash houses an easy-to-navigate 7.0-inch touchscreen system, and the instrument panel pairs an analog speedometer with a digital screen to its left that can be toggled through numerous functions including a traditional-looking round tachometer, an odometer, a fuel-economy readout, and numerous system status reports. Apple CarPlay is standard on SV and SR trims, but not the base S model.
Thrifty, But Gruff When Prodded
Judged solely on its performance numbers, the Kicks is unremarkable. Its pokey 9.7-second zero-to-60mph (97km/h) run and 17.5-second quarter-mile (400m) time not only fall behind those of the Mazda CX-3 AWD, whose 8.1- and 16.3-second passes stand at the quicker end of the segment, but also trail the Honda HR-V, the Jeep Renegade, and the Chevrolet Trax.
The naturally aspirated 1.6-liter inline-four engine makes only 125 horsepower (93kW) and 115 lb-ft of torque (156Nm), so if shutting down competitors in stoplight drags is your bag you'll need to set your sights a notch or two down the food chain and find a Chevy Spark to dine on.
And the engine gets pretty gruff when pressed beyond 4000 rpm, which is pretty often due to the nature of the continuously variable automatic transmission (the only transmission choice). On the upside, the CVT performs better than it needs to for this application, despite the programming of stepped "gears" into its operation.
As we discovered at the track, it is possible to trick the CVT into not mimicking shifts by standing on the brake and launching at 1800 rpm, which tends to keep it focused on accelerating rather than pretending to shift. That said, the powertrain's real talent is maximizing real-world fuel economy. The EPA estimates the Kicks at 31 mpg city and 36 highway (7.5/6.5L/100km); we saw a respectable 29 mpg (8.1L/100km) overall and scored an impressive 37 mpg (6.3L/100km) on our 75mph highway fuel-economy loop.
Its braking performance isn't going to win any trophies. Requiring 190 feet (58m) to stop from 70mph (113km/h), it falls far behind the 158-foot (48.2m) metric posted by the Jeep Renegade Sport 4x4 and the 176-foot (53.6m) distance we recorded with the Honda HR-V. Even the last Ford F-150 pickup we tested stopped shorter. Blame the poor performance on the all-season Firestone FT140 tires.
The Kicks SR weighed just 2663 pounds, and we suspect its braking distance performance would improve a lot with stickier rubber. Although the pedal was indifferent, the brakes were at least fade-free and hauled the vehicle to a stop in a controlled manner.
Lateral grip measured in at 0.83 g on our skidpad, a strong showing considering the modest footwear. Charging onto an interstate cloverleaf, the Kicks pushes wide in a smooth, predictable manner long before the tires begin to squeal.
Nissan's Integrated Dynamic-Control Module, which comes standard on the top-spec SR, is intended to optimize chassis behavior by selectively applying the inner or outer brakes during turns or when an unexpected road irregularity jolts the chassis; it also "downshifts" the CVT during braking.
Pricing for the Kicks is just as straightforward as its personality. The base S trim opens at $19,035 (AU$26,310), the middle-tier SV starts at $20,735 (AU$28,160), and the top-trim SR, like our test example, stickers for $21,335 (AU$29,488).
That price includes numerous niceties such as 17-inch aluminum wheels, fog lamps, satellite radio, a 360-degree camera system, a leather-wrapped shift knob and steering wheel, the aforementioned contrasting graphics on the seats and door panels, and a few additional items.
A two-tone exterior treatment ($150) and a set of floormats ($215) brought our total to $21,700 (AU$29,992), not bad considering the level of equipment.
If the Kicks has one primary weakness, it's that numerous competitors have also recently rediscovered the concept of the satisfying inexpensive automobile.
While base models of similar crossovers such as the Hyundai Kona and the Mazda CX-3 undercut the as-tested figure of our top-trim Kicks SR, they both escalate in price rather quickly with options. But both also offer all-wheel drive, which isn't available on the Kicks.
We hope that thrifty buyers keep an open mind, as despite its dynamic shortfalls the Kicks is a well-rounded, balanced, and versatile option in the realm of inexpensive vehicles.
Although the Kicks has been described as a global model, Nissan Australia has so far declined to comment on its potential for the Australian market. For now, this leaves us with the ancient Juke and the larger Qashqai as Nissan's only small SUV offerings in Australia.