2019 Nissan Kicks: How To Turn This Whole Thing Around

Nissan’s new Kicks compact ute is a back-to-basics conveyance. It delivers reasonable size, driving character, quirky style, and fuel economy without any kind of whizbang trickery. This isn’t a hybrid, there’s no turbocharger, no variable displacement, no slick compression ignition. It’s a small displacement traditional four-cylinder engine with modest but workable horsepower mated to a standard CVT and front-wheel drive. It’s based on Nissan’s Versa platform, so I didn’t have high hopes going in, but the Kicks was capable of something that CUVs traditionally haven’t been, and frankly cars aimed at regular consumers haven’t been for a long time; It was kind of fun.
In the interest of full disclosure, I was flown to San Diego, fed, and lodged by Nissan on behalf of Hooniverse to test drive the Kicks. I have done my level best to ensure my review of this car has not been influenced by their PR staff’s generosity. To get the full story, click the jump to find out more about the Nissan Kicks. 

2650 pounds. 125 horsepower. $18,000.
Yeah, you read that correctly. This smallish CUV has a curb weight 1200 pounds fewer than that of Nissan’s ultimate sports car, the GT-R (Hell, this thing weighs less than a Civic). It has fewer horsepower than MINI’s 3-cylinder base engine. And perhaps most importantly, it starts at about the same money as a compact hatch. Even better, a fully loaded Kicks with all the bells and whistles is still under $21,500. 

By putting the Kicks on a crash diet with every single part analyzed for strength and weight, they were able to produce a right-sized car that scoots acceptably from a stop light. Most importantly, it’s the right size for most American families. It would ultimately be a great idea for Nissan to further involve this kind of thinking across their entire production line, reducing the weight, power, and cost of their dealership offerings. Sure, the lower horsepower numbers don’t grab headlines, but boy howdy they drive a lot better this way.

You can easily fit four adult people in the Kicks, and while at 6’2″ I’d have trouble sitting behind another person my size, it’s not entirely impossible. Part of the Kicks driving event involved taking selfies with a modern Polaroid camera depicting the features of Kicks, completing a scavenger-hunt-style list in a competition against other driving partner teams. Shown here is myself, Automobile Magazine’s Eleonor Segura, and our flamingo co-pilot demonstrating the rear-seat headroom. Plenty of room there.

Nissan really tried to push the YOUTHFUL aspect of the Kicks with beachy and surf themes played throughout the two-day driving program. It makes sense, as the company recently removed the Juke from their North American lineup, for the Kicks to take over as their Millennial-buyer target. They made it clear several times that this car is not a ‘direct replacement for the Juke’, but that’s basically what it is. The design is funky enough, especially with a contrasting roof color (Nissan will also let you personalize the door handle color, spoiler color, and more with their “Color Studio”. Be careful, however, as some color combos are terrifyingly bad.) Accessories, like the surf board rack below, emphasize the Kicks’ prowess at transporting you to where the real fun happens. 

From a styling perspective, the Kicks looks like most any other upright CUV in its class. You could put a C-HR, an HR-V, and a Kicks in a lineup and see a lot of similarities between them. There are some busy moments in the sheetmetal here, like the lower door trim intended to make the Kicks look more off-road capable than it is. Perception is key. As mentioned, the color accented roof (optional) is a high point for me, while the floating C-pillar treatment is the lowest of low points to my eyes. 

It should be mentioned that I loathe SUVs, Trucks, and CUVs in general. They’re a plague on our good streets. They’re more expensive for no real added benefit. People commend them for their safety in a crash because they’re big, but the reality is that a more nimble sedan, wagon, or van could potentially have stopped earlier or swerved to avoid the crash altogether. For me to offer praise for any CUV, it would have to be something special, exemplary. That’s exactly what the Kicks is, by virtue of its light weight and small engine. Even with a CVT, this is a case study in returning to smaller and lighter cars, and that deserves applause. 

Don’t get me wrong, the Kicks cuts plenty of corners to achieve its low MSRP. The rear brakes are drums, and the rear axle is a twist beam. NVH isn’t great with the CVT holding that small 1.6-liter engine at high revs for extended periods. It’s never going to be an enthusiast’s car, but it’s a pragmatic choice in a world full of horrifyingly expensive and oversized and overweight SUVs. For 98% of Kicks buyers, this thing will drive exactly like any other commuter penalty box, but without most of the penalty. 

That 1.6-liter is lifted straight out of the Versa and pumped up slightly to make 125 horsepower against the Versa’s 109. That may not seem like a lot of power, but with the low weight, it doesn’t feel particularly sluggish or anemic. Driving it all day, there wasn’t really a situation where I was begging it for more power. It cruises fine at highway speeds and it’s more than capable of keeping up with traffic in town. CVTs suck a lot, but I suspect this one was responsible for much of the Kicks’ 33 mile per gallon return in combined cycle driving. I saw average numbers over thirty all day, so that’s a pretty real-world number, too. Honestly, that’s not an unreasonable number for a car of this size. 

The smaller color-accented wheels on the base Kicks S model are close to good, but miss the mark. 

The most expensive Kicks, the SR, is available with a 1000 dollar “Premium Package” option that includes Bose premium audio in the driver’s side headrest, full seat fake leather with heated front seats, and a factory security system. I am usually the last person to admit that premium audio is worth the extra cash, but in this case it definitely is. Were I to order a Kicks brand new, I’d opt for the all-in SR Premium in Deep Blue Pearl with a Fresh Powder White roof. Just personal preference.  

The wheels on the higher trim cars are nice. 

You know what else weighs more than a Kicks? This 370Z. 

Kicks SR and Kicks SV both come with Apple Car Play and Android Auto standard. 

Maybe the real Kicks was the friends we made along the way. 


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21 responses to “2019 Nissan Kicks: How To Turn This Whole Thing Around”

  1. Jofes2 Avatar

    Fun fact: there was an old Nissan Kix with an x for the Japanese market that was just a rebadged Mitsubishi Pajero.

    1. Bradley Brownell Avatar
      Bradley Brownell

      Add this to the list of things I didn’t know existed, and now that I do I need it.

    2. Andrew Pierce Avatar
      Andrew Pierce

      Wild. Passenger side fender mirror and regular A-pillar side mirror. Assuming that’s not a weirdly placed snorkel.

      1. nanoop Avatar

        I here there are fantastic rules for mirror works in Japan (you have to be able to see a pole/dummy that’s moved around the car), whereas in Europe you can still hide a football team in the aptly named dead zone (aka blind spot) of a semi…

    3. Zentropy Avatar

      This old Kix is vastly more appealing than the new Kicks.

  2. crank_case Avatar

    So a Nissan Micra with “lifestyle” appeal ride height then?

    1. Bradley Brownell Avatar
      Bradley Brownell

      It’s quite a lot bigger than a Micra. It’s almost as big as the Rogue Sport. It’s 6″ longer than the Juke.

      1. crank_case Avatar

        So a High Note then? 😉 …it’s kinda hard to judge the proportions from pics. Can’t help think it seems quite similar to the Renault Captur, even down to the two tone paint scheme though I think that’s more compact.

  3. Sjalabais Avatar

    I struggle a bit to understand what size this really is. My Honda Stream is a bit similar in specs; 3000 lbs, 1.75 liter engine making 125 hp. But it’s a Civic based seven seater and probably a fair bit more spacious than this one. Also, are there any other cars sold new with drum brakes? I know disks in the rear are not exactly necessary, but car guys over here would slaughter such a choice. Seeing how a lot of especially Japanese manufacturers still struggle with the effects of road salt, this might not be the worst setup though.

    1. Eric Rucker Avatar

      Drum brakes are pretty common on the cheapest stuff here, where the market is not at all enthusiasts. (The market for this is not at all enthusiasts.)
      And, size is… think “tall Golf-class”.

      1. Sjalabais Avatar

        Hm, reasonable package then. I’d love to see this raced against a 15-20 yo vehicle of similar size and power…not what it was built for, but definitely my most pressing concern at this point. Definitely

  4. GTXcellent Avatar

    How soon until the Budget rental lots are full of these?
    Nissan missed the cross-branding mark here with their premium audio – should’ve had some a’ deez thumpin’

  5. mrh1965 Avatar

    When did polaroids become a thing again? No thanks. Some old tech is better than others. LPs: good. Polaroids: bad.
    Anyway, this actually looks a lot better than the econoboxes people were driving back when the original Polaroids were popular. (Remember the James Garner commercials?) But, can’t we have a small turbo?

    1. Sjalabais Avatar

      Polaroids and pink plastic are just a forced 90s reference that marketeers have identified as “cool”, not understanding that big corporations shouldn’t jump on the cool wagon in order to look desperate for young-ish customers.

  6. neight428 Avatar

    This strikes me as what a kid from a family that doesn’t care about cars will think about when someone mentions a car.

  7. Scubie Avatar

    So article teaser says “ute”, so I click through to the article to find a small SUV… Remember us in the Antipodes think a ute is one of these… https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/8eaf4c9d8738dbbcb123c150539f4510c901ef572dcb39bef5835c6a50ec836e.jpg

    1. Zentropy Avatar

      Even most Americans (I hope) appropriately think of utes as the Holdens and Fords from Down Under. Brownell is simply colloquializing the “utility” in SUV/CUV.

      1. Eric Rucker Avatar

        “Cute ute” was a thing for a few years to describe compact SUVs and crossovers in the US.

    2. kogashiwa Avatar

      I’m in your antipodes and think it’s that as well, which is mostly because that is correct.
      (The antipodes – a fine place to live, but I’d hate to visit there)

  8. Zentropy Avatar

    I don’t care much for CUVs, either, and in particular, this oddball niche occupied by the Kicks, HRV, and CHR. It’s like the designers did everything possible to waste space, create driver blind spots and compromise sightlines, and above all else, infuse the exterior with as many disproportioned panels and unattractive details as possible. They could have called it the Nissan Shrek and at least people would have better known what to expect. This is a seriously ugly car.
    I applaud the low weight, but a CVT and drum brakes (!) are dealbreakers. I’d rather drive the (vastly better looking) Kia Soul, even if it’s a couple hundred pounds heavier. At least you can get a proper manual transmission, more horsepower, and disc brakes all around.

    1. Sjalabais Avatar

      With cars like the Soul and Flex around, I don’t understand how other carmakers can still make a living. Alas, taste is a strange thing. Even though the Soul might be vastly better in almost every aspect, I am not in doubt this lifted Versa will sell.