Now, the Juke is gone and in its place the 2018 Nissan Kicks, an all-new model and a major course correction in a more sensible direction. The Kicks is cheaper, more practical and more efficient. It’s also considerably less powerful, and not just in comparison to its turbocharged predecessor. With a mere 125 naturally aspirated horsepower, the Kicks is bringing up the rear in a segment that’s not exactly in a hurry to get anywhere. As I wrote during the L.A. Auto Show, “I can’t imagine the Kicks being anything other than doggedly slow.”
Well, as it turns out, it kinda depends on how and where you’re driving. If you need to merge onto a fast-moving highway, you’re going to need quite the gap, as those 125 horses run out of steam quickly. Full-throttle acceleration from a stop? Yep, it sure feels gutless and I’d wager a sundial should suffice for 0-60-mph testing. However, Nissan’s engineers adeptly tuned the throttle and standard continuously variable transmission to mask this power deficit when driving sedately around town — you know, exactly how the vast majority of dawdling drivers will.
It honestly and quite surprisingly doesn’t feel that slow, nor does the CVT constantly make you wish for a manual to better ring out the thimble of oomph that’s there. On the contrary, the CVT does a bang-up job. It simulates gears to provide a more natural driving feel and avoid the interminable CVT mooing, but as it’s still a CVT, it can still lock onto an ideal rpm to maximize power and fuel economy. This was demonstrated on a gradual grade where a traditional transmission would be forced into either a too-high or too-low gear, resulting in either a bogging or screaming engine. In the Kicks, it just smartly chugged along.
So from a powertrain perspective, the Kicks isn’t as dreary to drive as was feared. It also seems to have a stout structure and capable suspension tuning (independent strut front, twist beam rear), that demonstrated poise around corners and solidity when encountering deep mid-corner bumps. There’s a fair bit of body roll, but that’s par for the segment.
Unfortunately, the bizarre steering lets the ride down. It’s incredibly slow for one, with a 16.8:1 ratio and 3.08 turns lock-to-lock in a segment that’s typically in the 13’s and mid-2’s, respectively. It feels like Nissan wanted the Kicks to feel overtly SUV-like, but in doing so, nullified the car’s agility. The weighting is also wildly inconsistent — sometimes there’s heavy electric assistance at low maneuvering speeds, other times seemingly none, usually when quickly transitioning from one direction to the next. This is just the latest in a long line of recent Nissans with unusual steering — they really need to have a chat with their corporate siblings at Renault.
So, driving the Kicks merely exceeded low expectations, but the interior overdelivers. For starters, it’s enormous. Smart packaging has resulted in 25.3 cubic feet of space behind the back seat, bettering the segment’s previous cargo-carrying champ, the Honda HR-V. Now, that still boasts the highest maximum number, but when it comes to the space you most often use, the Kicks is a luggage-hauling champ and accomplishes that without needing to remove a floor panel or go without a spare tire. No other subcompact SUV has swallowed more of the luggage in my garage.
That tall, slightly dopey profile also allows the seats to be mounted quite high. Up front, that means an elevated view out, more under-thigh support and an easier time of climbing in and out. In back, a more chair-like seating position means you don’t need as much of a gap to the front seats ahead. Fitting a rear-facing child seat or sitting behind a 6-plus-footer will be a challenge, but for average four-person journeys, the Kicks is better than most in its segment.
So too is interior quality. As in my top-of-the-line SR trim level, there’s stitched faux leather on the dash and, with the Premium package, on the seats as well. For this segment, the cabin looks and feels impressively, well, premium. Yet, even the base S and mid-grade SV spotted at the L.A. Auto Show have a cool metal-look trim and diamond-pattern upholstery. You even get the same chunky, flat-bottomed wheel (though the SR’s is wrapped in leather).
Standard equipment is generous and includes automatic emergency braking, a 7-inch touchscreen, a 6-speaker sound system and three USB ports. Yet, for only $1,700 more, the SV adds alloy wheels, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, blind-spot warning, automatic climate control, and proximity entry with push-button start. The SR is really just icing, though the $1,000 Premium package’s Bose stereo upgrade is pretty exceptional for this segment with its nifty driver headrest speaker (no soup for you, Mr. Passenger).
And really, here is the area where the Kicks really makes a case for itself: value. With a starting price of $19,035 (including destination), it undercuts most competitors while offering more standard equipment and space. And, given the upper trims’ modest price increases, the most you’ll pay is the $23,025 Nissan is asking for my fully loaded test car. Every comparably equipped competitor would cost more.
Of course, most of those competitors are available with all-wheel drive. The Kicks is resolutely front driven. They also have more power. Ah, but here’s the silver lining: It manages an EPA-estimated 33 mpg combined. That bests all of its already-thrifty front-wheel-drive competitors: Honda HR-V (30 mpg combined), Hyundai Kona 2.0 (30 mpg), Mazda CX-3 (31 mpg) and Toyota C-HR (29 mpg). That the Kicks doesn’t feel that slow around town should make the tradeoff for fuel economy an easier pill to swallow.
Back in November, I wagered that the 2018 Nissan Kicks was going to be a success, and after living with it for a week, I think it’s safe to double down. It just makes a lot of sense. It’s also not even that bad to look at when done up in our tester’s white body and $150 contrasting black roof option. Is it as distinctive as the Juke, no, but then I was in the camp that deemed the Juke hideous.
The Juke is dead. Long live the Kicks.