Christian Wardlaw | April 22, 2020
A result of the rise of the SUV in America is the death of the small, cheap car. Fortunately, Nissan believes there is room in its lineup for both affordable cars and affordable SUVs and, given the state of the world in the spring of 2020, the company is poised to respond to sudden economic hardship and a U.S. recession with three new, inexpensive, and appealing models.
The 2020 Nissan Kicks is the crossover SUV of the trio, priced in the same neighborhood as the redesigned 2020 Nissan Sentra and positioned above the redesigned 2020 Nissan Versa. Since it is unavailable with all-wheel drive, an argument could be made that the Kicks is not an SUV at all, but it does offer seven inches of ground clearance, which is more than a car.
A new model for 2018, the Kicks competes with small, entry-level crossovers and multi-purpose vehicles. Those most like it in terms of packaging and philosophy include the Hyundai Venue, Kia Soul, and Toyota C-HR, a tough set of competitors in terms of style, quality, and ownership perks like free scheduled maintenance and long warranty programs.
This, however, is not a comparison test. Evaluated apart from its primary competitors, the Nissan Kicks demonstrates merit. It comes in base S, mid-grade SV, and sporty SR trim levels, and for 2020 adds Nissan Safety Shield 360 advanced driving assistance systems (ADAS) to the standard equipment list.
For this review, J.D. Power evaluated a Kicks SR equipped with two-tone paint, black 17-inch aluminum wheels, the Premium Package, the Exterior Package, the Interior Electronics Package, a center storage armrest, illuminated kick plate trim, exterior ground lighting, carpeted floor and trunk mats, splash guards, and a rear roof spoiler. The price came to $26,430, including the $1,095 destination charge.
Before we discuss the results of our evaluation of the 2020 Kicks, it is helpful to understand who buys this small SUV, and what they like most and least about their vehicles.
J.D. Power data shows that Kicks owners are more often women (62% vs. 58% for the segment), are younger in terms of median age (52 years vs. 56 years), and earn less in terms of median annual household income ($67,917 vs. $78,727). Nearly a third of Kicks owners identify as members of Generation Y or Z (31% vs. 25%).
Price is a significant reason for a Kicks purchase. According to J.D. Power, 44% of Kicks owners identify as Price Buyers (vs. 30% for the segment). Additionally, 39% of Kicks owners strongly agree that a first consideration in choosing a new vehicle is fuel economy (vs. 20%), while 52% disagree that they’re willing to pay more for a vehicle that is environmentally friendly (vs. 59%).
Kicks owners are more likely to agree that they like a vehicle that stands out from the crowd (79% vs. 66% for the segment), but at the same time they are also more likely to agree that a vehicle is just a way of getting from place to place (57% vs. 48%). Just 35% of Kicks owners agree that they prefer to buy a vehicle from a domestic company (vs. 49%).
Owners say their favorite things about the Kicks are (in descending order) the exterior styling, visibility and safety, infotainment system, interior design, and driving dynamics. Owners indicate their least favorite things about the Kicks are (in descending order) the seats, climate control system, fuel economy, storage and space, and engine/transmission.
In the J.D Power 2019 Automotive Performance, Execution and Layout (APEAL) Study, the Kicks ranked fourth out of 15 small SUVs.
In the sections that follow, our expert provides his own perceptions about how the 2020 Nissan Kicks measures up in each of the 10 categories that comprise the APEAL Study.
Painted Gun Metallic with a Monarch Orange roof, the test vehicle delighted my 9-year-old, who couldn’t wait to go for a ride. The color combination is one of five 2-tone paint treatments, each lending the Kicks even more personality than it already has.
An appealing little SUV, Kicks design highlights include short front and rear overhangs, swollen front and rear fenders, blacked-out pillars to make it appear that the roof is floating, and gray lower cladding. Nissan even sees fit to bolt handsome 17-inch wheels onto both the mid-grade SV and top-shelf SR trim levels.
The end result is styling that looks more substantial and purposeful than the Kicks actually is. All that’s missing is dark tinted rear privacy glass.
Open the driver’s door, and the Kicks continues to demonstrate a flair for design inside the cabin. Yes, the materials run heavy with hard plastic, but the SR features attractive soft coverings on the dashboard complete with exposed contrast stitching, as well as a flat-bottom steering wheel.
Round air vents anchor each end of the dashboard, and instrumentation includes a large analog speedometer and a digital driving information center. Cloth upholstery is standard, but with the SR Premium Package the Kicks gets Prima-Tex simulated leather seats.
Overall, the design, the detailing, and the control layout impress.
Thanks to a manual seat height adjuster, the Kicks SR test vehicle’s driver’s seat offered a commanding position behind the steering wheel as well as a terrific view out. Unfortunately, the curved plastic upper door panels are not friendly to elbows, and the optional center console storage armrest is basically useless for resting an arm.
The front passenger’s seat does not offer height adjustment, but it doesn’t need one. Leg and thigh support are excellent, and the occupant in that position sits up nice and high.
Back seat passengers will find the same situation: high cushion, good leg support, great view. Leg room is a bit tight for taller adults, but the front seatbacks are softly padded. The test vehicle had two charging ports in the back, but no air conditioning vents. That omission, and the lack of dark tinted privacy glass, likely means misery on hot days.
It is worth noting how easy it is to get into and out of a Nissan Kicks due to its higher ride height, tall seating positions, and wide doors.
Unseasonably cool, dry weather meant the Kicks’ climate control system went untested. However, past experience demonstrates that on hot days the optional leatherette traps sweat and the air conditioning can struggle to get the Kicks cooled down. Ventilated seats are unavailable, but for cold weather the SR Premium Package installs heated front seats.
As far as the controls are concerned, they’re a model of simplicity and user-friendliness.
Nissan appears to understand the target demographic for the Kicks. Each trim level includes a 7-inch touchscreen display, and the base Kicks S features Bluetooth calling and music streaming as well as Siri Eyes Free. Upgrade to SV trim for Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, satellite radio, and NissanConnect services.
The Kicks SR has the same setup as the SV but is exclusively available with an 8-speaker Bose Personal Plus sound system. It’s impressive at this price point and for this segment, in part due to the UltraNearfield speakers embedded in the driver’s head restraint.
A navigation system is unavailable, but with a connected smartphone, you don’t need one. And from a user experience perspective, the infotainment system’s collection of knobs, buttons, and touchscreen makes using it easy and intuitive.
Behind the rear seat, the Kicks offers 25.3 cu.-ft. of genuinely usable space, which can’t be said for all of this SUV’s competitors. The trunk floor isn’t flush with the rear load sill, but an optional accessory solves for that if you’d prefer it.
Without the accessory, when you fold the rear seats down, the result is an uneven load floor. Nissan says maximum cargo space measures 32.3 cu.-ft. but the space looks larger than that.
Interior storage is adequate. Aside from a tray forward of the shifter and a slot to the left of the steering wheel, you can use the big glove box or the decent-size door panel bins. The optional center console armrest storage bin really isn’t worth the upgrade.
With thin windshield pillars, large side mirrors, and the SR trim level’s standard surround-view camera system, it’s easy to see out of a Nissan Kicks.
For 2020, Nissan upgrades the Kicks’ standard safety technology by adding its Safety Shield 360 collection of ADAS to the SUV. That means every version of this little SUV comes with forward collision warning with pedestrian detection, automatic front and rear emergency braking, blind-spot warning, rear cross-traffic warning, lane-departure warning, and automatic high-beam headlights.
Unimpressed? Go ahead and check the standard equipment list of a Mercedes-Benz GLC. You’re not going to check all of those boxes with that luxury SUV.
Based on my experience, Nissan Safety Shield 360 does its job. The forward collision warning system isn’t irritating, and the lane-departure warning system issues a buzz through the steering wheel instead of a blaring audible alert.
Another new feature for 2020 is Nissan’s Rear Door Alert, which, under specific conditions, warns the driver to check the back seat before leaving and locking the Kicks.
Though it’s been on sale since 2018 and competes in one the fastest growing vehicle segments in the U.S., the Kicks had not undergone crash testing by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) or the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) as this review was written.
Take a look at what Kicks owners like the least about their vehicles. It’s really not a surprise, given the 122-horsepower 1.6-liter 4-cylinder engine and continuously variable transmission (CVT).
Geared to feel responsive around town, the Kicks occasionally feels lively. But when you request more acceleration for entering a freeway, or powering up a hill, or matching speed after turning onto a fast-flowing street, or passing slower vehicles, or carrying your friends around town, the engine supplies far more racket than responsiveness.
As CVTs go, the one in the Kicks is good. It mimics the sound and feel of a traditional automatic, though the programmed gear ratio changes are slushy instead of crisp.
What the Kicks needs is a small turbocharger, or a mild-hybrid drivetrain with an electric assist motor, or a larger displacement engine like the one in the new Sentra.
At least the Kicks delivers the advertised fuel economy. On my testing loop, the SUV averaged 32.6 mpg, coming up just short of the EPA’s official rating of 33 mpg in combined driving.
If the engine and CVT are duds, the Kicks does offer decent driving dynamics in spite of its torsion beam solid rear axle suspension.
A firm ride, good roll control, a steering wheel that feels good in your hands, and a commanding driving position all contribute to an athletic and nimble feel. The SR trim also includes brake-related trickery known as Active Ride Control, Intelligent Trace Control, and Intelligent Engine Brake to enhance the SUV’s dynamics.
Take the Kicks on a winding country road, though, and the sticky brake pedal modulation (due to rear drum brakes) and rather lifeless electric steering erase some of the fun. But, the clear Debbie Downer here is still the powertrain.
When you’ve owned a string of used vehicles that nickel-and-dime your bank account into oblivion, the idea of owning a brand-new, never-abused vehicle with an affordable monthly payment and modern technology is downright irresistible.
That’s where a 2020 Nissan Kicks comes into play. It has the look of an SUV, more interior space than a car, extra ground clearance for when the snow flies, and an impressive list of safety and infotainment technologies. Plus, unlike some small crossovers, it’s legitimately fuel efficient.
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