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First drive: 2019 Nissan Kicks [Review]

by Byron Hurd

Nissan\'s new subcompact CUV ditches the Juke\'s niche appeal in favor of mainstream practicality.

Your author struggled for hours to come up with a way to introduce you to the 2019 Nissan Kicks. In the end, we figured, why try when we can just go right to the source? Here it is, in the words of Dan Mohnke, senior vice president, Sales & Marketing and Operations, Nissan Division U.S., Nissan North America, Inc.

"This emerging CUV class is exploding with new entries for a very good reason - the combination of flexible utility and high value is ideal for active, urban new vehicle buyers. Where the new Nissan Kicks stands out is with its bold style, personal technology, value and fuel economy of 33 mpg combined."

If you want to get into the automotive journalism business, there are two fundamental requirements. First off, you need the ability to translate marketing speak into old-fashioned American English. Secondly (and optionally, if we're being frank), you need a driver's license.

To flex our muscles when it comes to the former, here's the cleaned-up version of the above quote: SUVs are popular, but Nissan can't sell them to this group of buyers unless they're small and cheap. Fortunately, a company as large and prolific as Nissan doesn't have to create such a thing out of thin air. The solution was already in the global portfolio.

Grading on a curve
We touched on this concept briefly in our review of the 2019 Acura RDX, but it bears repeating here. There is a fundamental trend to the way consumers choose their core vehicles (the ones they actually need). It can be graphed in a way that looks like the shape (though not the mathematical model) of a bell curve, with the customer's age (which also generally corresponds to his or her means) along the X-axis and the "amount" of car he or she tends to purchase on the Y-axis.

Allow us to illustrate this in writing: A young buyer typically has little money, and simply wants transportation. This shopper purchases an inexpensive, likely small vehicle. As this buyer ages, he or she needs a car big enough to accommodate his or her lifestyle at each stage, peaking at the "family car" point in the middle. This is where the average buyer steps up to a three-row crossover, a minivan, a station wagon, or a large SUV. From there, the needs tend to decrease, and the cycle essentially repeats itself in reverse.

To this point, crossovers and SUVs have largely occupied the middle of this curve, paralleling midsize sedans, and the aforementioned wagons and minivans. You have your newlyweds on one end and your early-stage empty-nesters on the other, plus every stage in-between.

This new generation of baby crossovers is seeking to capture buyers on either end of that, effectively expanding the influence (or the availability, if you want a less sinister term) of the segment to those buyers who--whether it's out of financial limitation or a more fundamental assessment of practical need--simply aren't in the market for a larger vehicle.

Compression
The models (which will soon likely be superseded by even smaller offerings) at these fringe ends of the market are up against some serious hurdles, but the most fundamental of them is cost. It's getting harder and harder to make smaller cars that are actually cheaper given that customers have grown accustom to certain features, especially once you start talking about price point. That's where things get tricky.

Take the 2019 Kicks. It's on the same fundamental platform as the Nissan Versa Note (Most of these baby CUVs share fundamental architecture with subcompact hatchbacks), so it's small. Again, not unique. However, the next question becomes one of price. Unlike many offerings this size, the Kicks is exclusively offered with front-wheel drive. That keeps it cheap. It also seriously narrows down the competitive field.

A challenger approaches
Nissan presents the Kicks' competition as the Ford EcoSport, the Hyundai Kona, and the Kia Soul. The first two are available with all-wheel-drive, so we're skeptical. The Kia Soul is more of a funky hatchback than a crossover, even if Kia is subtly hinting that maybe it's kind of the latter. We ain't buying that, either. No, the primary competitor for the 2019 Nissan Kicks is the Toyota C-HR, plain and simple.

By the numbers, it's a lock. The Kicks is powered by a 1.6L four-cylinder making 125 horsepower and 115lb-ft of torque. As we mentioned before, it's available exclusively in front-wheel-drive and with just one transmission: a CVT. It's a five-seat, four-door, cross-hatch (can we make that a thing?) and weighs less than 3,000 pounds. We wish there was more to say to embellish the situation, but it is what it is.

So far, it looks like advantage: Toyota. But there's more to a car than simple numbers, right? The Kicks also boasts funky styling (oh), interesting two-tone paint combinations (oops), and a torsion-beam rear suspension (uh-oh). It's also available with both Android Auto and Apple CarPlay (ah-ha, finally, a win).

Oh, you can't get a Kicks with rear disc brakes. In 2018.

It's clear to us that Nissan took a chance on bringing the Kicks to the U.S. market using a formula which, so far at least, only Toyota has really dared to embrace. Toyota's baby CUV pleasantly surprised us by being a competent handler despite what we'd consider to be a compromised position. That left us willing to give the little Nissan the benefit of the doubt.

So, to that end, Nissan invited us to get our Kicks on CA-56. Yeah. Sorry.

Grading in the curves
When we first took the wheel of the Kicks, we were somewhat pleased to note that its interior seems inspired by that of the Rogue Sport. Given that both are global models, that seems appropriate. The similarities, unfortunately, end there. While we found the Rogue Sport to be a bit aspirational for its size and positioning, the Kicks simply feels, well, like an entry-level product.

That's not to say there weren't high points. We found the dash detailing to be much better than we expected, including contrast-stitched elements made of faux leather. Compared to say, the Hyundai Kona, some of the materials were actually above par. We also found similar soft-touch material on the door-mounted armrests--a plus, in a segment dominated by plastic. On the flip side, even our top-trim model lacked an armrest for the front passenger. Driver's seat only.

Underway, the Kicks is exactly what you'd expect from a Versa Note on stilts. There's enough body roll on-turn in to remind you that you're dealing with a crossover, but it settles into a turn the way you'd expect from a hatchback. If Nissan made a five-door Sentra, well, there'd be some redundancy is all we're saying.

On the highway, it's quieter than we expected. The twist-beam rears its head when you have any sort of suspension load and encounter a bump. That shimmy you expect from a semi-independent rear is very much present. The shocks are also obviously tuned for it, and you get the expected response over mild freeway imperfections: the rear end treats it like a bump; the front treats it like it doesn't exist.

Power-wise, Nissan tuned the Kicks to have some punch off the line, which helps alleviate the absence of total power, but if you don't stay in the throttle, the power falls off quickly and dramatically. Stay in it, and you have enough thrust to make your merge, but only just. Don't get the wrong idea. It isn't quick.

The 2019 Nissan Kicks makes use of the same "D-Step" CVT programming found in other models. It's designed to simulate the experience of driving, well, anything but a CVT. Frankly, it was not a make-or-break feature. Ultimately, it's still a CVT. When you have your foot planted, especially from a standstill, there are no fake shifts to simulate. It's all-wound-up, all the time.

At the end of the (admittedly, very brief) day, we were not completely disenchanted by the Kicks. It's a cheaper alternative to the already-cheap C-HR, and in that context, it's a perfectly acceptable vehicle. In a world where the Versa Note of subcompact crossovers will soon lose its reference (let's be honest; cheap hatchbacks are not long for this world), this is a perfectly acceptable replacement. As long as you don't expect it to be something it's not (a Juke replacement, in other words), it probably won't disappoint.

Is it the equal of a $30,000 Hyundai Kona? No. But it's not equally priced, either. And at the end of the day, it beats a Sentra by a country mile.

Leftlane's bottom line
If you live outside of the rust belt, this is probably all the subcompact crossover you'd ever need, though we might then question whether you need one at all. After all, you can get a (more sophisticated, longer-wheelbase) compact hatchback for the exact same money.

2019 Nissan Kicks SR base price, $20,290; as-tested, $22,265
Premium package, $1,000; Destination, $975