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2018 Nissan Kicks First Drive

Skateboards, surfboards, killer sound systems, a starting price of $18,965, and an optional rear roof spoiler that makes it look like it's wearing a backward hat. We get it, the 2018 Nissan Kicks hangs out with the cool kids. Nissan's newest subcompact crossover SUV wages that buyers want affordability, fuel efficiency, safety packages, and tech options more than horsepower or off-road capability.

2018 Nissan Kicks First Drive

Hey, Sweet Kicks
The Kicks CUV doesn't look like a cheap car. The paint options are bright and glossy, and there's a variety of exterior trim materials used to highlight the body lines, add textural interest, and give it a high-riding stance. Though it shares its underpinnings with the Nissan Versa, the Kicks has none of that car's bland rental-car sadness. Nor is it as polarizing as the Nissan Juke or the Toyota C-HR. If any design can be objectively good, we say Nissan nailed it.

The Kicks is cute without being silly, and it's distinct without losing its brand identity. Its grille has that slightly sardonic smile that Nissan uses across its lineup, and you might recognize the tipped trapezoidal rear-quarter glass from the larger Rogue. But the Kicks doesn't look like just a scaled-down version of Nissan's bigger SUVs. It has design touches that are all its own, such as the blacked-out windshield pillars that make the roof look as if it's hovering over the car — particularly neat when combined with one of the seven optional two-tone paint packages. If you don't like that look, you can choose a more conservative single-color paint job, and if the roof isn't wild enough, you can add body-colored accents all over, from the front spoiler to the 17-inch wheels to the sideview mirrors.

2018 Nissan Kicks First Drive

Kickin' It Inside
The thoughtful design details don't stop at the door handle. Inside, the 2018 Nissan Kicks continues to surprise, especially if you're familiar with the vast expanses of gray plastic that usually grace the interior of any car that costs less than $20,000. The base model — Nissan calls it the S — comes with cloth seats, but even those have contrast stitching, accent panels and a quilted center section. The midgrade SV — which was our test car — has premium vinyl upholstery that looks a lot nicer than it sounds, with accent stitching front and rear and a matching thread on the dash and the flat-bottomed steering wheel.

The driver's seat has six-way adjustability, and it's well-cushioned and easy to get in a comfortable position. Tall drivers should find plenty of thigh support from the seat as well as leg- and headroom. Shorter drivers can easily adjust to reach the pedals and move the wheel to fit, although we found the seat cushion a bit long, cutting into the back of the calf.

The back seat offers plenty of room for two passengers, and you can fit a third without forcing that person to straddle a floor hump. The rear panels lack some of the style of the front, and the door panels are just unadorned plastic. But there's space for beverages and easy access to two USB charging ports, allowing everyone to stay connected without swapping cords and reaching over the console. Rear visibility is great, too, which is a rarity in small vehicles. The quarter glass is positioned perfectly to give everyone a view.

2018 Nissan Kicks First Drive

The Nissan Kicks is focused on turning every commute into a dance party with a standard six-speaker audio system and an available eight-speaker Bose stereo. The optional system inserts two speakers into the driver's headrest, making it possible to surround yourself with tunes or direct the music to the rest of the cabin. Bose calls the setup "PersonalSpace," and it's adjustable through the 7-inch center touchscreen. That screen supports Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, although only in the SV and SR trim levels. Base buyers will have to make do with connecting their phones via Bluetooth. While the touchscreen looks great, it's a little slow to respond to some inputs, and it's easy to hit the wrong icon. No, Kicks, I don't want to open text messages. I want to dial up my personal space. Wait, that only works for surround sound and not in crowded rooms? Dang it.

While the Kicks can't get that close-talker in the office to back off, it can protect you in other ways. Along with all the safety features you'd expect, all versions of the 2018 Nissan Kicks come standard with forward collision mitigation and a rearview camera. The SV and the SR get rear cross-traffic alert and blind-spot monitoring, which is integrated into the windshield pillar rather than the sideview mirror. The SR adds a top-view camera for parking assistance.

2018 Nissan Kicks First Drive

Get Your Kicks
The 2018 Nissan Kicks competes well in the small crossover segment when it comes to passenger room and price. Even fully optioned, it's the same price as or less than the Ford EcoSport, Honda HR-V, Hyundai Kona and Toyota C-HR. Of those cars, only the Honda offers more room to stash stuff — 58.8 cubic feet to the Kicks' 53.1.

None offer better fuel economy. The Kicks can brag about 33 mpg combined (31 city/36 highway) because it has an itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny, possibly too small 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine that's rated at 125 horsepower and 115 pound-feet of torque. The engine is backed by a continuously variable automatic transmission, which is made almost tolerable by the addition of simulated shift points under heavy gas pedal use. These fake gear shifts don't make you go any faster, but at least the sound changes so you don't feel like you're merging onto the freeway in a vacuum cleaner.

2018 Nissan Kicks First Drive

Most Kicks competitors start with 20 horses more, and several offer turbocharged engines that make freeway merging easier. Nissan says the Kicks' low weight of 2,600 pounds gives it one of the best power-to-weight ratios in the class. Certainly, the Kicks is adequate for low-speed driving around town, but add in a full load of passengers, or a college kid with all her belongings in the back, and you're going to be wishing for a little more grunt.

The Kicks doesn't struggle on our test drive with two folks inside and the mild, rolling landscape surrounding San Diego. The ride quality is more than fine. It steers and tracks well around corners and soaks up enough bumps to keep you from singing vibrato as you carpool karaoke. There's a bit of wind and tire noise, but hey, that's a job for those surround-sound speakers.

On a Kick
Sure, there are competitors with more power (like the Kona) or better handling (like the C-HR) or greater cargo capacity (like the HR-V), but the 2018 Nissan Kicks' bold design and neat features make it worth checking out. It aims to offer affordable transportation to an audience who wants to feel safe and stylish while tootling around town, and it does so with charm.