Y’s motoring expert Alvin Thomas tries a low-cost compact SUV that is handsome in looks, spacious in size and is actually a delight to drive.
Can 118hp driving the front-wheels of a sub-compact Japanese SUV be a recipe for fun? While the answer to that may seem like an obvious “no”, there’s nothing drab or dreary (as you might think) about the test car that I was given the keys to, this week.
Ladies and gentlemen: for the first time ever, I may have found an SUV that actually inspires the driver to trash the pedal to the metal, and stay within the limits of the law.
Well, I’m not keeping it away from you any longer: it’s the all-new Nissan Kicks.
Does the name ring a bell with you? Probably not. And there is a very good reason for that. You see, the Kicks is a new product for the brand, and it has been designated to kick (sorry, not sorry) away the existing Nissan Juke from the market, here.
While you may sigh at that now, I can safely report that the Juke was never a crowd favourite; often being touted as the “ugly duckling” or the “joke” in a family of otherwise curvy sedans and brawny SUVs. There really was no place for a car that looked like an egg with circular headlights and four wheels.
And that’s where the Kicks shines. For starters, it looks fantastic.
Now, I cannot lie: it does share a couple of lines from the new Maxima (a car that I own), and incorporates it very well on the front fascia but that’s where the similarities between the two cars end.
Keeping in line with Nissan’s new corporate fascia, the Kicks slaps on a large grille upfront, garnished with a fair amount of chrome and a large “Nissan” badge. Meanwhile, the lip of the spoiler is differentiated by a black plastic panel, further giving it a sportier look. The headlamps, however, is a cross between – if you look closely – the Nissan Maxima and the Altima sedans. Mind you, it looks great (!)
From the side, it’s very evident that the Kicks grows in size over its relative (the Juke): the wheelbase has been extended by 8cm and it stands taller by 2cm. Thankfully, however, the engineers have managed to shave off more than 200kg from the overall weight of the SUV, which is impressive.
Moreover, the flare on the fender is accentuated by a line that runs from the doors all the way to the rear tail lamps. The lamps, themselves, are sculpted into a wedge-like shape. It’s a very confused design-language but it works for the benefit of the Kicks. Thanks to the rear lamps, the Kicks looks wider than it should.
The rear glass is tall and slanted but merges efficiently with the “floating roof” design.
The modish design is carried over to the interior too: it is easily the most upscale-looking cabin design I have ever seen on a sub-compact SUV, in this price point. Starting from the flat-bottom steering-wheel, to the semi-digital instrument cluster and the responsive 18cm touchscreen, the design is fabulous. Also impressive are the circular air-vents and the stitched leatherette panels on the dashboard and the armrests on the doors. No other car in this segment – apart from the pricier Audi Q2 – sports such equipment. Both the Koreans and the Americans still use plastic on their dashboards.
Of course, the lower portions of the SUV – the doors and the upper part of the dashboard – are exclusively made up of hard plastic.
The dashboard layout is splendid to say the least: it is minimalistic in design with only a handful of buttons to take care of the infotainment controls on the touchscreen, and the air-conditioner controls – it’s phenomenally user-friendly.
My tester also came with a brilliant Around View Monitor (AVM) and the Moving Object Detection system that helps make manoeuvering at low speeds easy. The former gives you a 360-degree view around the car.
The seats are soft and supple and are supportive enough in corners. My car was finished in fabric, although the customers can opt for leather, if need be.
Space upfront is decent, with good knee and headroom. However, I did notice my knee hitting the centre console tunnel while driving; it’s a small but noticeable niggle. The space in the back is plentiful, though. There was enough knee and headroom even after I had set the front seats in my desired position.
Being a sub-compact SUV, the Kicks does come with plenty of boot space. It should be enough for a couple of large bags. And because the loading height is low, it will be easy to load and unload.
Now let’s get to the interesting bits: the powertrain. The Kicks packs a superb and refined 1.6-litre in-line four-cylinder engine underneath the hood. I know what you’re thinking: “Superb?”. Yes it is.
Yes, the engine may only pump out 118hp and a little over 149Nm of torque – both very uninspiring numbers for an SUV. But, do keep in mind that at 1,100kg, the Kicks is very well one of the lightest SUVs you can currently buy.
This – coupled with Nissan’s continually variable transmission (CVT) – means the car easily hauls itself on the road. Zero to 100kph is attained in a little over 11 seconds but the engine does rev its nuts out, often hitting the 7000rpm mark in its efforts. It sounds rather nice, too; if you’re into four-cylinder engine noises.
Where the Kicks excels, though, is during highway cruising. The CVT and the engine combo not only produces superior fuel-economy results but also aids in a pulling out of tight situations on the road (overtaking, fast acceleration, etc.) with efficacy. It’s not Altima-quick, but is brisk enough to cruise on the fast-lane on the highway.
The transmission switches ratios within the blink of an eye, depending on your throttle inputs. This means, the engine is always within the power and torque bands, ready to lunge you onwards.
Nissan have added artificial “steps” to simulate gear changes and alleviate the “rubber band” effect characteristic of cars with CVT trannies. All they have managed to do, however, is create a null point in acceleration, because the engine is made to drop its revolutions.
People often mistake small-engined cars for being too unexciting to drive. But, the Kicks definitely isn’t one of them. The SUV handles rather well for its size. The reason for this is that the 43cm alloys that come wrapped in grippy 205/55 Continental tyres.
The vehicle sticks to its line like glue when you put it around a sharp corner. There is also very little understeer when you push the SUV hard around a bend. However, that could be due to the ‘Active Trace Control’ feature, which pulls the vehicle into line when it detects slip. Kudos (!) to the engineers for that.
The ride is comfortable on smooth roads but there is a fair bit of road noise entering the cabin at high speeds. The steering is a bit on the light side and offers minimal feedback, but it does the job fine, as do the progressive brakes.
Overall, the Kicks – with its tech-toys and well-rounded interior – is an enticing package for anyone looking for a sub-compact SUV. Will it turn heads? Probably not. But, it does what it does best: carry five people in absolute comfort and safety, while giving the driver the perception of commanding a decent-sized SUV. It’s flipping brilliant, this SUV!