Nissan introduced a new small crossover at the Rio 2016 Olympics. It is named the Kicks and will arrive in South Africa around 2018, but few journalists have driven it. Now, in his first submission for Cars.co.za, our Brazilian correspondent Gustavo Henrique Ruffo reports that although the Kicks seems to step on the toes of its Juke sibling in terms of size, the newcomer is more practical, more conventional in appearance and – importantly – competitively priced.
It can be difficult to judge a vehicle's size simply by viewing photographs of the subject, but the Nissan Kicks is the newest small/light crossover in town. So new that it has so far only reached Brazilian shores. It is produced on the V platform that underpins the Micra and Almera. This explains why it has a very similar wheelbase to the sedan’s: 2.61 m, instead of 2.60 m. The Kicks is 4.30 m long, 1.76 m wide, 1.59 m high and its luggage capacity is 432 litres.
In terms of its packaging, it's less roomy than the Renault Duster, but more refined overall, slightly more spacious (in terms of luggage and passenger room) than the popular Ford EcoSport and, although not as well-made as the automatic-only Honda HR-V, it is certainly more affordable than its Japanese rival.
The V platform allows the Kicks to be extremely light. The crossover weighs 1 142 kg in SL specification (the top-spec derivative), so the entry-level version should be well below that. The aforementioned Honda HR-V, which is also a very light crossover, weighs 1 241 kg in 1.8 Elegance guise. That’s 99 kg more than the Kicks, or like lugging your uncle Bandile with you after he's had a sumptuous Sunday family lunch...
The distinctively styled Kicks was the darling of the Rio 2016 Olympics. It is certainly smaller than it looks.
The engine chosen to deal with the Kicks' lightened body shell is a 1.6-litre petrol motor... at least in the Kicks we have evaluated in Brazil. This engine, which also runs on ethanol, delivers 84 kW (both on ethanol or gasoline) at 5 600 rpm and 152 Nm at 4 000 rpm.
The car is currently produced only in Mexico. Nissan’s intention is to sell the car in more than 80 countries, South Africa included.
Styled to look compact
When you first see a Kicks in the metal, you will have the impression that it is a tall and narrow little car, even if it is only 2 cm shorter than a Duster and very similar to its competitors in width. It has to do with its design. Although it is attractive, it makes you think it is smaller than it really is.
The Kick's 2.61-metre wheelbase raised my expectations. It is 1 cm longer than the Almera’s, which is an impressively roomy little sedan. Considering the vehicles share the same platform, and the Kicks has the advantage of being taller, with a higher H-point, the Kicks seemed to have all elements to be even more spacious. Well... expectation is the mother of frustration.
The Kicks has special front seats, with Zero Gravity foam, which offer good lateral and thigh support, unlike the Almera’s. Being bigger also makes them more comfortable and that makes the world of difference, because the larger front seats undoubtedly impinge on rear legroom. If a really tall person wants to sit in comfort in the rear, some degree of compromise will be needed from the front-seat occupant, if that person is also quite tall.
The Kicks' instrument panel features a large TFT-screen, which eliminates the need for a rev counter, for example.
In the end, the higher H-point makes it more difficult to find a good driving position, especially if you are more than 1.80 m tall. In such cases, the seatbelt just cannot be ideally adjusted between the neck and the shoulder. It sticks right over your shoulder, even if you place the seat as low as possible and the adjustable seat belt anchor is as high in the B-column as it will go. Fortunately, shorter drivers can find a comfortable seating position much more easily.
Built for affordability
The V platform could be considered a disadvantage for the Nissan Kicks. After all, there is an entirely new structure about to be presented, named the CMF-B, or Common Module Family for B segment (compact) cars. It will emerge as the basis for the second generation Nissan Juke, expected to appear at the 2017 Geneva Motor Show. So why hasn’t Nissan waited to present the Kicks with the new structure? For a number of reasons...
The first one was that Nissan wanted to make the Kicks presentation a world event. As a major sponsor of the Olympics in Rio, the company believed that using the new crossover as its official car at the event would gain the Japanese company global coverage. And it did.
In order to have the car ready on time, Nissan would have to resort to a platform that was already complete, with little need for further development.
The rear styling of the Kicks is relatively fussy, but the enlarged taillight clusters add a degree of chunkiness.
The second one is because Nissan needed to offer the Kicks at a very competitive price. This is one of the main factors of success when you enter an already crowded market. Ford managed to create the first compact crossover with the EcoSport using its B-platform, the same one used by the Ford Fiesta. Nissan developed the V platform to be light and cheap to build. Therefore, it was the perfect fit for an affordable compact crossover.
The last reason for the Kicks to come with this platform is that it will not be that different from the CMF-B. According to a Nissan engineer we talked to at the crossover’s presentation, the V platform is the basis for this modular architecture. And it will underpin the future Juke, which will present a more demanding customer the opportunity to experience a vehicle based on a more refined platform without the need to leave the company’s product portfolio.
Highly specced in Brazil
The Kicks has an elegant interior. It presents only the necessary buttons, the seats are covered in artificial leather and ergonomics are quite good apart from the driving position, which I mentioned before.
That's not to say the Kicks SL is a "bare bones" car. In Brazil, a Camera 360 system uses 4 cameras to show all the surroundings of the car on the 7-inch infotainment touchscreen. Active safety is managed by Chassis Control and the Active Trace Control, systems associated with the ABS that brake specific wheels in order for the crossover to have better stability. What's more, the Kicks SL also features VDC (Vehicle Dynamic Control) and TCS (Traction Control System).
The SL specification in the Brazilian market includes a touchscreen infotainment system as well as automatic climate control.
Apart from all that, the Kicks SL is the first B-segment vehicle, according to Nissan, that has a TFT dashboard. Just like Audi’s Virtual Cockpit, but with a 7-inch screen in place of the rev counter (the speedometer is conventional). It has 12 different display modes, among which a compass, the rev counter it replaces, navigation directions, the chassis control settings and the on-board computer functions, such as the fuel consumption.
In terms of practicality, access to the interior is easy... The doors have a good opening angle and are relatively short, which prevents you from banging them against adjacent cars in tight spaces. The 432 litres of luggage space is more than enough for carrying most things a family would need for their vacation.
Besides that, the crossover is short enough to fit most parking spaces, even the narrowest ones. The Camera 360 system is of particular benefit during low-speed manoeuvres, even if it requires a bit of familiarisation. Rear visibility is reasonable.
Automatic for the people
The 1.6-litre petrol engine that powers the Kicks is the same one that Nissan utilises in the Micra and the Almera in Brazil. So it is fair to say the 3 cars share a platform, as well as powertrains.
The only version of the Kicks that is available (thus far) is the SL, which uses the 1.6-litre engine in combination with a CVT. I have praised this transmission every time I have evaluated it with the 2.0-litre petrol engine that powers the Sentra in Brazil, but the CVT does not get along with the 1.6-litre unit very well.
For what the Kicks may lack in rear legroom, its luggage capacity is particularly generous.
What bothers me about this combination is that the CVT is not very responsive. Even if you manage to find the small black button below the shift knob that activates the Sport mode, if you attempt to accelerate hard, the CVT does not allow revs to climb. It keeps them at the maximum torque range while the Kicks accelerates. Besides that, the 1.6 engine does not seem particularly punchy. It's, at best, okay. Perhaps a manual transmission would suit it better?
In its defence, the Kicks returns a fuel consumption comparable to that of similarly sized hatchbacks. Nissan claims the petrol model will achieve 7.14 L/100 km on the open road and 9.09 L/100 km in town, which is the relevant number for South Africa, even using the Brazilian standards of measurement.
In South Africa, there is a strong possibility that the Kicks may get an even smaller engine, the 1.5-litre unit that powers the Micra and the Almera.
Built on a low-cost platform, which also benefits from a low kerb weight, the Kicks was conceived to be very competitively priced. Its light structure, low claimed fuel consumption and generous specification (in SL trim) are strengths, but its 1.6 petrol/CVT combination and tight rear legroom are weaknesses.
We hope that the Kicks' excellent value for money factor will be just as applicable to the South African model when it becomes available on the local market in a year and a half's time. So far the only problem with it, at least in Brazil, is that you cannot order a Kicks SL with a manual transmission, but rest assured that the South African line-up, from whichever of Nissan's factories it will be sourced, will be finalised in the near future – should be more diverse. Nissan South Africa has confirmed that left-hand-drive Kicks will arrive in Sub-Saharan Africa in 2017, followed by South Africa a while later (probably in 2018).
Nonetheless, the Kicks will definitely appeal to those who find the Juke just a little too outlandish. It seems a very respectable competitor to the current crop of budget-oriented small crossovers. It has the potential to be cheaper, better equipped and, with a manual transmission, more fun to drive than its rivals.
The Kicks is undoubtedly the best-looking vehicle to be built on the Almera's platform!