I finally did it: I'm a dad. The funny thing is, I've always owned dad cars, even before I needed to. Owning anything with less than four doors never made much sense, which is how I ended up with a stable of souped-up grandpa cars from the Sixties and Seventies. Now that I'm a father, the '74 Oldsmobile sedan I brought my wife and son home from the hospital in seems a bit dated. And that, my friends, is how I found myself on this quest to find the perfect new dad car. The latest contender: The 2019 Nissan Kicks.
The 2019 Nissan Kicks SR, By the Numbers
- Base Price (Price as Tested): $19,335 ($22,875)
- Powertrain: 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine, 125 horsepower, 115 pound-feet of torque; continuously variable automatic transmission; front wheel-drive
- EPA Fuel Economy: 31 mpg city, 36 mpg highway
- 0-60 MPH: 9.7 seconds (Car and Driver testing)
- Random dad fact: Designed through a collaboration between Nissan's design studios in San Diego, California and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the Kicks concept was introduced at the São Paulo Motor Show in 2014. Uau!
There's no denying that we Americans have a lot stuff—much of it not because we need it, but because we think we need it. Regardless of that, some of the junk we carry in the car is required by law if we have children. Perhaps that's why fewer families buy sedans now—although it's likely that our fixation with material possessions is part of the reason behind drooping sedan sales. You just can't cram as much crap into the trunk of a sedan as you can into a crossover, truck, or SUV.
There are those of us who would like to teach our growing offspring that less is more, but how to lead them down such a path without making them feel like the unwilling members of some weird cult of modesty can be a challenge. What we buy and how we use it says a lot to our children about who we are. So how do you downsize without limiting your ability to function in a materialistic society?
Well, you could start by taking a good look at the Nissan Kicks.
Nissan may have created the perfect car for the family who wants to consume less—less fuel, less space, less material, whatever it may be—but has to be realistic about the spatial needs created by unwieldy government-mandated child safety equipment and bill-reducing Costco shopping. The diminutive Kicks combines urban-friendly exterior dimensions, good fuel economy, generous interior space, and fun styling in a practical package without signaling to others that you've given up on your expectation for quality. It basically does everything the Volvo XC40 does—minus the "moving briskly" and "being luxurious" parts—for almost half the price.
The reason I draw the XC40 comparison is because the Kicks employs much the same fun-take-on-its-larger-siblings as Volvo's smallest crossover. The floating roof design cue seen on the Maxima, Altima, and Murano has made its way onto the smallest crossover in Nissan's lineup, giving it a more modern look than many of the manufacturer's other vehicles (looking at you, Frontier). In its two upper-level trims, the Kicks is offered in a series of fetching two-tone paint schemes, including one that accents the gray body with an orange roof.
The interior is more predictably low-end Nissan, and makes good use of cheap black plastic to make sure all the wires and insulation behind the dash stay covered. Whatever. It's utilitarian and does its job, even if it doesn't look fancy. All of the seats are reasonably comfortable for short trips and offer great head room, but leg and hip space can be a little cramped. Rear seat legroom gets eaten up quickly with someone tall sitting up front. More to the point for new dads, a tall front seat passenger impedes the parent's ability to stuff a rear-facing child safety seat behind the vertical offender. Older young children sitting in forward-facing seats are like legless adult passengers, however, and are thus the perfect rear seat passengers for the Kicks.
Considering the fact that so many small crossovers have cramped cargo areas, the Kicks does pretty well in terms of behind-the-rear-seats cargo volume, thanks in part to its large load floor. The Kicks boasts 25.3 cubic feet of cargo space with the rear seats up—more than the Honda HR-V, and a lot more than the Toyota CH-R, Kia Soul, and Jeep Renegade, the other notable cute 'utes on the market. Even with a full passenger load, the Kicks still has enough space out back for a good-sized stroller, a diaper bag, some groceries, and the various other odds and ends parents usually find themselves with. Unfortunately, the rear seats don't fold all the way flat, cutting into the usability of the full 32.3 cubic feet of cargo space that opens up with the seatbacks (more or less) out of the way.
The LATCH child safety seat anchors on my test car were very easy to use, but the rear seatbelts were not. They had no rigidity and kept falling down into the crack between the seat and the seatback, making it difficult for rear seat passengers to get buckled in. This is hardly the scenario you want as you're rushing off to school or some appointment. People—particularly small ones—need to be able to buckle themselves in without too much assistance.
Although the Kicks manages decent acceleration in low-speed around-town driving, its underpowered engine—the same 1.6-liter that motivates the smaller Versa—shows its weakness when you nose the little crossover toward a freeway entrance ramp. While not nearly as bad as Ford's EcoSport (or, as I call it, the Bleccosport), the Kicks kicks up a row when you try to squeeze a few extra ponies out of its tiny engine. The CVT does a decent job mimicking shifts, but when there's not much power to shift, it doesn't matter much. It sends power to the front wheels, but never the rear ones. Oddly enough, Nissan decided not to offer all wheel-drive in a vehicle that looks like it should have it, most likely to keep costs down.
But there's a tradeoff from the sluggish engine: great fuel economy. Usually, anytime a manufacturer stretches a small car's skin and turns it into a small crossover, fuel economy suffers. Not the Kicks. It's a good lesson in why Japanese cars were so thrifty during the '80s, when most of 'em were still carbureted—they had no power, so not much fuel was consumed. Nothing saves more fuel than simply using less of it.
Nissan doesn't offer the Kicks with a lot of advanced active safety features, but all of its trim levels come with forward automatic emergency braking and forward collision warning. Blind spot monitoring and rear cross traffic assist are only available on the upper-level SR and SV trims. Features like lane departure warning and lane keeping assist aren't offered. Still, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) dubbed the Kicks a Top Safety Pick in 2018. (The federal government has not yet rated it.)
Your dividend for enduring front wheel-drive-only traction and a sea of cheap-looking black plastic is a very low price. If the Kicks' combination of low price, low power, great fuel economy and oddball styling seems unfamiliar, that's probably because it was designed with more modest foreign markets in mind. Most Americans would probably prefer a Canyonero, which is why the Armada is still in production.
The Kicks may be slower than the Juke it replaces in Nissan's North American lineup, but it's better looking and more spacious. With sufficient space inside for the gear and groceries necessary for child-rearing, it could catch on among the family crowd in a way its predecessor never did.