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Style and Substance: The 2018 Nissan Kicks vs. 2018 Toyota C-HR comparison test

I am Mr. Wilson. And I want you to get off my lawn.

Truly, I do. Because, let’s face it – I’m old(er). I’m grizzled, perpetually displeased about nothing in particular, and generally curmudgeonly. I don’t smile unless I have gas.

And I am most definitely not a Millennial. Or a Gen Z person, whatever that means.

As such I don’t aspire to own a C-HR or anything called a “Kicks.” I do not get invited to C-HR or Kicks consumer research studies. And sure, when I pulled into the neighborhood driving the trendy Toyota C-HR, the reaction from spouse and children was bemusement, eye-rolling and snickering.

Whatever. I can channel my youth for a week and a half. Bah.

Thing is, I do know how to listen, and I have a pretty good idea about what makes for a good vehicle – no matter who the target market happens to be.

The target market for these vehicles is generally thought to be young Millennials, setting out on their own, perhaps going to college or just moving into that first real job. And if that’s true, both automakers nailed it – because the C-HR and the Kicks drew strong interest from the little heathens.

Which was pretty rude – I mean who wants to interact with young people? But I decided to jump in, take a few long drives and a good hard look at these two contenders. I also listened to what people with less time on this rock thought and found that they had clear opinions about what they liked.

By the time I was done, I had warmed up considerably to the youthful spirit and trendy vibe that runs through both vehicles. True, neither are valedictorians of their class, but they’re solid C students with an occasional chance at glory. If either the Kicks or the C-HR were human, they’d be lifestyle bloggers, and that’s a compliment.

Okay. Maybe not.

I also discovered that these two vehicles are eminently comparable, despite the price gap. Yes, as equipped the Toyota C-HR is about $3,000 more than the Kicks. But the fact is, as equipped, these two vehicles should be cross-shopped for one main reason: they’re both caught in an overwrought trendy bubble trying to be something they aren’t.

To be clear: neither is a crossover vehicle. Nor are they hatchbacks, though one could make that claim. They’re front-wheel-drive cars that sit up high and offer the ample cargo room of a SUV. So that’s what I am going to call them: tall cars. Or maybe utility vehicles (UVs). Or maybe activity machines. Hell.

The Toyota C-HR is the Cardi B of the car business. It’s kind of out there. Controversial. In your face. It has a long proper name (Compact High Rider), and it’s pretty polarizing.

And I would never be a fan. Sorry, Toyota.

Just like how I frantically change the station when “Bodak Yellow” comes on, maybe my grumpy brain has trouble grasping the C-HR, at least enough to buy the thing. With the C-HR, I look at it and think about blind spots and pinched fingers from the weird back seat door handles.

Ugh. I just don’t get kids today. Those Millennials!

Which is the point, I suppose. The Toyota C-HR is pointed in the exact opposite direction from where I stand. And judging from the reception it received after a week of driving around Northern Virginia and Maryland, that’s exactly what it’s supposed to do. It’s reaching a receptive audience of younger drivers who like the off-putting design and love the aggressive stance.

More to the point, they also like that it’s safe and likely dependable for many thousands of miles – given that it’s from Toyota. Remember that many younger Millennial shoppers grew up in SUVs like the Highlander. So they know there’s value under that sheet metal.

My test vehicle, a 2018 Toyota C-HR XLE Premium, had a sticker price of $26,794 (including the $960 destination charge) with standard features such as 18-inch alloy wheels, a 7-inch touchscreen infotainment system, Toyota Safety Sense technology, and more.

The Premium Package ($194) includes integrated fog lights, puddle lamps with “C-HR” projection, heated front seats, and power lumbar to go with the power 6-way driver’s seat.

Come to think of it, have you ever heard “Bodak Yellow?” It’s pretty good. Like the C-HR, it kind of grows on you.

After a group of 18-to-20-year-olds looked over the C-HR, I asked my daughter what they thought. I expected them to mock the vehicle.

“So…did they hate it? I bet they hated it. What did they tell you?”

“Actually, it was exactly the opposite. Of course. They loved it. They thought it was fun, old man.”

Imagine my surprise. Later, I shed a tear while listing to my bootleg compilation of Bruce Springsteen songs. I soon got over myself, however, and realized that they had a point: it is an attractive beast, if you look at it from the perspective of expression.

It’s true that you probably would not want to take your boss to lunch in the C-HR, if your boss is an old crank. But that’s old timey thinking. Today, it’s about gigs and expressing your own edgy corners. In the case of the C-HR, that’s angled surfaces and a diamond theme, with a sporty stance that’s fresh and new.

Inside, Toyota flips the script and offers a conservative approach. The objective is straightforward quality and comfort – and the C-HR hits the mark, with a little flair. Designers carried over the diamond theme into the interior, with a stamp-like design throughout.

It’s subtle and surprising – a nice touch. Clearly, the objective here is to create a low-cost yet durable interior. From the ample center bin to the center console, the look is big, clean, and usable. Like the Nissan Kicks, it comes across as a well-thought-out place to be, with a simple approach to controls, a feeling of durability, and a premium on comfort.

Forget about the blind spots – at least for now. The most important thing to know about the interior of the C-HR is that it’s a comfortable and supportive place to be. The driver’s seat offers 6-way power adjustment, with adjustable lumbar – an advantage over the Kicks.

Truly, though, with or without fake leather or lumbar support, the C-HR offers a surprising level of comfort and space in the front of the cabin, almost as if the design of the vehicle isn’t low, angled, and aggressive. The Kicks, as impressive as it is, isn’t as comfortable up front.

There is, unfortunately, one tiny little problem: the design.

The interior of the C-HR is slightly compromised by the high windowsill that’s a result of the exterior styling; this kind of defeats the purpose of the “high rider,” because you feel a little like you’re sitting in a hole. Just like in a sedan.

It’s easy enough to get over that, but the back seat is truly a penalty box. Legroom is adequate, and there’s room for three little people (or two adults), but it’s a dark place. That same beltline sweeps up and blocks out the sun; the overall slightly pinched design also makes the back seats feel a little uncomfortable.

No one ever said there wasn’t a price for expression. It’s just a good thing that the act of driving the C-HR isn’t as complicated as it looks. Indeed, like the Kicks, the Toyota is simple, clear, and easy, with a logical layout.

Even better, the infotainment touchscreen is located slightly above the dash, which helps eye level stay up, near where the road is. Best of all, Toyota’s rearview camera is located inside the rearview mirror, giving drivers two views and simplifying the use of camera technology. It’s a nice touch, though not as versatile as Nissan’s all-around and on-demand camera.

Any vehicle purporting to be a crossover ought to be about practical stowage and cargo room, right?

Inside, the C-HR offers plenty of storage, but frustrates with a dearth of cupholders. There is a center bin, however, as well as seatback pockets and ample in-door space for things and bottles.

In the cargo area, the C-HR is smaller than the Kicks at 19 cu.-ft. with seats up, and 36.4 cu.-ft. with back seats down – another compromise to design. And while that seems like a big difference, note that the Kicks doesn’t offer a flat floor for cargo – and it takes the purchase of an accessory to flatten the floor like in the C-HR.

That probably doesn’t close the gap in terms of room, but the Toyota’s flat floor makes it far more convenient. Ultimately, one could say that cargo room with the seats up favors the Nissan, while seats-down practicality favors the Toyota.

So, which is more important to you, safety or sound? If you agree that safety tech is a more valuable feature, then the C-HR is for you.

Standard on all C-HRs, the Toyota Safety Sense P suite includes lane departure warning with steering assist, pre-collision mitigation, pedestrian detection, automatic high beams, an advanced airbag system, and dynamic radar cruise control. It also includes blind-spot warning with integrated cross-traffic alert.

But what about actual safety? The Toyota C-HR does well here, as well.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) rated the 2018 C-HR “Good” and “Superior” across its battery of tests, save for a “Poor” rating in the headlight test. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) gave the C-HR an overall 5-star (out of 5) rating, with 4 stars for both frontal crash protection and rollover resistance.

In terms of infotainment (and I really do hate to beat the drum), the lack of Android Auto and Apple CarPlay is a glaring omission in a car targeted to young Millennials. That, along with the lack of onboard navigation, makes the Kicks’ upscale system look pretty darn good and the C-HR abjectly bad.

It’s a good thing Bluetooth works. Just make sure your phone is fully charged, because there is only one USB port available in the C-HR, and your passenger just took it.

The C-HR’s continuously variable transmission (CVT) is so bad that my daughters actually made fun of it.

Not on purpose, of course, but because the high-pitched drone that screamed from the engine as I stepped on the throttle was just so startling, so inept, and sad, really, that they felt compelled to mimic the horrible noise.

I have horrible children.

Still, they had a point. The C-HR is powered by a capable engine: A 2.0-liter 4-cylinder with 144 horsepower and 139 lb.-ft. of torque. It’s significantly more powerful than the Kicks’ 125-hp powertrain.

So why are they so comparable? The answer is two-fold: weight and transmission. The C-HR struggles because it weighs 3,300 pounds – almost 700 more than the Kicks. That’s like towing around a family of five. The transmission, meanwhile, requires use the manual shifter to wring out snappy shifts.

It’s a good thing, then, that the vehicle offers a comfortable and isolated ride, with electric steering and disc brakes all the way around. Indeed, the C-HR’s extra weight probably contributes to a more languid ride. Compared to the Nissan, the C-HR feels more substantial on the road, but less nimble and able to find those tight urban spaces.

But that’s okay, because with the C-HR you have to look twice before darting into a lane. The right-side blind spot is tough to work around, though it is helped by the blind-spot warning system.

Efficiency-wise, the C-HR did about as well as the Kicks: I registered a combined 28.3 mpg, compared to an EPA-estimated combined 29 mpg.

If you’re looking for a car that reflects your individualistic style and edgy persona – and offers Toyota’s notable Safety Sense technology – the 2018 Toyota C-HR could be the one for you.. Just be prepared to live with blind spots, an underwhelming powertrain, and a second-best infotainment system.

Pros: Edgy, stylish exterior that will make people look twice; strong safety ratings and impressive safety technology; comfortable front seats and plenty of storage areas; flat cargo floor

Cons: The CVT constrains power and hurts overall performance; the infotainment system lacks Android Auto, Apple CarPlay, or onboard navigation; smaller cargo space and back seat than many competitors

Conclusion: The 2018 Toyota C-HR is a fascinating vehicle that puts design first and sacrifices overall performance and cargo room. However, with a plethora of standard safety features and a comfortable interior, it offers an interesting alternative to the army of sameness that afflicts the small urban car class.

Test Vehicle: 2018 Toyota C-HR

Price as Tested: $26,794

Drivetrain: 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine; continuously variable transmission

Power Rating: 144 horsepower and 139 lb.-ft. of torque

Fuel Economy Rating: 28.3 mpg on 100-mile loop

Safety Rating: 5-star overall rating from NHTSA; “Good” and “Superior” safety ratings from IIHS, with a “Poor” score for headlights.

My eldest daughter is a practical dreamer. Nearing college, she’s taking first steps into an adult world of adventure and responsibility, and is doing so with verve and a deep appreciation for new trails.

It’s not a surprise.

Having spent an entire childhood going on long drives to nowhere (Hey! Let’s find a new road today!) and taking budget vacations (How about BEACH camping!), the idea of the “open road” is hardwired into her cerebral cortex.

Heck, the kid has already crisscrossed America, and would do it again in a nanosecond – just so long as we had coupons.

And while I don’t know what type of new car she’ll buy when that time comes, I do know the Kicks would be on the consideration list. It’s cute, inexpensive, and you can cram a bunch of stuff into it. Based on the entry-level Nissan Versa sedan and hatch, the Kicks uses the same suspension, steering, and brake setup.

That can be a simple but effective design, depending on the equipment added. In this case, the Kicks I reviewed felt far from an entry-level car: A top SR model with a Premium Package, it had a sticker price of $22,630 (including the $975 destination charge) and standard features such as 17-inch alloy wheels, a 7-inch touchscreen infotainment system, NissanConnect with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, blind-spot warning, cross-traffic alert, remote engine start, and more.

For $1,000, the SR Premium Package includes a Bose Audio system with amplifier, 8 speakers (including driver’s headrest), imitation leather with heated front seats, and a security system.

But that’s not all. As tested, my Nissan Kicks included several dealer-installed accessories: exterior ground lighting ($225); interior accent lighting ($200); all-season floor and cargo mats ($220); a level load floor add-on ($195); and a rear cargo cover ($211).

That puts the actual sticker price at $23,681.

I like the style of the Kicks. Deep Blue Pearl with a “Fresh Powder” roof, the Kicks comes across as exuberant. All-new for the 2018 model year, the Kicks sports a youthful and enthusiastic face with a style that politely differentiates from crossover sameness.

Sorry about that, Nissan.

See, if I like it, your target market probably won’t fall in love with the crisp lines and smooth body panels. Case in point: Everyone under 30 was unanimous in their praise of the C-HR’s style, and indifferent to the Kicks. Even with the Kicks’ two-tone paint, the odd angles and corners of the Toyota appealed to people.

Not that the Kicks is homely.. Inside, it’s superb. It lives larger than it is, and the SR features shine thanks to contrast orange stitching, black imitation leather everywhere, brushed aluminum, and quality hard plastics. All that goodness makes it comparable to the Toyota C-HR, which offers an even more spacious interior – without the fake leather.

Do you really care whether the vehicle you purchase is deemed a hatchback or a crossover? Nope. You don’t. What you do want – what we all want – is a seating position that’s easy to get into, comfortable seats, and a car that provides an unencumbered view of the road.

Comfort is the name of the game here, which is why the Kicks does so well. Its mission is to find that sweet spot between hatchback and crossover, and thus give young car buyers the experience they seek at an affordable sticker price.

On that score, it does well. The front seats are well-bolstered and sturdy; long drives elicit only a small amount of leg and back fatigue. The seats up front should, however, offer more by way of controls; the height-adjuster hand crank gives away the Kicks’ humble Versa roots.

The back row offers acceptable room for most, though I don’t think I would want to be the third person back there. If you’re carpooling or going out on the town, put “that friend” back there.

You know who I mean.

Compared to the Kicks, the C-HR is a tad more comfortable, with wider seats and more forgiving bolsters. It also features a 6-way power seat with lumbar support. The Kicks, then, comes up just a bit short regarding comfort.

It’s much the same when it comes to controls. The Kicks has what younger drivers need most: a simple interface, with clearly identified buttons and big knobs. In fact, both vehicles offer a simple approach to driving that helps keep eyes on the road and hands on the wheel.

As such, the 7-inch touchscreen display fits nicely into the design. One key benefit of the Kicks display was the ability to activate the camera at any time (while stationary).

That’s important, with daughters and sons off to college and driving in unfamiliar areas.

The Nissan Kicks is not really a storage-friendly car, and it should be. I think it could use a trip to the Container Store. For starters, there’s no center bin between the front seats. Nope. Instead, you get a coin tray and cupholders, and a tiny glovebox. Luckily, there’s a center area for smartphones, and a USB/AUX input.

While the C-HR gives people more places to stow their daily stuff, the Kicks adds a surprise: a large cargo area. In terms of size, the Kicks boasts 25.3 cu.-ft. of cargo space, and 53.1 cu.-ft. with 60/40-split rear seat folded down.

Problem is, there’s a big step-up from the cargo floor to the seat backs, when they’re folded. You can level out the space by purchasing a fake floor for the cargo area; it’s a $195 dealer-installed accessory. Just note that cargo room will shrink, and lift-over height will increase.

When it comes to little runabouts like the Kicks, two things matter most: safety and infotainment.

For the most part, nail these in a “tall hatchback” style body and you have yourself a winning combination. To that end, I took an informal poll at gas stations and coffee shops, paying attention to the questions people asked and the things they talked about.

No one mentioned the engine. Or how it handled. Those interested wanted to know about the two-tone paint, the ground effects lighting, and sure enough, the infotainment system. Mostly, they wondered how good the Bose stereo speakers were in the driver-side headrest. I told them that the only thing better than good music is good music played loudly, over a great system, while driving.

Rock that Kicks, dude. I abide.

As such, the Kicks is spot-on. My SR Premium trim featured a 7-inch touchscreen display built into the dash, and eight total speakers (two in the driver headrest). That’s the Bose Personal Plus audio system (part of a $1,000 SR Premium Package).

There’s also Bluetooth, hands-free phone connectivity, Android Auto with projection technology, Apple CarPlay, and SiriusXM satellite radio. The Kicks also includes one USB port up front and two in the back – at this point a requirement. Hopefully the Toyota C-HR will get itself more USB ports soon.

As much as the C-HR comes up short in terms of infotainment, it cleans up on safety by offering as standard equipment the entire Toyota Safety Sense P suite of safety features. The Kicks doesn’t quite measure up here, but does offer automatic emergency braking, blind-spot warning, and rear cross-traffic monitoring, as well as a very well-designed camera that provides a complete 360-degree view of the car’s surroundings.

Crash-test results for the Nissan Kicks have not been posted at the time of this review. The Versa is a veritable death trap, so hopefully Nissan has properly fortified the Kicks for the important mission of ferrying tech-addled youth hither and yon. Especially in light of its feathery curb weight.

It’s not always about power. In fact, driving enjoyment is mostly about the delicate balance between power, weight, and purpose.

And that’s what makes the Kicks a capable driver. It offers a fun and peppy experience thanks to the combination of weight (just 2,639 lbs.) and a retuned version of the Versa’s 1.6-liter 4-cylinder engine. For the Kicks, that power plant generates 125 horsepower and 115 lb.-ft. of torque – all improvements over the Versa.

Sure, it’s not as powerful as the C-HR’s 144-hp, 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine, but then again, the Toyota weighs almost 700 lbs. more.

As a result, the Kicks excels during short trips and in urban driving. It provides an unencumbered view and is excellent at darting in and out of traffic, picking off parking spaces, and making those last-minute right turns. The electric steering is basic and responsive – a perfect point-and-drive setup. And though the CVT is a drone-fest, putting the car in Sport mode brings out a more spirited experience.

The suspension is another story. Hit a rough patch or a pothole and you’re sure to get a jarring, um, kick. Brakes were also slightly disappointing. As with the Versa, the Kicks offers discs up front but drums in the back. To be sure, that’s perfectly acceptable, except for one thing: Why can’t Nissan put discs all around on a car that sits above the Versa in the model lineup? The C-HR, for example, has disc brakes all around.

Observed gas mileage with the Kicks was a combined 29.1 miles per gallon. Not great, considering the EPA-estimated rating of 33 mpg combined.

While it’s true that the C-HR has an edgy design and an impressive array of safety tech, the Nissan Kicks also offers up important safety features and for around $3,000 less ($4,000 without the accessories). The Nissan also has a better infotainment setup, a roomier interior, and a peppy driving experience.

With apologies to Fernando from the classic Saturday Night Live skit, that’s more than enough for this little “tall car” to show that it really is better to feel good.

Pros: Spacious and comfortable interior with ample cargo room; nimble driving character with peppy short-burst acceleration; quality infotainment system on SR Premium trim, with excellent sound from the Bose Personal Sound System; surprisingly high-quality interior materials

Cons: Lack of storage areas and uneven cargo floor; a more conservative exterior style that doesn’t seem to thrill the intended audience; rear drum brakes and a stiff torsion-beam rear suspension; poor straight-line acceleration performance

Conclusion: An impressive debut. The Nissan Kicks is a solid buy for younger drivers looking for a capable, fun car that’s taller than a hatch, but with the appealing qualities of a crossover in terms of comfort, room, and visibility. Well-equipped and inexpensive, the Kicks blends style and practicality into a strong contender.

Test Vehicle: 2018 Nissan Kicks

Price as Tested: $23,681

Drivetrain: 1.6-liter 4-cylinder engine; continuously variable transmission

Power Rating: 125 horsepower and 115 lb.-ft. of torque

Fuel Economy Rating: 29.1 mpg on 100-mile loop

Safety Rating: Test scores not yet available

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