It’s the kind of bargaining we do every day: Should I buy the store brand or pay a few dollars more for the name brand? Most of the time, it’s the same thing, but sometimes it’s worth it when you just like the name brand better. We do the same thing when we’re car shopping: buy the car that fits our spreadsheet of criteria, or the one that speaks to us? Sometimes, though, you get both in the same package, like when you’re cross-shopping the 2020 Kia Soul and 2020 Nissan Kicks.
It used to be buying any car that started under $20,000 was an exercise in finding the least cheaped-out model on the lot. They were basic transportation, and they reminded you of it at every turn. Automakers have realized, though, that people on a budget still want nice things, and if you give them the option to tack on a few extras at a reasonable price, they will—and everyone wins. The Kia Soul has been a better example of this approach than anything else in its class for years, but the class is catching up. Coming in the strongest is the Nissan Kicks.
After the Nissan Juke turned out to be too controversially styled to put enough butts in seats, Nissan refined the concept by diluting the styling to painfully inoffensive, ditching the turbocharger and all-wheel drive, and changing the name. The Kicks isn’t as sporty as the Juke was, but it’s more practical and gets better fuel economy while retaining a laundry list of factory accessories to dress it up. Are those attributes competitive enough for the Kicks to go up against the eminently chic Soul?
Kia Soul vs. Nissan Kicks: Which is the better bargain?
If your budget doesn’t allow for a lot of add-ons, the Soul gets a leg up with a starting price of $18,610 to the Kicks’ $19,965. For that, you get a more powerful engine than the Kicks and standard Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. You can certainly get those on the Kicks, but only if you spend another $1,630 for the mid-grade SV model. No amount of money will buy you a stronger engine in the Nissan, though.
On the other hand, every Kicks comes standard with automatic emergency braking for cars and pedestrians, lane departure warning, blind-spot warning, automatic rear braking, and rear cross-traffic alert. To get all that on the Soul, you’ve got to spend an extra $2,800 to level-up to the S model. And while you can buy a more powerful engine for your Soul, there’s nothing you can do about the Nissan’s fuel economy advantage. Depending on your priorities, the Soul and Kicks are pretty even out of the starting gate.
How do the Soul and Kicks stack up on options?
Once you’ve evened out the basic features, both cars are sitting at about $21,000 and change. Where you go from here is limited only by your budget. More tech? Better stereo? Two-tone paint schemes? Nissan and Kia will happily take your money. For this test, we pitted a nicely equipped Soul EX, the second-highest trim level, against a Kicks SV, the most expensive Kicks. Don’t worry, it’s fair. The Kicks SV starts at $22,215, a $1,600 savings over a Soul EX even though we stuck with the base engine.
This is where the options will get you, though. Our Soul EX, with special paint, wheels, LED headlights, and other goodies bumped the price to $25,455. By the time Nissan was done throwing accessories at the Kicks, though, the price tag came to a startling $26,775. Let’s give back a couple non-essentials like illuminated kick panels in the door jams and exterior ground lighting and see how they shake out.
Kia Soul vs. Nissan Kicks: Which is Better for Commuting?
Face it, you’ll spend more time in the front seat of your car than anywhere else, so the interior matters. It’s here we start to see a big distinction between the Soul and Kicks.
Let’s start with the basics. In terms of passenger space, the two are nearly identical in the front or back seat save for shoulder room, where the Kicks is a bit narrower. The Soul offers more cargo space thanks to an adjustable floor. Both feature tall roofs and big windows, so seeing over your shoulder or out the back window when changing lanes is a breeze. Our testers each had faux leather seats, heated in front, though we found the Soul’s more comfortable, like an easy chair. Both have leather-wrapped steering wheels and shifters, but the Kicks gets a swath of stitched faux leather across the length of the dash to help dress it up.
It needs the help. Forgive the Kicks for a simple, clean dashboard, but not the plastic-slab door panels and craft store headliner. You can avoid looking at those, but you can’t avoid the significantly higher level of road noise coming through the floor and engine noise coming through the dash. The Soul is much quieter inside in all situations.
Not just quieter, but nicer looking. While Nissan made an effort to dress up a basic design, Kia took the time to make the interior more interesting to begin with and finished it in materials of a higher and more consistent quality. One could argue Kia had to in order to maintain the Soul’s reputation, but by the same logic, Nissan had to make something competitive.
Although the vehicles offer similar tech, here again the differences are obvious. For starters, the Kicks only has single-zone automatic climate control to the Soul’s automatic dual-zone system. More substantially, EX trim level makes Kia’s new 10.3-inch touchscreen infotainment system standard, and it’s not just bigger than Nissan’s 7.0-inch screen. Kia is a market leader in user interface and user experience. Its system not only looks crisp and modern, it’s incredibly easy and intuitive to use. Nissan’s isn’t bad, but it just doesn’t hold a candle to this.
The Nissan system does have an advantage in the Bose stereo, standard on the SV model. Using speakers embedded in the headrest of the driver’s seat, it provides impressive clarity for such an inexpensive system. The standard stereo on the Soul is fine, but you have to buy the most expensive model to get the Harman Kardon audio system, and that model starts at over $28,000. But at least some colorful interior lights will pulse with the beat of that stereo.
Does the Soul or Kicks Do Safety Better?
The Soul and Kicks offer a similar list of active safety features, with the notable exception being lane keeping assist, which only the Soul offers, and a 360-degree camera, which only the Kicks offers. In practice, we found both vehicles’ blind-spot monitoring and lane departure warning systems to work equally well. In the event of a crash, the Kicks boasts nine airbags to the Soul’s six, however the Soul gets a five-star NHTSA crash rating to the Kicks’ four. The Soul is also an IIHS Top Safety Pick, whereas the Kicks is not. In our testing, the Soul stopped six feet shorter from 60 mph despite being heavier.
What’s it Like to Drive the Kicks and the Soul?
The Soul has an obvious advantage on paper, and it’s hard to miss as you drive down the road. In our testing, the Soul was significantly quicker to 60 mph, getting up to freeway speeds in 8.6 seconds to the Kicks’ leisurely 10.5. From stoplight to stoplight, though, the Kicks makes a good show of itself with a responsive throttle and aggressive gearing that get it hopping like an eager puppy. Once that puppy energy wears off, though, and you have to go up a hill, there’s no hiding the power deficit. The continuously variable transmission (CVT) does its best with what it has, but it tends to treat the engine like an on-off switch and once it’s on, that’s all you get.
The Soul’s similar four-cylinder and CVT powertrain feels not only more powerful, but more mature. The CVT attempts to mimic eight gears and uses all of the engine’s range, not just the peak power. It, too, is geared aggressively and snaps to around town, but when the going gets tough, it still has more to give.
Both vehicles feel nimble on the road, but each has its own character. The Kicks rides more stiffly and has more body roll, which can be fun if you don’t brake before cornering. Here, again, the Soul feels like the more sophisticated setup, riding slightly better and cornering flatter. There’s less drama, which some might see as less fun but most find reassuring. No matter your style, our figure-eight test shows the Soul easily out-handles the Kicks.
Should You Buy a Soul or a Kicks?
Both the Kia Soul and Nissan Kicks offer a lot of features, technology, safety, and value for the money. We appreciate the honesty of the Kicks. It’s not trying to fool you into thinking it’s something it’s not. It’s not pretending to be a sports car or an off-roader; it’s an affordable vehicle that doesn’t punish you for saving money but instead offers you ways to dial up the style as much as your budget allows.
On the whole, though, the Soul does it better. It’s stylish from the start, offers a bit more technology, is quieter and more comfortable, has more cargo space, and is more pleasant to drive and even offers a stronger engine. It’s not quite as efficient as the lighter Kicks, but it’s less harrowing on a freeway on-ramp. The Soul may get more expensive if you get carried away with the options, but it has more trim levels to allow you to better mix and match the features that are right for you. The Kicks may have everything you need, but the Soul has everything you want, too.
|2020 Kia Soul EX||2020 Nissan Kicks SR|
|DRIVETRAIN LAYOUT||Front-engine, FWD||Front-engine, FWD|
|ENGINE TYPE||I-4, alum block/head||I-4, alum block/head|
|VALVETRAIN||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl|
|DISPLACEMENT||122.0 cu in/1,999cc||97.5 cu in/1,598cc|
|POWER (SAE NET)||147 hp @ 6,200 rpm||122 hp @ 6,300 rpm|
|TORQUE (SAE NET)||132 lb-ft @ 4,500 rpm||114 lb-ft @ 4,000 rpm|
|REDLINE||6,750 rpm||6,400 rpm|
|WEIGHT TO POWER||20.3 lb/hp||22.5 lb/hp|
|TRANSMISSION||Cont variable auto||Cont variable auto|
|SUSPENSION, FRONT; REAR||Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; torsion beam, coil springs||Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; torsion beam, coil springs|
|BRAKES, F; R||11.0-in vented disc; 10.3-in disc, ABS||10.2-in vented disc; 8.0-in drum, ABS|
|WHEELS||7.5 x 18-in cast aluminum||6.5 x 17-in cast aluminum|
|TIRES||235/45R18 94Y M+S Hankook Ventus S1 Noble2||205/55R17 91V (M+S) Firestone FT140|
|WHEELBASE||102.4 in||103.1 in|
|TRACK, F/R||62.0/62.4 in||59.8/60.4 in|
|LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT||165.2 x 70.9 x 63.0 in||169.1 x 69.3 x 62.5 in|
|GROUND CLEARANCE||6.7 in||7.0 in|
|APPRCH/DEPART ANGLE||15.2/24.0 deg||19.1/27.5 deg|
|TURNING CIRCLE||34.8 ft||34.1 ft|
|CURB WEIGHT||2,981 lb||2,742 lb|
|WEIGHT DIST, F/R||61/39%||61/39%|
|TOWING CAPACITY||Not recommended||Not recommended|
|HEADROOM, F/R||39.4/39.5 in||40.7/38.5 in|
|LEGROOM, F/R||41.1/38.8 in||43.7/33.2 in|
|SHOULDER ROOM, F/R||55.5/54.7 in||53.0/53.2 in|
|CARGO VOLUME BEH F/R||62.1/23.4 cu ft||53.1/25.3 cu ft|
|ACCELERATION TO MPH|
|0-30||3.2 sec||3.7 sec|
|PASSING, 45-65 MPH||4.5||5.8|
|QUARTER MILE||16.7 sec @ 83.8 mph||18.0 sec @ 77.5 mph|
|BRAKING, 60-0 MPH||116 ft||122 ft|
|LATERAL ACCELERATION||0.85 g (avg)||0.78 g (avg)|
|MT FIGURE EIGHT||27.4 sec @ 0.61 g (avg)||29.2 sec @ 0.54 g (avg)|
|TOP-GEAR REVS @ 60 MPH||1,750 rpm||1,800 rpm|
|PRICE AS TESTED||$25,445||$26,775|
|AIRBAGS||6: Dual front, front side, f/r curtain||9: Dual front, f/r side, front curtain, driver knee|
|BASIC WARRANTY||5 yrs/60,000 miles||3 yrs/36,000 miles|
|POWERTRAIN WARRANTY||10 yrs/100,000 miles||5 yrs/60,000 miles|
|ROADSIDE ASSISTANCE||5 yrs/60,000 miles||3 yrs/36,000 miles|
|FUEL CAPACITY||14.3 gal||10.8 gal|
|EPA CITY/HWY/COMB ECON||27/33/30 mpg||31/36/33 mpg|
|ENERGY CONS, CITY/HWY||125/102 kW-hr/100 miles||109/94 kW-hr/100 miles|
|CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB||0.66 lb/mile||0.59 lb/mile|
|RECOMMENDED FUEL||Unleaded regular||Unleaded regular|
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