One of the challenges with any small car is making the sound system appealing enough for discerning listeners. It’s a compact space, and sound doesn't travel far enough. Many small cars lack the 'oomph' you’d expect, simply because there isn’t enough space to install massive subwoofers and a huge array of speakers in every corner of the vehicle.
Oh, and cost – a budget car usually has budget speakers.
Drowned in sound
Fortunately, the 2019 Nissan Kicks solves that problem. In a recent test, the sound system created a 360-degree panorama of sound, mostly thanks to a technology called Bose UltraNearfield audio. In the driver’s seat, there are two 2.5-inch neodymium speakers. As you sit, you can hear the audio from the front speakers but the technology creates a more immersive audio experience because you also hear sound right next to your ears.
This technique is a bit of a tech marvel, actually. During many driving routes, I cued up a few different albums including one by the band Small Feet. You can hear the lower range – drums, bass – as though it is engulfing you inside the Nissan Kicks. Normally, in a car like the Toyota Corolla or a Honda Civic, the sound doesn’t have enough space to travel.
In the Kicks, the speakers use Bose PersonalSpace Virtual Audio Technology to create the 360-degree sound. It combines the front and side speakers with the UltraNearfield speakers in the headrest to stitch together the audio – it sounds like you’re on a stage and the audio is emanating everywhere, instead of getting jammed up in the small space.
I played another new album by the band Broods and felt the same level of immersion. From behind you, it seems like the bass and drums are more guttural and the overall arc of the audio seems to be from every angle.
Another band called Banners released a new single during my test week and it had the same effect – like a concert taking place in the car.
Big sounds on a budget
Now, this is where a dose of reality comes into play. The Nissan Kicks costs $18,540 (about £14,000, AU$26,000) and can’t compare to a high-end luxury car like the Mercedes-Benz AMG S63 (at a price of $169,450 – about £129,000, AU$241,000), which has one of the best sound systems you will ever hear. The speakers are reference quality in that the highs and lows are incredibly distinct, lush and vibrant, and powerful.
What we’re talking about with the Kicks is that technology is helping make the compact car sound better, but the vehicle is not outfitted with reference quality speakers. In the dash, you can control the Bose PersonalSpace setting to increase the sense of immersion, from narrow to wide.
At the more narrow setting, the speaker system sounds similar to other Nissan cars. At the widest setting, you hear more distinct audio without the typical distortion.
What’s cool about this trend is that technology advancements can help make the costs lower. I could see car companies adding more speakers above you or in the far back of the vehicle, and tuning the audio so that it sounds more vibrant without relying on actual high-end speakers.
This could apply to other tech in the car. Lighter parts to help with fuel economy, sensors that work just as effectively to track objects and other cars that are not as expensive, even autonomous driving algorithms that benefit from the reams of driver data available but used in lower cost vehicles, not just the most expensive models.
It’s a smart move by Nissan. Small Feet and Broods never sounded so good.
On The Road is TechRadar's regular look at the futuristic tech in today's hottest cars. John Brandon, a journalist who's been writing about cars for 12 years, puts a new car and its cutting-edge tech through the paces every week. One goal: To find out which new technologies will lead us to fully self-driving cars.