Buying an inexpensive, economically-minded small car almost always comes with tradeoffs. While most drivers are aware of the biggies – high fuel efficiency but meager power, for instance – one compromise usually accepted without question is that, given such a car’s low price, you won’t be getting a high-quality audio system.

Finally, there’s an exception. The all-new Nissan Kicks subcompact crossover is already making a splash with its stylish design, high fuel economy, impressive safety features and sub-$20,000 starting price. For those of us who cherish quality audio but still maintain a tight budget, there’s another reason to celebrate Nissan’s newest, smallest and least-expensive SUV: It’s available with a really good, first-of-its-kind audio system.

New Bose Personal Plus

Premium audio company Bose has had its systems in Nissan vehicles since 1989, but this one is the first of its kind. Called Bose Personal Plus, it is new to North America, making its debut in the Nissan Kicks. The system is only available in the top-line Kicks SR, as part of the $1,000 Premium Package that also includes faux leather interior, heated front seats and a vehicle security system. Thankfully, this is a case where “top-line” and “premium” still come at a value. The total cost for such a topline Kicks is $22,265. I’ve listened to headphones costing nearly that much.

The Kicks’ Bose system uses eight speakers in all, two of which are the most interesting as they are implanted in the driver’s seat headrest. This in itself is not a new idea – Bose has used headrest speakers in the Mazda MX-5 Miata for years – but the way it integrates them is novel. Rather than using the speakers to simply blast music in relation to the volume knob, the 2.5-inch Bose UltraNearfield neodymium speakers are used in conjunction with the system’s proprietary Bose PersonalSpace Virtual Audio Technology.

This approach gives the ability to change the sound field, focusing the audio to whoever is in the driver’s seat, or virtually widening the sound stage for passengers. When the sound stage is set to the wider level, more music can be heard coming from the headrest speakers, as the whole system mimics a surround-sound experience.

Of course, both driver and passengers will be able to hear the music no matter what level the PersonalSpace system is adjusted to, but the differences are audible. At its widest, music sounded more akin to a live performance, while at its most focused it sounded tighter and a bit bass heavy. In a totally unscientific study of two fellow KBB editors, one passenger in the front seat liked the wider setting, while another in back preferred the narrower option. Let your ears be your guide.

Being a happy-medium kind of guy, it’s no wonder I preferred the sound setting right in the middle. The upside is that it’s totally adjustable to your preference, as are settings for bass, treble, and speed-sensitive volume.

Quality in, quality out

Like almost every other new car these days, the Kicks doesn’t have a CD player. And one isn’t even available if you opt for the Bose package, as can be the case with other high-end audio systems in other cars. But all is not lost if you want CD-quality sound. That’s because the Bose plays FLAC files, which are digital files with the same resolution as a compact disc. Short for Free Lossless Audio Codec, you can think of them as a high-quality MP3. It’s always a nice surprise to find a vehicle that comes out the gate with the ability to play these files, and especially one at this price.

As for getting such files yourself, songs and albums can be ripped from a CD into the FLAC format (even iTunes has a ripping option now), or they can be downloaded from sites geared toward audiophiles. As they are higher-res files, FLAC-formatted songs will take up more space than a traditional MP3, though.

So, how’s it sound to an audio snob?

As is my regimen when evaluating car audio systems, I loaded a USB drive with several albums’ worth of FLAC files, all with songs I’ve heard countless times. I also evaluate it with lower-quality, lower-resolution music such as standard MP3 files, satellite radio, and even FM and AM broadcasts.

Not surprisingly, the system sounded its best playing music in the FLAC format. That said, the Kicks’ Bose audio system also sounded impressive with other sources, whether it was Bluetooth streaming audio from my iPhone or iTunes songs via CarPlay.

Is the Bose Personal Plus audio system the best I’ve ever heard? No. It doesn’t have the clarity and nuance of a Bowers & Wilkins system in a BMW or the Burmester setups in Mercedes-Benz’s luxury cars. But for a roughly $22,000 vehicle, the Bose Personal Plus can easily be called the best in its class. In fact, it outshines even standard systems in entry-level luxury cars and some midlevel ones.

What I was impressed with time and again with this system is the separation of instruments. It has a keen ability to uncover intricacies in instruments and some vocals, and may very well unveil details you’ve never heard before in your own tunes.

Areas for improvement

The Bose system is certainly impressive out the gate, but there are a few areas for improvement. The first is the ability to play HD Radio. These are free, digital subchannels in FM that provide more selection and better sound than standard broadcasts. Many new cars offer it standard, and I found it curiously missing in this one.

Another thing I’d like to see is more than one USB port to play music. The Kicks has two other ports between the front and back seats, but they are for charging only. It’d be nice to have another data port, so you could always have a thumb drive full of music installed while also connecting a phone to use the Kicks’ Apple CarPlay and Android Auto integration.

One problem area: the volume knob. It tended to be wonky and non-linear. When turning the dial up or down, the volume jumps around. In addition to the sound not being linear, the screen also showed the volume level careening. For example, turning it up from 10 would sometimes make the level increase to 13, 14, or even back down to 5. The same thing would happen when trying to adjust the volume down.

A workaround for this was to use the steering wheel-mounted buttons, but the dial’s skittishness was frustrating nonetheless. It has one job to do. Hopefully this is an isolated case of a wonkish knob.

All else considered, if you love music and quality audio as much as you love value, the Bose Personal Sound option is money well spent, and makes the new Nissan Kicks stand out all the more.

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