All-wheel drive is a lot like insurance: you don’t need it until you do, and when that time comes you’ll sure be glad it’s there.
So where does that leave the 2021 Nissan Kicks, a subcompact crossover that can’t be had with all-wheel traction at all? Well, when viewed as what it is – a glorified hatchback brimming with practicality – instead of what it isn’t, it’s a well-balanced and easy driving little commuter that finds a way to fit all manner of budgets and lifestyles. It’s also one that was updated for 2021, which only serves to enhance the appeal of this affordable offering – as long as expectations are set accordingly, of course.
On the receiving end of a facelift in the most literal sense of the word, the 2021 Kicks isn’t quite as cute as the version that came before it. What with beauty being in the eye of the beholder and all, it’s up to you to decide where you stand on the oversized grille and aggressive headlights that now adorn the front end of this otherwise adorable pint-sized people-mover.
Where the rival Hyundai Venue is an example of simplistic automotive design, the Kicks wears its proportions well and features varying creases and lines that add some character without going overboard. All versions but the base are available with a black roof that plays off accents like the mirror caps and, in the case of this top-of-the-line SR Premium, black wheels, to punch above its price tag stylistically.
The same is true of this trim’s interior, which gets unique two-tone grey and black synthetic leather upholstery to go with orange accent stitching that has become something of a Nissan calling card over the years. The space isn’t exactly stunning, appearing fairly drab otherwise, but then the emphasis here has been placed on functionality rather than form.
The Kicks is a tiny little crossover, stretching just 4,309 mm (169.6 in) from tip to tail. To put that in perspective, this Nissan can fit between the hoop and foul line on a basketball court with room to spare. More importantly, though, it stands 1,610 mm (63.4 in) tall and goes without a sunroof, resulting in all kinds of headroom inside.
The rest of the interior dimensions aren’t quite as impressive but there’s plenty of space inside for a quartet of adult occupants to fit fairly comfortably – yes, even in the back, where legroom is this crossover’s best party trick, accommodating your 6-foot-3 author with ease. Notably absent from the back bench, however, is a folding centre armrest that wouldn’t be such a big deal if it weren’t for the new covered console bin between the front seats in SV and SR models that comes at the cost of the lone cupholder of old.
In fairness, that shallow bin provides precious small-item storage in a cabin where it’s sorely lacking otherwise (not to mention a place for both front-seat occupants to put their elbows); and, of course, a crossover like this makes a better solo commuter than it does a road trip warrior for you and your friends. But that’s a crucial bit of functionality that’s all but expected these days that Nissan has simply decided to ditch in all but the cheapest version, which keeps its cupholder to go with a single armrest for the driver.
The Kicks’s ability to carry cargo is second to none, however, with a wide hatch opening and 716 L behind the back seats. That space grows when more room is required thanks to the 60/40-split folding rear bench, and yet outright utility is limited because it doesn’t lay flat with the trunk floor. Instead, oversized items must contend with a substantial transition at the hinge point. While the Venue’s trunk is significantly smaller, the ability to raise and lower the cargo floor eliminates any such issue from the equation.
User Friendliness: 9/10
Those quirks aside, spacious, straightforward, and simple best sum up the experience here. The upright shape of the Kicks means outward visibility is outstanding in all directions, while its small footprint means there isn’t much real estate to supervise in the first place. A stubby hood is easy to see over, while the height-adjustable driver’s see makes that true for users of varying height. Even so, The SR Premium version gets a surround-view monitor to supplement the back-up camera that’s mandatory on all new vehicles.
The cabin is a clean and uncluttered one, with a basic layout that puts everything within easy reach of the driver. Tactile controls surround the touchscreen (all but base trims replace the seven-inch unit with an eight-inch one), while climate switchgear is the definition of uncomplicated, with a pair of knobs for temperature and fan speed and a host of self-explanatory buttons in between for fan direction, defrost, and the heated seats that come in all but the base trim.
Unlike the Nissan Versa with which the Kicks shares most of its mechanical parts, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard fare and give this basic infotainment interface a boost. The eight-inch touchscreen is adequately responsive to inputs and displays crisp graphics to go with a strong refresh rate.
Behind the gear selector is another of this crossover’s handy tricks: not only are the twin cupholders incredibly deep but the removable divider between them features flaps like a drawbridge that reduce the depth for small cups and beverage containers. It’s simple, sure, but it’s yet another way this is an impressively approachable vehicle.
The drivetrain is equally as affable, with about as basic a combination of mechanical parts as you can get. The Kicks comes only in a front-wheel-drive configuration, with an automatic continuously variable transmission (CVT) and a 1.6L four-cylinder engine. It doesn’t get any more exciting from there either, with just 122 hp and 114 lb-ft of torque to work with, though it’s all enough to get the nearly 1,250-kg (2,756-lb) crossover moving and keep it that way.
Make no mistake, it’s a little on the uninspired side, with the CVT in particular generating quite a bit of fuss as it strains to respond to requests for passing power; but it’ll get there eventually – and the sport button hidden on the back of the gear selector helps at least a little, spiking the engine speed to build momentum at least marginally more quickly. Much like the Versa, though, paddle shifters or the ability to move through some preset ratios in the transmission using the gear selector would be a welcome addition, with passing at highway speeds requiring quite a bit of strategy to prove effective.
Fuel Economy: 9/10
The somewhat underwhelming powertrain returns healthy results at the pumps, with fuel consumption estimates of 7.7 L/100 km in the city and 6.6 on the highway, and a combined total of 7.2 L/100 km. While the final tally of a week-long test came in at 6.9 L/100 km over 500 km, a highway-heavy initial evaluation drive saw an impressive 6.0 L/100 km over a little more than 200 km of driving.
Driving Feel: 7/10
The Kicks doesn’t feel quite as firmly planted as the lower and leaner Versa, with light steering and a bit of play on centre. That also means there isn’t much feel to the sterile steering setup, but responsiveness is sharp thanks to the short 2,620-mm (103.1-in) wheelbase and narrow track. It doesn’t quite possess the go-kart-like quality of the Hyundai Kona, with some body roll that’s to be expected from such an upright crossover, but it’s appropriately agile given its econobox demeanour.
Ride quality is slightly stiff and can be clunky over broken pavement. That doesn’t mean the Kicks is uncomfortable, though, and on most surfaces it does an admirable job of taking care of everything except the audible thuds emanating from the suspension. Even then, this doesn’t feel like a bargain-basement crossover despite pricing to the contrary.
The majority of the plastics inside certainly feel that way, with substandard door panels in particular, but the synthetic leather in the SR Premium trim proved a rare highlight. Not only does it look great but it’s soft, smooth, and durable, serving as a great alternative to the real stuff. And while just a hint of upper leg pain set in over the course of a pair of multi-hour drives, the driver’s seat was impressively comfortable – and far and away better than the Versa’s seat that was tested extensively the week prior and failed miserably.
Nissan has done a reasonable job of outfitting the Kicks with modern amenities for the money. A touchscreen infotainment system with both Android Auto and Apple CarPlay is standard, as are power windows and locks, push-button start, and a six-speaker stereo. To get stuff like heated front seats and satellite radio, as well as alloy wheels, a heated steering wheel, and yes, that console bin, requires stepping up to the SV trim, which is also where the upgraded eight-inch touchscreen, automatic climate control, and adaptive cruise control enter the fold. And, of course, the SR and SR Premium models get all that and more, including faux leather seating and an upgraded stereo with speakers built into the driver’s headrest in the latter (though they didn’t work in the unit tested).
Advanced safety equipment is the same no matter the model, though it remains shy of perfect. While the selection includes important features like forward collision with pedestrian detection, automatic emergency braking front and rear, lane-departure warning, automatic high-beams, rear parking sensors, and blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert; lane-keep assist isn’t offered. It’s unfortunate not just because the rival Venue from Hyundai offers such a system, as do many other competitors from various segments, but also because Nissan’s latest version that works with adaptive cruise is simply fantastic.
Despite that absence, the equipment that’s included is well executed and works virtually flawlessly. The blind-spot warning lights are now located inside the vehicle rather than integrated into the side mirrors, reducing the potential for them to be blocked or damaged, while the steering wheel features haptic feedback that pulses to warn when a lane marking has been crossed.
Given the advanced safety equipment that’s included, the $21,728 Nissan Canada wants for the cheapest trim including freight but before tax is reasonable. That’s barely $1,000 more than the base Venue with an automatic transmission (a manual is standard) that doesn’t get any of the safety gear but does feature heated front seats.
The price of the SV model climbs $3,000 to $24,728, while the SR rings in at $25,928, and the SR Premium at $26,828. That’s all in lockstep with the Venue, and cheaper than a comparable car like the Kia Soul – particularly the loaded GT-Line Limited trim – and makes a compelling case for the Kicks.
However, it’s noteworthy that for about the same money as the SR Premium you could find yourself in the fellow front-wheel-drive Toyota Corolla hatchback that features all that good advanced safety stuff, including lane-keeping, while the award-winning Kia Seltos gets none of them at this price point but does include all-wheel drive.
The 2021 Nissan Kicks occupies an interesting space in the market, with lots to like (tons of space inside; good features for the money) to go with a few quirks (armrest situation; rear seats that don’t fold flat; no lane-keeping), and one glaring absence (all-wheel drive). While the latter certainly isn’t necessary, it’s a nice-to-have that arguably makes a crossover a crossover in the first place.
The trade-off, of course, is that the Kicks is about as fuel efficient as a compact sedan while providing a unique blend of cargo and passenger room that makes it a no-compromise commuter that’s affordable, too. It might not be perfect, but it’s hard to beat for the price.
|Peak Horsepower||122 hp @ 6,300 rpm|
|Peak Torque||114 lb-ft @ 4,000 rpm|
|Fuel Economy||7.7 / 6.6 / 7.2 L/100 km cty/hwy/cmb|
|Cargo Space||716 L|
|Model Tested||2021 Nissan Kicks SR Premium|
|Price as Tested||$27,578|
$650 – Two-Tone Aspen White Tricoat Paint w/Black Roof, $650