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DRIVEN: 2021 Nissan Kicks SR [Review]

A Funky Compact CUV With a Lot to Offer, Just Not in The Speed Department

2021 Nissan Kicks SR review

While small, inexpensive cars—traditional hatchbacks and sedans—appear to be disappearing from the automotive landscape, compact crossovers (compact utility vehicles, or CUVs) are still hot commodities. However, what differentiates a CUV from a hatchback is still a bit of a marketing mystery. Regardless, the Nissan Kicks, which debuted in 2018, has been restyled for model year 2021. It’s Nissan’s entry into this highly competitive CUV segment. The 2021 Nissan Kicks is a well-equipped funky little runabout that offers a lot of bang for the buck. But, is the Kicks a kick in the pants to drive?

Funky, Sporty Style

Our tester, the 2021 Kicks SR, features a 2-tone paint scheme with a blacked-out roof and funky lines. Remember the bizarrely styled Nissan Juke? Well, this replaced it (as well as the old Versa Note), but its styling has been toned way back comparatively. Its black spawling grille gives way to rounded fenders, and a menagerie of bulges and lines all the way to the spoiler-equipped rear.

The 2021 Nissan Kicks has a sporty shape, but not overly athletic—as it is a CUV after all. There’s a tall beltline with a unique treatment at the rear C-pillar where the paint comes up to meet the floating-roof-style 2-tone motif. The rear C-pillars are wide, although outside visibility isn’t as bad as it might seem. The squinty headlights are LED units and provide ample lumens on the road; this model also has fog lights for low-visibility driving. The sloped rear windscreen angles back to taillights that partially wrap around the bodywork.

And while I often really like this color, the Boulder Gray and Super Black 2-tone paint is a bit industrial for me. And despite the fact it looks non-metallic, there are flecks of metal in the paint. I prefer this car in brighter hues.

This pre-production prototype wears blacked-out 17-inch alloy wheels wrapped in 205/55R17 Firestone tires. This combined with the black roof is a bit much for me, but at least the wheels are a solid color vs. the overdone black-and-machined look so many manufacturers include.

Not-So-Eager Engine

Under the Kicks’ hood lies a 1.6L 4-cylinder engine with variable valve timing producing a modest 122 hp at 6,300 RPM and 114 lb.-ft. of torque at 4,000 RPM. All Kicks are saddled with Nissan’s Xtronic CVT as their only power-delivery method. There’s also no all-wheel-drive option; all Kicks crossovers are front-wheel drive only. (Why isn’t this called a hatchback again?) The powerplant makes a good deal of noise when pushed, and the CVT isn’t going to provide a sporty experience.

FYI, there are no sport or eco modes, and the CVT doesn’t have any paddle shifters or “fake” gear ratios to run through, which is totally fine with me. A CVT is good at a few things, and one of those is fuel economy.

The Nissan Kicks is EPA rated at 31 city, 36 highway, and 33 combined MPG. I was able to get 32 MPG during my time, and that included numerous foot-to-the-floor merging exercises to get up to speed.

Driving: Slow But Steady

The 2,744-pound Kicks feels pokey when merging onto the freeway or making passes on 2-lane roads. Peg the throttle and you’re presented with the usual CVT behavior in which the RPMs go to the optimal zone while the engine whizzes along. This engine makes a fair bit of racket at full giddyup. Fortunately, around-town driving is civilized enough, and freeway cruising is comfortable. At 70 mph, the engine only spins about 2,000 RPM making for a relaxed feeling. If you do need to stab the throttle though, don’t expect neck-snapping acceleration.

While acceleration may not be the 2021 Nissan Kicks’ forte, it’s quite competent in the corners. I took the car on some twisty backroads and was surprised at how well the car performed. There’s a chunky leather-wrapped steering wheel that feels good in the hands, and the sterling is quick with decent feel. This is certainly where the car is most fun, and it makes the best of its taught Macpherson strut front and torsion beam rear suspension. Add to it surprisingly good brakes, and the Kicks is, well, a kick to pilot through the curves.

That taught suspension does provide a less comfortable highway ride, but it’s also not jarring. I find the Kicks to have a good deal of road noise. There was also significant wind noise from the front door’s windows (Note, this is a pre-production press car).

Overall the car feels solid, planted, and confident despite the road and wind noise.

Fun, Functional Interior

If I had to offer up my favorite part of the 2021 Nissan Kicks it’d have to be the interior. It’s a good mix of simple and traditional features mixed with modern amenities and upbeat styling. The heated Prima-Tex seats look fantastic in their 2-tone presentation, and I love the orange stitching, which carries through to a passenger-side dash panel. The seats are flat and a bit hard, however, and more side bolstering would’ve been nice.

While parts of the interior are fun and funky, some parts seem a bit odd. The doors feel like they have massive plastic panels where there could’ve been some more styling elements. Map lights and the SOS button feel like they got hit with value engineering, as do parts of the non-soft-touch dash.

Conversely, the unique gauge cluster is really neat. It showcases an analog speedometer on the right and a multi-function LED screen on the left that can provide a tachometer, vehicle info, and a host of menu options. It works very well and is easy to see. I am also a sucker for a chunky, leather-wrapped, square-bottom steering wheel, and this one’s even heated.

The center stack boasts a 7-inch touchscreen with two dials and several buttons for easy use. This 2021 Nissan Kicks was equipped with an 8-speaker Bose sound system with an amplifier, subwoofer, and UltraNearfield driver headrest speakers. This setup allows you to wrap the sound 360 degrees around you. The system could be crisper, and I found the bass to be muddy. There was no fader or balance control that I could find. The in-car entertainment also has Android Auto, Apple Car Play, Sirius XM, a Wi-Fi hotspot, and USB and USB-c inputs.

The rear seat is about average in terms of space. I’m a towering 5-foot 7inches tall and I fit fine. If I were over 6-feet I don’t think I’d want to spend a lot of time back there. There are two USB ports for rear passengers.

Like most hatchbacks, the Nissan Kicks’ interior is very usable. The rear seats fold down (although not totally flat with the rear cargo area). The rear cargo area is voluminous, allowing for plenty of cargo for a vehicle this size. Of note, the rear liftgate feels very heavy.

Safety in Spades

Although the Nissan Kicks is small, it has lots of safety equipment. This includes lane keeping, lane departure warning, adaptive cruise control, crash mitigation, and all the airbags everywhere. I also love the Intelligent Around View Monitor (I-AVM), which offers up a 360-degree view of the car. It came in very handy when in tight parking lots. This should be included on every car.

2021 Nissan Kicks Pricing

The Nissan Kicks has been a good value in the segment since its introduction. A base-model 2021 Kicks has a starting price of $19,500. This SR model starts at $21,940 and has the $1,200 Premium Package, which nets you the Bose system, the Prima-Tex seats, heated steering wheel, among other niceties. That 2-tone paint is $250 and blacked-out wheels are $750 extra, with floor mats and a cargo protector adding $225. Add in the $1,150 destination charge and this 2021 Nissan Kicks comes in at $25,260. That’s actually a pretty good price considering the number of features you’re getting. Keep in mind, the average cost of a car these days is $40,857 according to Kelly Blue Book (as of February 15, 2021).

2021 Nissan Kicks Review

If you value versatility and fun styling and want a lot of premium features for the money, the Kicks is definitely worth kicking around. Tepid acceleration and a few interior qualms are my biggest sticking points, but the car does have a lot going for it. To say it kicks butt might be an over-the-top statement, as it likely won’t get your pulse going. But, the 2021 Nissan Kicks has more versatility than a Versa and won’t break the bank, either.

If the Kicks just isn’t big enough for your needs, have a look at the Nissan Rogue, which we reviewed HERE.

About Andy Lilienthal

Andy Lilienthal is a life-long automotive enthusiast. He's written for several publications since the early 2000s and has worked in the automotive aftermarket for over a decade. He enjoys working on cars and trucks, has a thing for oddball 4WDs and small cars, and loves to travel and camp. Andy lives with his wife, Mercedes, in Portland, Oregon.