Traditional subcompact sedans and hatchbacks are dying off in significant numbers in the U.S.—the Chevrolet Sonic, Honda Fit, and Toyota Yaris sedan and hatchback were all dropped for 2021, and the Ford Fiesta and Toyota Prius C were discontinued for 2020. Subcompact crossover SUVs, however, are proliferating—and the entry-level end of the segment is essentially taking the place of subcompact cars.
When it debuted for the 2018 model year, the Nissan Kicks slotted in under the Rogue Sport as the new entry-level vehicle in Nissan’s crossover SUV lineup. Unlike most entrants in its class, the Kicks lacked available all-wheel drive, but it offered good interior space within extra-tidy exterior dimensions, spunky styling, a starting price under $20K, and a surprising level of available comfort and convenience features for the money.
For 2021, the Kicks gets a worthwhile refresh that should help keep it fresh and competitive in its segment—particularly against the excellent Hyundai Venue (another penny-pinching, no-AWD-available subcompact SUV, which debuted as a 2020 model). The Kicks’ most noticeable updates are bolder front and rear styling, highlighted by a new rendition of Nissan’s “Double V-motion” grille and a full-width LED taillight arrangement. New wheel designs and an array of new paint colors—including eye-catching hues such as Electric Blue Metallic and extra-cost Scarlet Ember Tintcoat—are also part of the exterior revisions.
The previous model lineup of S, SV, and SR models continues. Newly standard on all are Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity, plus new touchscreen infotainment displays—the S comes with a 7-inch screen, while the SV and SR both get an 8-inch display. Three USB ports are standard on all (one in the front console, two in the back of the center console for use by rear-seat passengers), and the SV and SR trims get a new available USB-C port, also in the front center-console bin.
SVs and SRs also get a couple more new-for-2021 standard features: adaptive cruise control, an updated center-console design with a padded armrest that flips up to reveal a storage bin, and an electronic parking brake with an auto-hold feature that keeps the brakes on (at long stoplights and the like) without the driver needing to keep his or her foot on the brake pedal.
Dynamically, the Kicks doesn’t change much. The sole powertrain is again a 122-hp 1.6-liter 4-cylinder paired with a CVT automatic transmission, and the rear suspension is still a low-cost twist-beam setup instead of a more-complex fully independent unit. However, the SV and SR models get an upgrade to rear disc brakes in place of the drum brakes that are still standard on the S model.
Our test vehicle was a topline SR model equipped with the Premium Package, an SR-exclusive option group that adds heated front seats, heated steering wheel, “Prima-Tex” simulated leather upholstery, security system, cargo-area tonneau cover, and a Bose audio system with an amplifier and 8 speakers (including two in the driver’s seat headrest). The package also includes NissanConnect Services (smartphone-app-based remote-access features), Wi-Fi hotspot, and over-the-air updates to the infotainment system firmware.
The Premium Package’s upgrades definitely enhance the interior ambiance. The faux-leather upholstery is a nice upgrade over the standard cloth, and the heated seats and steering wheel were much appreciated during our chilly December test drive. Also, we were happy to see that the steering wheel is heated almost all the way around the rim—not all of them are.
Even without the extra-cost packages, the SR model boasts some excellent features for an entry-level subcompact SUV: in addition to the new adaptive cruise control, there’s a standard 360-degree surround-view monitor (with an additional forward-facing camera view) that activates automatically when the vehicle is in reverse, and can also easily be called up on demand by pressing a button on the dashboard.
You can check out our original First Spin report and our test-drive reviews of 2018 and 2019 SR models for more info—in general, the basic virtues of the Kicks are as they were before. The relatively tall body build makes for easier entry and exit, as well as excellent headroom and an upright seating position that makes the most of the vehicle’s small footprint. However, your 6’6” tester found legroom to be a bit lacking and I also felt like I was hovering over the dashboard instead of being positioned behind it. The rear seat is OK for smaller adults, but big and tall passengers can’t fit back there comfortably.
The Kicks’s short wheelbase means that it can pitch fore and aft a bit when traveling over bumpy pavement in around-town driving, although in our test drives the ride actually settled down a bit at highway speeds, for respectably comfortable long-distance cruising. Road and wind noise are quite noticeable at highway speeds, and we also noticed a bit of a wind whistle that came from the upper edge of the driver’s side window.
In either city or highway driving, the Kicks’ engine supplies adequate, but never exciting, power. The CVT transmission gets a bit “drone-y” at times, but it mimics the gear shifts of a traditional automatic transmission for a natural, responsive feel.
As of this writing, Nissan hadn’t yet released full pricing for the 2021 Kicks, but did announce that the base S model will start at $19,500—a hike of $430 over the 2020 model. The destination fee holds steady at $1095. We’d wager an optioned-out SR model like our test vehicle will probably check in at a shade under $25,000 all in, with the Premium Package accounting for around $1200 and the premium two-tone paint (Aspen White TriCoat and Super Black, in our case) another $600 or so.
In 2021, that still counts as something of a bargain, especially when you factor in the level of features the Kicks offers. The Kicks is a “cheap” vehicle that boasts a lot of “uncheap” comfort and convenience features.
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2021 Nissan Kicks SR