2021 Nissan Kicks Refresh: Not the Kick in the Pants We'd Hoped

2021 Nissan Kicks Refresh: Not the Kick in the Pants We'd Hoped

Gets More Value but Still Lacks Sole

  • Restyled exterior
  • Mild upgrades to cabin materials
  • Apple CarPlay and Android Auto now standard
  • SV and SR add standard rear disc brakes and available adaptive cruise control
  • Part of the first Kicks generation introduced for 2018

What is the Kicks?

As the smallest and most affordable SUV in Nissan's lineup, the pint-sized 2021 Nissan Kicks trades primarily on its low price point. Even in the subcompact SUV class, where space constraints and tight development budgets have always required compromises, the Kicks feels like a lightweight competitor. On the whole, Nissan's newest products have impressed us with their improved interiors, technology and materials. The 2021 Kicks, however, is a refresh, not a new design.

The handful of minor updates made for 2021 do go some way toward addressing livability in the Kicks, but the enhanced exterior styling and wider availability of color combinations will likely drive the most interest. Standard Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are nice to have, of course, but the added tech and upgraded materials for 2021 simply aren't enough to make the Kicks a top pick in the segment. The new rear disc brakes on the SV and SR trims are worth noting, though — the current Kicks turned in a subpar performance in our braking test with its rear drum brakes (which remain standard on the base S trim), so we look forward to testing the new setup to see if it makes a difference.

How does the Kicks drive?

Like the current model, the refreshed Kicks is powered by a 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine (122 horsepower and 114 lb-ft of torque) matched to a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT). It drives the front wheels only. Unlike some other subcompact SUVs, the Kicks does not offer all-wheel drive.

As you might expect of an engine with such modest power figures, the four-cylinder doesn't move the Kicks with any sort of authority. In Edmunds' testing of a prior-year Kicks, we recorded a 0-60 mph sprint of 10.2 seconds. That's well off the pace of rivals that offer more powerful engines, such as the Hyundai Kona and Mazda CX-30. 

While the powertrain manages to feel punchy right off the line and in low-speed driving around town, it doesn't have much more to give at higher speeds. You'll be hard-pressed to discern a difference between half throttle and full throttle when merging on the freeway. In both scenarios, the engine is more raucous than it is productive.

Overall, the Kicks is pleasant enough to drive if you don't demand authoritative acceleration. Handling and steering are average for the class, and the CVT is unobtrusive, albeit sometimes a bit slow to respond. We can't yet say how the new rear disc brakes on the SV and SR impact braking performance, but the pre-refresh model needed a truck-like 140 feet to stop from 60 mph in Edmunds' instrumented testing. The brake pedal did feel better in a 2021 Kicks that we drove with the rear disc brakes, so hopefully we'll find a commensurate improvement in stopping distance when we test one at our track.

How comfortable is the Kicks?

The seats aren't particularly comfortable, and the driving position will feel unnatural if you're taller than about 5-foot-10. The relatively low dashboard is nice for forward visibility, especially in tight spaces, but you wind up with the gauges and steering wheel feeling quite low relative to the high seat.

The seat itself hasn't earned high marks from us in the past, and our complaints still stand: Neither the shape nor the padding is conducive to long-haul comfort. Between the short cushion, awkwardly contoured back and lack of adjustability, there's little to be done if the seat isn't just right for your body to begin with.

On the plus side, the interior is relatively quiet, even on the freeway. Traffic noise comes in through the thin glass, but beyond that you won't be overly troubled by wind or road noise. The ride is also relatively compliant, feeling stable on the freeway and sucking up the worst of imperfect road surfaces. Really, with better seats the Kicks would be a perfectly competent (if small) vehicle for road trips.

How's the Kicks' interior?

The Kicks remains, above all else, affordable. That means you shouldn't expect too much from the interior, which is, in all but the SR trim, drab and plasticky. In the SR, it gets a bit of a punch-up with faux leather.

Most of the Kicks' controls and inputs are user-friendly. Buttons are easy to find, and the touchscreen interface is entirely straightforward. And even with its small footprint, the Kicks provides sufficient room for four passengers. The tall roof makes for enough rear headroom for adults, and while legroom isn't what we'd call generous, there's enough of it for full-grown humans.

Getting in and out is always easy thanks to short doors and square openings. This SUV is made for crowded parking lots.

How's the Kicks' tech?

Perhaps the most meaningful change to the 2021 Kicks has to do with its technology offerings. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone integration is now standard, and the SV and SR trims add a new 8-inch touchscreen. We liked the previous 7-inch system (which is still included on the base S model), but the extra inch in virtual real estate helps the interface feel less cramped. SV and SR trims also gain a new USB-C port and get two USB charge ports for the rear seats.

It's just a shame the rearview camera hasn't been upgraded along with the screen. It's serviceable, but the extra real estate highlights how low-resolution the camera is.

On the safety front, adaptive cruise control (which maintains a set distance between the Kicks and the vehicle ahead) is now available for the SV and SR trims. It's not a particularly advanced system, but it gets the job done. It's also more eager to accelerate when gaps open up than some other systems, which can have reaction times like tortoises on Ambien.

Finally, the SR's Premium package now outfits the Kicks with a Wi-Fi hotspot, which enables over-the-air updates for the infotainment system.

How's the Kicks' storage?

The Kicks offers a usable trunk with the seats up — certainly more than a match for a routine shopping trip or a weekend getaway. The low load floor and relatively tall trunk opening are both welcome. But once you start folding the seats down, the Kicks can't touch the undisputed subcompact cargo king, the Honda HR-V.

The rear seats don't fold flat, and if you're going to fold them down you'll have to pull the rear headrests to get a full range of motion from the front seats. You can cram a decent amount into the space, and while it's not as flexible as the Honda, it's better than average for the class.

Interior storage is a mixed bag as well. There's a handy cellphone tray, and the cupholders are reasonably sized, but the door pockets are tight and the armrest box tiny. You can at least empty your pockets with ease, but not much more.

How economical is the Kicks?

With an EPA-estimated 33 mpg combined, the Kicks offers excellent fuel economy for the subcompact SUV class. Our real-world testing of the pre-refresh model saw an average of 33.4 mpg over the duration of the test, and our best fill was 37.4 mpg. That means not only is the Kicks more economical than competitors on paper, but it can back those numbers up in the real world.

This is the upside to the Kicks' slow acceleration, and for some shoppers, savings at the pump will be an acceptable trade-off. Once again, the Kicks proves a solid value if nothing else.  

Edmunds says

With a more attractive exterior and improved tech options, along with excellent fuel economy, the 2021 Kicks makes a case for itself as a value-oriented subcompact SUV. Unfortunately, it's also achingly slow and not particularly comfortable to sit in for very long.