Despite the fast-paced growth at the subcompact end of the SUV marketplace, many of the players in this segment are really small hatchbacks masquerading as crossovers. They may speak the language of SUVs, but with a car accent. Some of these smallest crossovers don’t even offer all-wheel drive, an omission that tempts us to classify these models as subcompact cars even though they feature slightly higher driving positions and SUV-ish styling. Among this group of wannabes is the Nissan Kicks, which gains a few more features and a bit more style for the 2021 model year, thanks to a modest mid-cycle refresh.
The most obvious changes are a larger grille and pinched headlamps, both of which give the Kicks a bit more attitude. The rear bumper and liftgate have also been tweaked, and a new light strip between the taillights helps hide the wee Nissan’s relatively narrow proportions. New wheel designs and revised paint colors round out the visual updates.
Inside, the center console has been reworked to include reconfigurable cupholders with removable inserts, an armrest between the front seats, and an optional electronic parking brake. While these enhancements provide a more premium vibe to the cabin, the new center armrest sits lower than we’d like, and the faux-leather upholstery in our test vehicle had a rubbery feel commensurate with the 2021 model’s $20,595 starting price.
Perhaps the most significant improvements are the added technology, including standard Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and an onboard Wi-Fi hotspot across the lineup. A larger 8.0-inch touchscreen infotainment display replaces the standard 7.0-inch unit in mid-range SV and top-spec SR trims, both of which also have a new USB-C port.
Mechanically, the 2021 Kicks is unchanged. The 122-hp 1.6-liter four-cylinder and continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT), an arrangement shared with the Versa subcompact sedan, feels merely adequate for most city driving. A power bump would’ve been nice, as the Kicks is slow to accelerate to highway speeds. During our testing of a 2018 model, we recorded a lazy 9.6-second run to 60 mph and a 17.4-second quarter-mile pass at 80 mph. That said, it’s not the slowest of its kind. The last Toyota C-HR we tested required a glacial 11.0 seconds to reach 60 mph.
Fuel economy is clearly the priority here. The outgoing 2020 Kicks earned respectable EPA estimates of 31 mpg city and 36 highway, which Nissan expects to carry over for 2021. (Nissan has yet to release full pricing and fuel-economy ratings for the updated model.) While we wouldn’t describe the Kicks as entertaining to drive, its stable handling and comfortable ride should satisfy buyers who are attracted to its efficient packaging, updated technology, and fuel-sipping powertrain—qualities that are easy to appreciate in any class of affordably priced vehicle.