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Nissan Kicks grows on you slowly — which is how it does most things

Looking for some space on the cheap? The slightly revamped 2021 Nissan Kicks is one way to go — but only if you're not in a real hurry.

The Nissan Kicks gets some styling updates for the 2021 and remains as attractive as most Nissans.
The Nissan Kicks gets some styling updates for the 2021 and remains as attractive as most Nissans.Read moreNissan

2021 Nissan Kicks SR: A fun little car from Nissan?

Price: $27,075 as tested. Exterior Package, $435; two-tone paint, $595; floor mats, $225; illuminated kick plates, $460; Interior Electronics Package, $575. One more item below.

Conventional wisdom: Car and Driver likes that it’s “peppy around town,” with a “spacious cabin, generous standard equipment,” but not that it’s “anemic at highway speeds,” that the “engine sounds thrashy at high revs, a few more storage cubbies wouldn’t hurt.”

Marketer’s pitch: “Limitless possibilities, built to your beat.”

Reality: Less of a swift kick and more of a slow ingratiation.

What’s new: Kicks gets a bit of restyling for 2021, with standard Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, bigger screens and more USB ports, and an updated interior.

It’s still just front-wheel drive, though, not uncommon among small SUVs, but a glaring omission.

Up to speed: On first impression, I sensed that the Kicks was a real dog. I misjudged the speed of an oncoming car and quickly realized I wasn’t in a 270-horsepower Jeep Wrangler anymore. So I hoped and prayed for something like power to get me up to speed. Fortunately, no Kicks (or Mr. Driver’s Seats) were harmed in the making of this review.

The numbers bear out that feeling. The Kicks’ 1.6-liter four creates an underwhelming 122 horsepower. It takes a long 9.7 seconds to get to 60 mph, according to Car and Driver.

But over time, a feeling of pep from the Kicks made the testing not all that uncomfortable. I rolled over small country hills and zipped up on-ramps and around highways with ease, although passing maneuvers need to be judged a little more cautiously. It felt a lot like the 1982 Plymouth Horizon I once owned. That’s not as bad as it sounds.

On the road: At first zig, the Kicks also left me unimpressed with its handling. The little box didn’t seem to offer a whole lot to recommend it on the curves and country roads.

Until one day, while entering a long, winding downhill stretch in my township, I zipped in front of a BMW (there seems to be a rudeness trend here on my part this week, sorry) and immediately thought, “You’re not in the kind of car to be doing that.” So in order not to be a pain, I decided to let it fly.

The result became one of the most enjoyable cruises in a while, along an old creekside road with sharpish curves and hills that flatten out periodically like an old staircase.

Shiftless: It’s mostly downhill from here.

Nissan’s CVTs can be hit or miss, and this particular example was in large part a miss. So much noise and vibration, so little ability to make the vehicle go. And at certain points it seemed to get stuck in gear, even though it’s gearless.

About my worst acceleration experiences came after turns, where the gearless box wouldn’t adjust and I’d be stuck waiting for things to kick in.

Driver’s Seat: Nissan has also shown great attention to its seating, and claims it did here, as well, but the result didn’t work for me. The manually controlled PrimaTex seat felt firm and the seams between various cushions really well-defined — and this is an upgrade from lesser Kicks models. On the bright side, this seat seems as if it should remain intact for a long while.

Friends and stuff: The rear seat offers good comfort for the category. It’s not wallowing in space, but it’s comfortable with some contour and has adequate headroom, legroom and foot room.

Cargo space is 25.3 with the rear seats up and 32.3 with the seats down, Nissan says. Their numbers come in lower than the other makers’, so don’t let this be a disqualifying factor.

Play some tunes: Here’s another Kicks lesson in patience. I’d just about given up on the Bose Personal Plus Audio system ($1,200, for a package which also heated the seats and added security) because an entire instrument in one of my favorite songs seemed absent. I’d adjusted bass and treble a few times (no midrange or equalizer here) to no avail.

But I tried a different song and thought, “Hmmm. I usually only hear that as clearly in my earbuds.” So I went back to song one and dialed up the bass and lightened the treble and voilà. Very nice. About an A-. And there are speakers in the headrest, which are nicer when you … turn your head to the side. Not ideal for driving but kinda cool.

As in most Nissans, controls are simple: dials for volume and tuning, buttons for source and other functions, and an easy but smallish eight-inch touchscreen for the rest.

Keeping warm and cool: A dial for temperature, another for fan speed, and buttons for source.

Lockdown: In our first episode with the Kicks, I wanted to move it across the driveway and out of the way. But the electronic emergency brake had grabbed hold and did not want to let go.

Though it seemed dramatic at the time, and I finally gave up on using the emergency brake for the whole test, it turned out simply to be a loose cable, Nissan reports.

Fuel economy: I averaged about 28 mpg in a heavy-footed round of driving. Feed the Kicks whatever.

Where it’s built: Aguascalientes, Mexico

How it’s built: Consumer Reports predicts the Kicks reliability to be a 3 out of 5.

In the end: The Kicks sure is fun on the downhill. But what goes down must come back up.

It’s priced on the low end of its category, but I’d opt for the Subaru Crosstrek or Impreza Hatchback, or Hyundai Kona, which offer all-wheel drive and a better experience.