Of all the car manufacturers, Nissan seems to display the most imagination when it comes to naming its products.
Who can forget the Qashqai, Juke, Armada and, going back, the Fairlady and Pulsar. They also had a model in Japan called the Leopard J. Furie, not to mention the Big Thumb delivery truck.
More recently, there’s the Kicks, which, despite its odd moniker, is actually a decent little SUV (or whatever it is), with a few caveats.
Powered by a 1.6-litre four-cylinder engine that makes just over 120 horsepower, the Kicks is offered in three basic trim levels, has front-wheel drive and comes with a continuously variable transmission (CVT) only. This is a compact SUV pared down to the basics, which, for the most part, is enough.
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There isn’t much to complain about. It looks OK, if a bit generic, is reasonably comfortable, has an attractive starting price under $20,000, delivers competitive fuel economy (7.2 litres/100 km, combined rating) and seems to be screwed together well.
One of the first things I noticed was how quiet it is behind the wheel, especially on the highway, where it’s surprisingly smooth and well-planted. For what it is and the market it’s aimed at, it also handles reasonably well, with decent braking.
Storage space is acceptable but not great: 716 litres (25.3 cubic feet) with the back seat folded down. Five adults can ride in the Kicks, no problem, but those in the back will find things a bit snug.
This is primarily a city vehicle, despite its highway-worthiness, and aimed at younger buyers – particularly females – who want a thrifty, affordable and reasonably practical runabout that has a little more elbow room than a Yaris, Micra or Honda Fit.
However, there are a few things about the Kicks that bugged me.
The transmission isn’t what it could be, particularly in stop-and-go traffic. It seems to take its time deciding what to do when you’re not just driving forward. It almost feels like a huge rubber band snapping into place. I’m no fan of the CVT at the best of times and this not the best of times. I really noticed the CVT’s wonkiness during parking.
My test car didn’t have a tachometer, which was kind of weird. Just about every car on the market has a rev counter/tachometer these days and I found myself searching in vain to see what the engine was doing. Old habits die hard, I guess.
The Kicks is no powerhouse. Whether it’s the wretched CVT or just an inadequate powerplant, I don’t know, but for a vehicle with a 120-horsepower engine, it’s a slug and really takes its time accelerating. If you give it lots of throttle, it seems to get out of its own way, but if you were carrying a full load of passengers on a road trip, for example, this car would be an exercise in patience. A manual gearbox would be the answer but no one drives those anymore. Pity.
Some other features worth noting include a hill holder (which is nice), rearview camera, manual temperature control (yes!), driver seat armrest (definitely welcome), the inevitable Sirius/Bluetooth combo and optional heated front seats. Plus, it has the usual nanny features like lane departure warning, rear cross-traffic alert and blind-spot warning. All are useful and easy to get along with.
Aside from the things just mentioned, which are more in the way of quibbles than serious objections, the whole car has an agreeable vibe about it. It doesn’t challenge you as soon as you slip behind the wheel, has good ingress and egress, and makes its occupants comfortable without overdoing it.
Now, about the name …
2021 Nissan Kicks
Engine: 1.6-litre four cylinder
Transmission: continuously variable
Horsepower: 122 at 6,300 rpm
Torque: 114 at 4,000 rpm
Base price: $19,898
Fuel economy: 7.7 litres/100 km (city); 6.6 litres/100 km (highway), with regular fuel
Some alternatives: Mazda CX-30, Hyundai Venue, Hyundai Kona, Kia Soul, Honda HR-V, Toyota CH-R, Volkswagen Taos
Ted Laturnus has been an automotive journalist since 1976. He was named Canadian Automobile Journalist of the Year twice and is past president of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC). For interview requests, click here.
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