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The 2021 Nissan Kicks.

Emily atkins /The Globe and Mail

Like a shiny new pair of shoes that draw you to take a closer look, the 2021 Nissan Kicks has style and curb appeal.

The successor to Nissan’s Juke compact SUV was introduced in 2018, taking the bulbous little crossover’s place as the manufacturer’s entry-level offering in the class. While the Juke may have had a fan base thanks to its unique looks, the Kicks entered this world looking like dowdy sensible shoes. It lost the Juke’s quirks and turned into a standard-issue Nissan – plain and unexciting.

The makeover for 2021 boots the cute ute to a new level of style and substance. Our tester, a top-of the line SR model spec’d to $24,098 with the Premium package, was outfitted with a shiny black roof and pearlescent white paint. Combined with the floating roof effect, arresting new grille treatment, LED headlights and restyled rear bumper the two-tone Kicks is an eye catcher, like a desirable pair of fashion sneakers.

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Slip into the new Kicks and you’ll see that the new styling is more than superficial. The new interior has been both toned down– shiny accents have been muted – and beefed up – with new seating and infotainment display options.

Of the three trims available, only the top SV and SR models benefit from these upgrades that include an important improvement in the front console. The old manual parking brake has been removed to make room for a centre armrest with storage beneath. A versatile customizable dual cup holder and bin sit just aft of the gearshift, completing the new layout.

New infotainment options include an available 8-inch colour touchscreen for the top trims, but all models enjoy Apple CarPlay and Android Auto as standard equipment. SiriusXM radio is also available.

The new Kicks offers an available Bose Personal Plus audio system, which is specially designed for small vehicles. It uses eight strategically positioned speakers, including in the driver’s headrest, to create surround sound for the pilot. It is reasonably immersive, although it doesn’t allow for a truly rear bias. Nonetheless, it helps to drown out the plentiful road noise that filters into the cabin.

Adding to the substance underlying the style, all models have Nissan’s Safety Shield 360, which includes an impressive number of active safety systems and 10 airbags. Moving up to the SV and SR models adds Intelligent Driver Alertness and Rear Door Alert, while Kicks SR Premium includes the Intelligent Around View Monitor.

Where the Kicks falls short is under the hood and on the ground. Its little 1.6-litre 4-cylinder engine makes a paltry 122 horsepower, and underwhelming 114 lb-ft of torque – no change from the previous edition. By contrast, competitors such as the Hyundai Kona with a 1.6-litre turbo, Honda’s HR-V with its 1.8-litre powerplant, or the Mazda CX-3 and its 2.0-litre engine offer more power and a not substantially larger price tag, and all offer an AWD variant, which Kicks does not.

Lack of grunt makes the Kicks painfully slow off the line; putting the gas pedal to the floor yields little more than noise and an alarming increase in fuel consumption. Once it reaches speed, however, it cruises comfortably. The ride feels stiff and sporty. The Intelligent Cruise Control on our tester was dependable on a long road trip and the steering wheel mounted controls are intuitively placed, preventing the need to brake to turn off the cruise. The lane-keeping warning system is subtle enough to do its job without being irritating.

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Nissan says the Kicks is a city vehicle. That seems fair. It offers knockout looks, a well-appointed, comfortable interior and ample space for stuff, pets or even kids. Add the impressive safety features, and it delivers everything an entry-level CUV should – and quite a few extras – for a reasonable price. Like a fashion sneaker, the 2021 Kicks has great new looks and style, but if you are looking for a real runner, you might have to pay a bit more.

The list of active safety features is long and impressive.

Emily atkins /The Globe and Mail

Tech specs

2021 Nissan Kicks
  • Base price: $19,898
  • Price as tested: $25,648
  • Engine: 1.6-litre four cylinder
  • Transmission/drive: Continuously variable transmission
  • Fuel economy (litres/100kms; city/hwy): 7.7/6.6
  • Alternatives: Hyundai Kona, Honda HR-V; Mazda CX-3

Looks

The 2021 makeover has transformed the Kicks from stale and dated to contemporary. A new front-end treatment, including grille, bumper and headlights, is more congruent with the rest of the CUV’s sleek bodylines and two-tone styling options. New bright colour schemes allow the driver’s personality to shine.

A new centre console and armrest improve the driving experience and function of the cockpit.

Emily atkins /The Globe and Mail

Interior

Interior upgrades on the upper trims give the new Kicks an upscale feel. Two-tone seating surfaces and available 8-inch touchscreen display are a huge improvement over the old model. Likewise, new centre console and armrest improve the driving experience and function of the cockpit. In the front there is ample space for tall people to comfortably drive, while rear passengers are also comfortable with ample leg and headroom.

Performance

The Kicks remains a turtle in the company of faster, more agile competitors. With its tiny 1.6-litre engine that makes 122 horsepower, and no all-wheel drive option, the Kicks gets left in the dust by just about everything else on the road. Once up to cruising speed it is well mannered, although it does feel light and gets buffeted around in high winds or by passing traffic.

Technology

What the Kicks lacks in power it makes up for in content. The list of active safety features is long and impressive, from intelligent cruise control, to forward and rear emergency braking, pedestrian detection, lane keeping, and a full 360º camera. It’s also got heated front seats and steering wheel – essential equipment for Canadian drivers.

Cargo

The Kicks also gives competitors a run for their money in interior space. In spite of its overall diminutive size, the rear hatch is impressively spacious with 914 litres of capacity with the rear seats folded down. Its tall rear opening and impressive door clearance make it easy for tall folks to load it up. It might be a stretch for a shorter person to reach and pull down the cargo door, however.

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In spite of its overall size, the rear hatch is impressively spacious

Emily atkins /The Globe and Mail

The verdict

Nissan has kicked up style and content making the 2021 Kicks an appealing ride that offers reasonable value for the money.

Shopping for a new car? Check out the new Globe Drive Build and Price Tool to see the latest discounts, rebates and rates on new cars, trucks and SUVs. Click here to get your price.

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