2021 Nissan Kicks SV

Nissan’s Kicks is an exemplar of standardized advanced safety features for entry-level models. But “standard” doesn’t mean “free.”

The 2020 Kicks looks a lot like a car but serves as Nissan’s entry-level SUV. (Nissan)

Since its U.S. launch for the ’18 model year, the positioning of the Kicks has puzzled me. Though Nissan was anxious to bill it a “crossover,” I think most would call it a “car.” Nissan hardly is alone in this marketing sleight-of-hand, and given American buyers’ refusal to tarnish themselves with anything that can’t be construed as some kind of truck, it’s at least understandable.

The Kicks’ cabin is straightforward and inexpensively trimmed. (Nissan)

But here’s my rule: no calling it a crossover if it can’t be had with all-wheel drive. And confoundingly, inexplicably, stubbornly against all sense, the Kicks is strictly front-drive. That’s a major fail – and in more than one sense, because in the Nissan model lineup, the Kicks ostensibly replaced the quirky Juke, a vehicle not only visibly more qualified to be called a crossover, it also was available with AWD.

Apart from all this, the Kicks probably accomplishes some of the mission of grabbing buyers who need to think they’re not purchasing a car; Nissan sold a healthy 58,858 Kicks in 2020, much fewer than the Sentra (94,646) but comfortably more than the Versa (48,273). At the base price, the middle-trim Kicks SV may be an upgrade over a late-model used vehicle, particularly considering Nissan’s Safety Shield 360 extensive suite of electronic safety features is standard. But at the $24,810 as-tested price with a host of superfluous and questionable-for-this-class options, there are loads of more-sophisticated and more-refined choices.

The 2020 Kicks comes standard with Nissan’s Safety Shield 360 suite of electronic active-safety technology. (Nissan)

Credit to Nissan engineers for refining to a fare-thee-well the Kicks’ continuously variable transmission. The simulated step gears and the perpetual design improvements certainly help in banishing the dreaded CVT rubber-banding and yowl, but it probably doesn’t hurt that the 122 hp and 114 lb-ft (155 Nm) coming from the Kicks’ recalcitrant 1.6-L 4-cylinder is incapable of causing much stress. No matter the driving situation, this engine is limp and disinterested and the middling 31 mpg city/36 highway rating isn’t enough payoff for the pain.

It’s said relatively inexpensive compact cars such as the Kicks are proof that the cost of advanced electronic safety gear is being democratized, but I say the cost is being recovered in other places. The Kicks’ rear drum brakes (changed to discs for SR and SV trims in 2021) and beam axle aren’t items I find acceptable; the Kicks’ interior materials and creaking trim are 1.5 notches above abhorrent, and the $305 optional center armrest looks like something from the Dollar Store’s clearance bin. It’s great that the Kicks probably is a pretty safe car (emphasis on “car”). Shame it isn’t a better car.

2020 Nissan Kicks SV

Base price: $20,500

As tested: $24,810

Highs: Exceptional CVT refinement; loads of standard electronic safety tech

Lows: Lack of AWD; creaky interior; weak engine

Takeaway: Phoned-in