You get what you don’t pay for. Any criticism of a compact SUV like the Nissan Kicks must be taken in context of its bargain-basement price. You can put a brand-new Kicks on your driveway for just $21,585, with a three-year warranty and that unmistakable new car smell. Once the aroma wears off, you’re left with a decent little car that does nothing particularly exciting, and only two things particularly badly. We’ll get to them in a moment.

For now, it’s worth noting that the three-model Kicks range has a single engine, transmission and powertrain combination. Your main decisions in the dealership will involve paint color and whether to add an options package that includes a Bose audio system, heating elements in the front seats and steering wheel, and synthetic leather upholstery.

Slowly does it. The first major drawback is performance – specifically the lack of it. Floor the throttle above 55 miles an hour with a full complement of passengers, and the speedometer needle will barely move. The 122 hp 1.5-liter gas engine has nothing else to give. That’s good if you’re fanatically against speeding, but less so if you live at the top of a hill. The lack of responsiveness above town speeds is aggravated by a CVT transmission which prefers to play hunt-the-ratio instead of letting the strangled engine deliver whatever power it can muster up.

Sedately progress around town is fine, but on a busy freeway, the Kicks occasionally feels alarmingly out of its depth. Nor can you do anything about the lack of torque or acceleration, because there are no other engine or transmission options available. The upside is that you’re never going fast enough to tax the modest 16 and 17-inch tires, which also contribute to decent ride comfort. If only the seats were more comfortable – those in the back are likely to end up shifting from side to side on long journeys, trying to reduce discomfort.

Toys for the boys (and girls). The remarkably low sticker price might suggest Kicks ownership is a featureless desert of blank dashboard switches and manual adjustment levers. In fact, this is a surprisingly well-appointed little car. Even base S models come with air-con and smartphone mirroring through a seven-inch touchscreen, while mid-range SV increases the screen to eight inches while adding adaptive cruise control. For our money, SR justifies its modest price premium, combining climate and a surround-view camera system with a leather-wrapped steering wheel and LED exterior lights.

Safety equipment includes blind spot monitoring and automatic emergency braking on every model. Yet despite auto high beams being standard even on S models, the Kicks only received a four-star NHTSA rating and a slew of ‘Good’ results in its IIHS testing. Ironically, the headlights held it back from achieving the latter’s coveted Top Safety Pick status.

2023 Nissan Kicks Interior

Rivals are more spacious (and comfortable). Funky external styling means the interior is limited in terms of space. In the trunk, big wheel arches eat into the available room, while the rear seatbacks collapse onto fixed bases. This creates a stepped and sloping cargo area that’s only seven cubic feet bigger than the 25 cubes available with the seats in place. The plastics back here are especially cheap, and the dash does a better job of hiding its budget origins.

There’s reasonable space inside the cabin, again considering the car’s modest external dimensions. You won’t feel claustrophobic in the back thanks to plenty of glass, and there’s decent forward visibility. However, the Kicks’ other Achilles heel is its seats, which lack pretty much everything – adjustment, bolstering, lumbar, and padding. You don’t even get a front seat armrest on S models. It’s ironic that the Kicks lacks power because its occupants will generally be desperate to reach their destination.

Final thoughts. We said at the outset that any criticism of the Kicks had to be weighed against its cost, but there are two areas that still disappoint – performance and seat comfort. If you have granite buttocks and a relaxed attitude to punctuality, you’ll be fine. Everyone else is advised to take a lengthy test drive and ensure they can live with these issues long-term before slapping down a deposit on a Kicks. It’s clearly a better second car than a main vehicle, and should be viewed as an urban runaround rather than a long-distance traveling companion.

Everything else about this budget Nissan is either inoffensive or perfectly decent, from space and styling to refinement and ride quality. The standard equipment levels are generous even if safety ratings pose some question marks, and the lack of handling prowess is forgivable in such an affordable vehicle. That said, the Mazda CX-30 and Hyundai Kona don’t make as many compromises despite their similar price points, while Toyota’s Corolla Cross is considerably safer and better equipped.

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