In the world of extra small crossovers, everyone is fighting for elbowroom. Nearly every brand has a vehicle that competes in this class. Chevrolet Trax, Buick Encore, Ford EcoSport, Hyundai Kona, Honda HR-V, Toyota C-HR, and so on. But one of the highlights has always been the 2021 Mazda CX-3 thanks to its driving dynamics and attention to details. However, the updated 2021 Nissan Kicks is aiming to take the crown away from the Mazda.
Engine – Starting things off with the older one, the 2021 Mazda CX-3 is powered by a 2.0L naturally aspirated 4-cylinder engine. It produces 148 hp and 146 lb-ft of torque (110 kW & 198 Nm). While the Mazda CX-3 does weigh a little over 100 kg more than the Kicks, it still feels much faster thanks to the additional power. It requires less effort of the throttle pedal to get the car going or to overtake someone on a highway.
The 2021 Nissan Kicks receives a 1.6L naturally aspirated 4-cylinder engine that produces 122 hp and 114 lb-ft of torque (91 kW & 155 Nm). If you don’t have a heavy foot, then the power is adequate. Engine rpms rarely get past 2,500 under normal driving conditions apart from when you’re going up an incline. Don’t be surprised to see the rpm needle hit the 4,000 mark at times.
However, while the Nissan Kicks doesn’t produce the same amount of power as the Mazda CX-3, it is much more fuel efficient. It is rated for 7.7 L/100km (30.5 MPG) in a city and 6.6 L/100km (35.6 MPG) on a highway. By comparison this AWD GT trim of the CX-3 is rated at 8.6 L/100km (27.4 MPG) in a city and 7.4 L/100km (31.8 MPG) on a highway. If we compare apples to apples, as in, a FWD version of the CX-3 to the FWD Kicks, the Nissan still has better fuel efficiency.
Transmission – These vehicles couldn’t be any more different when it comes to transmissions. The Mazda CX-3 is equipped with a traditional 6-speed automatic while the 2021 Nissan Kicks receives a CVT automatic. In Canada, the base trim of the CX-3 with FWD is available with a 6-speed manual. This transmission, however, is not available at all in the United States. But back to the automatics, the 6-speed in the CX-3 is a fantastic transmission. Shifts are not only smooth but also quick. The only downfall is that on a highway at around 100 km/h, the engine is spinning at 2,200 rpms. The CVT in the Kicks is nowhere near as enjoyable to drive in a spirited manner. But it was never designed for that. It was designed to provide efficiency which it does very well. On highways, the rpms are as low as 1,500 but the CVT is quick to react should you decide to overtake another vehicle. Between the two, they are polar opposites but they do the job they were designed for very well.
Braking – Both vehicles have four wheel disc brakes with ABS and automatic emergency braking. The 2021 Nissan Kicks is a bit lighter than the 2021 Mazda CX-3 but it’s the Mazda that has the better braking performance. It also feels that way from behind the steering wheel with the Mazda providing a better brake pedal feel to your right foot.
Handling – Just like the braking performance, the 2021 Mazda CX-3 is the better of the two when it comes to driving quickly around a corner. It has better feedback through the steering wheel. The steering weight is a little on the heavier side but it’s not difficult at all to maneuver at slower speeds. It feels much more joyful to toss the CX-3 through corners than the Kicks.
Speaking of which, the 2021 Nissan Kicks feels like it was made as a city commuter vehicle from the moment you turn the wheel. It’s very light, which is great for city maneuverability, but not for driving enjoyment. There’s very little feedback to the driver thus resulting in a driving experience that is nowhere near as fun as in the CX-3.
Of course the biggest difference between the two cars is the fact that the Mazda CX-3 is available with an AWD system whereas the Nissan Kicks is not offered with one. On higher powered cars an AWD system will make a difference but on cars like these, I think a good set of winter tires are enough for most city & town roads. You definitely don’t need it if you live in a warm climate like Florida.
Ride Comfort – Between the two cars, the Mazda CX-3 has a noticeably stiffer ride than the Nissan Kicks. It’s not something outrageously firm because you can still drive the CX-3 on long journeys and be comfortable. It’s just that for the utmost ride comfort, the 2021 Nissan Kicks provides more of it. Thankfully it’s not overly soft to the point it feels “floaty” over bumps.
Interior Space – In every measurable statistic – apart from one – the 2021 Nissan Kicks offers more interior space than the 2021 Mazda CX-3. The Kicks has more front headroom & legroom. It has more rear headroom & legroom. And it has more cargo capacity with the rear seats up than the CX-3. But when folding the rear seats down, the Mazda CX-3 provides more cargo capacity. The Kicks has 716 L & 914 L (25.3 cu-ft & 32.2 cu-ft) respectively while the Mazda has 504 L & 1,209 L (17.8 cu-ft & 42.7 cu-ft) respectively.
Between the two, you immediately notice the difference in interior space when taking a seat. The Kicks has loads of headroom and you sit quite high up making for good overall visibility and easy ingress. Sitting behind my driving position is also not too bad at 6’4”. Of course my knees are touching the back of the driver’s seat but I don’t feel overly squished. In the Mazda, you feel a bit more “cocooned” in the driver’s seat. Legroom is good in the front seats but headroom is not as plentiful as in the Kicks. Worse yet is sitting behind my driving position in the Mazda. It’s not a place I want to be for longer than 30 seconds. Headroom and legroom is very tight.
Noise, Vibration, & Harshness – Going into this test, I would’ve bet money that the Mazda would be quieter. But good thing that no one took me up on that bet because I was wrong. After driving the cars back to back, the Nissan Kicks had a slightly quieter cabin thanks to the CVT automatic. Both of the vehicles had similar levels of road and wind noise but it was the engine noises that made the difference. As I mentioned earlier, the Mazda’s 6-speed keeps the engine’s rpms quite high when cruising on a highway. But the Kick’s CVT keeps them low and that makes a difference in terms of engine noise. The CX-3 engine doesn’t sound bad – it actually sounds good for a 4-cylinder – but the noise is always there.
Odds and Ends
Gadgets – The biggest selling point of the 2021 Nissan Kicks is the abundance of safety & driver aids that are standard. Blind spot sensors, rear cross traffic alert, automatic emergency braking w/ pedestrian detection, rear emergency braking, lane departure warning, parking sensors are all standard features on the Nissan Kicks. By comparison the 2021 Mazda CX-3 only offers automatic emergency braking, blind spot sensors, and rear cross traffic alert as standard. If you want more safety & driver aids, you have to move up in trims. In the United States there is only one CX-3 trim so all of the advanced safety & driver aids are included but at a higher cost.
As for convenience features, the Mazda CX-3 offers more than the Nissan Kicks… at a price of course… and only in Canada. Both vehicles are equipped with heated seats, heated steering wheel, backup camera, Apple CarPlay & Android Auto integration, adaptive cruise control, Bluetooth and so on. The only features that the Kicks has a leg up on the CX-3 are the surround view cameras and the Bose speakers in the driver’s headrest (which is a bit of a gimmick if you ask me). The Mazda has wireless Apple CarPlay, a head-up display, a sunroof, power driver’s seat with memory, and navigation – all of which are not available on the Kicks.
It’s the infotainment system that really sets these two crossovers apart. The CX-3 still utilizes the old infotainment system not the new one that is found in the CX-30 for example. It looks very dated, the touchscreen only functions when the car is stationary, and it takes quite a while to load on cold starts. The Kicks on the other hand, has a faster and larger 8” touchscreen with an infotainment system that looks much more modern. Granted, it does not have a native navigation system or wireless CarPlay like the Mazda but you can use Google Maps and wireless CarPlay eats up a lot of your phone’s battery charge.
Interior Design – The Mazda CX-3 excels in both interior design & materials use. The design of the interior dashboard and center console look much more premium than the design of the Kicks. As well, the Mazda uses real leather for the seat upholstery in this GT trim whereas the Kicks uses something called “Prima-Tex” upholstery. It’s meant to replicate leather but it feels rough and coarse to the touch. I do like the flat bottom steering wheel though of the Nissan Kicks but overall, the Mazda CX-3 has a nicer interior.
Exterior Design – When it comes to the outside, it’s the opposite of the inside to my eyes. I much prefer the looks of the 2021 Nissan Kicks over the looks of the 2021 Mazda CX-3. While the Kicks has a somewhat oversized grille, it looks more in tune with the times and recent design trends in the automotive industry. The non-projector LED headlights, the light bar across the back, and the contrasting roof are all current design trends. The CX-3 does project a premium design but to me, it doesn’t look as interesting as the Kicks.
Warranty – The 2021 Nissan Kicks has a fairly standard warranty program with a 3 year / 60,000 km new vehicle warranty, 5 year / 100,000 km powertrain warranty & a 5 year / unlimited mileage anti-perforation warranty. The 2021 Mazda CX-3 has the same 3 and 5 year new vehicle & powertrain warranty period but it is offered with unlimited mileage for both. As well, the anti-perforation warranty is for 7 years instead of 5 for the Kicks. One note though if you’re reading this in the United States, Mazda doesn’t offer the unlimited mileage warranty for the new vehicle & powertrain warranties. They are 36,000 miles & 60,000 miles respectively.
The 2021 Nissan Kicks starts at $19,898 CAD ($19,500 USD) and this top spec SR trim costs $24,998 CAD ($23,885 USD). The 2021 Mazda CX-3 starts at $21,300 CAD for the FWD with the 6-speed ($20,790 USD FWD Auto) and this GT trim costs $31,100 CAD. Unfortunately in the United States, the Mazda CX-3 does not come as well equipped as it does in Canada and as such the most expensive that it can get is $22,885 USD for the AWD Sport trim. Overall, the 2021 Nissan Kicks is a better vehicle for a wider range of consumers. It costs less, has better fuel efficiency, is better value for your money and has more interior space. However, every morning I found myself reaching for the Mazda key rather than the Nissan key. The Mazda CX-3 is not for everyone but it is for those that want a premium feeling subcompact crossover that is a joy to drive.
Thank you to Nissan Canada for providing the Kicks. www.Nissan.ca
Thank you to Mazda Canada for providing the CX-3. www.Mazda.ca