Words by Wayne Gorrett
The Niro hybrid is the first of its kind to be available from KIA in the UK. At first, it might appear to be just another small SUV, but in my line of work one quickly learns to not judge a book by its proverbial cover…but, more on that later.
Considering it was entirely designed from the tyres up to actually be a hybrid, the best feature of the KIA Niro may perhaps be that it doesn’t look like one. The Niro uses the same platform that underpins the Hyundai Ioniq, but with its crossover styling and raised ride height, is more in keeping with consumer demands than the Prius-chasing hatchback.
First shown at the 2016 Chicago motor show, the KIA Niro is positioned below the KIA Sportage in the current UK line-up. It uses an all-new hybrid powertrain and is constructed from lightweight materials such as high-strength steel and aluminium. The Niro hybrid has since been joined in the KIA product mix by a ‘plug-in hybrid electric vehicle’ (PHEV) variant.
When it went on sale in its native South Korea in April 2016, the KIA Niro hybrid created a new first-month sales record in the country’s green car market, beating even the aforementioned Hyundai Ioniq. (No mean feat given that Hyundai is by far the top-selling Korean auto brand - and KIA’s parent company.)
Where some hybrids use weird or dowdy styling to make a shouty ‘Look at me – I’m different!’ statement, the Niro could be just another small crossover. Designed by Peter Schreyer, the KIA Niro wears the brands ‘tiger nose’ grille well and angled headlights complete a bullish-looking face. Its squat proportions make the Niro look halfway between an estate and an SUV.
The Niro is awkward to categorise size-wise. It’s a tad bigger than the KIA cee’d hatch but not as big as the Sportage SUV. From the rear it appears an everyday hatchback, but in side profile and from the front three-quarter, its crossover/compact SUV styling is more evident. It rides on a longer wheelbase that the Sportage which translates into class-leading interior passenger space.
Thanks to that longer wheel base, the Niro offers more passenger space than many competitors, with front and rear legroom being above average. The rear seats are spacious enough even for long-legged adults but the seat squabs are a little short behind the knees.
Access and egress are excellent as the Niro’s doors open wide (almost to 90 degrees) and offer up comfortable seat heights. The touchscreen infotainment menus take a little familiarization but are easy enough to figure out and have shortcut buttons. When using the stalks to change headlight or wiper settings, a prompt appears in the gauge cluster showing your current and other available selections.
The rake and reach steering wheel offers plenty of adjustment and it’s pretty easy to find a comfortable driving position thanks to copious amounts of head and legroom to suit a wide range of drivers.
Forward visibility is good but the thick B and rear pillars create a blind spot when looking over your shoulder. The view directly rear is decent and relatively unobstructed by the rear headrests. Fortunately, a rear view camera is standard on all trims.
Material quality is good, with sturdy plastics and a soft touch dashboard covering. As can be expected these days, much of the lower plastics in the cabin appear cheap and budget-led. Centre armrest padding is good but more could be applied to the door armrests.
Boot size is a practical and family-friendly 421 litres. Folding the rear seats down is straightforward and provides a flat load deck with a capacity of 1,425 litres, which is enough for trips to Ikea, the local skip or visits to the garden centre.
Trim Grades & Equipment
The KIA Niro currently has three trim options; 2, 3 and 4. Every car comes with reversing camera and rear parking sensors, lane assist, hill-start assist, cruise control and a speed limiter, privacy glass, satnav via a 7-inch touchscreen infotainment unit, Bluetooth connectivity, 6-speaker DAB radio, auto wipers and lights, LED rear light clusters, fog lights, electric windows all round and electrically folding and heated door mirrors.
Step up to Grade 3 and you get an 8-inch infotainment screen, 18-inch alloys (Grade 2 has 16-inch alloy wheels), 8-speaker JBL audio system, leather furniture, wireless phone charger, electrically-powered and heated front seats, heated steering wheel and front parking sensors.
Top spec Grade 4 adds an electric tilt/slide sunroof, bi-Xenon headlights, heated outer rear seats and ventilated fronts seats, adaptive cruise control, engine stop/start button with keyless entry, autonomous emergency braking and blind spot detection.
Engines and Drivetrains
Like the Toyota Prius, the Niro is a hybrid that uses an electric motor and battery pack to help boost the performance of its 1.6-litre petrol engine, while also improving efficiency. The result is CO2 emissions as low as 88g/km, while fuel consumption should rival the most frugal of diesel-powered alternatives.
During the week’s testing, I drove 412 miles over mixed roads at an average speed of 34mph. This achieved a respectable 63.8mpg with no deliberate effort at frugality.
A six-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission is standard, as opposed to the CVT planted in the Prius. The result is a driving experience that will feel more familiar to drivers used to a conventional automatic transmission or a manual gearbox. In fact, the Niro just feels like any other car for the most part, particularly out of town, where it's easy to drive and very comfortable.
It can operate on electricity alone under some circumstances, such as at low speeds in traffic or when cruising at a steady speed. However, for most of the time the engine needs to be working. Fortunately, while it is audible, it’s only really noticeable when accelerating very hard for overtakes or joining motorways.
Ride and Handling
The Niro is more suited to relaxed cruising which it does exceptionally well. An overly-brisk pootle along country lanes should ideally not be on your agenda. The transition between battery and petrol power is seamless and the car is quiet and refined at all times – except when pushed really hard, at which point the audible protestations are intrusive. Engage Sport mode and the engine responds more sharply and reduces the level of assistance to the steering to give a greater sense of weight.
The Niro offers a controlled, stable ride over most roads, but it did become a little undone when encountering the odd crusty surface. Its factory-fitted low-resistance tyres aren’t especially grippy and understeer arrived sooner than expected on the roundabout test.
The best news is the dual-clutch automatic gearbox which has advantages over the CVTs found in most hybrid rivals. The car feels far more normal to drive and is a lot quieter because of it.
The KIA Niro combines a practical, family-oriented crossover body style with an efficient hi-tech hybrid system. It’s quiet, refined and decent to drive, but what impresses most is the simple and unobtrusive way that the Niro makes hybrid motoring feel so ‘normal’. Its conventional body shape, sober styling, efficient 1.6-litre petrol engine and dual-clutch automatic gearbox (no CVTs here – hurrah!), all combine to make it feel more contemporary from behind the wheel than many rivals.
So, is the KIA Niro hybrid just another compact SUV? I would suggest you don’t pay too much attention to the cover of this particular book, but rather delve right in – it’s actually quite a gripping read once you get to understand the storyline.