The Niro is described as a crossover, which means it combines the style and raised driving position of an SUV with the driving manners and efficiency of a hatchback. It’s also a hybrid, so beneath that conservatively styled skin sits a small petrol engine and electric motor to help reduce both CO2 emissions and fuel economy. It’s certainly a handsome-looking vehicle, although it does look more like an elevated estate car than a chunky SUV. To put its size into context with the rest of the Kia model range, it’s a bit taller than a cee’d hatchback but a fair bit lower than the Sportage SUV. The subtle styling and lack of eco-warrior badging also means it doesn’t shout about its green credentials.
The Niro’s interior quality is a mixed bag. While some of the dashboard is constructed from tactile soft-touch plastics, most of the cabin is dominated by hard, grainy plastic mouldings and high-gloss door panel inserts. All the buttons are clearly labeled and presented, but the clicky activation of much of this switchgear feels cheap. It’s a marginally better finish than a Toyota Prius, but when you consider you can have a Volkswagen Tiguan for this kind of money, it starts to feel very dowdy indeed. Fortunately, the optional eight-inch infotainment system is good: the sat nav responds quickly to re-routes and all menus are easy and intuitive to find. There’s even a screen that shows energy flow between the engine, battery and wheels and a pixelated green tree that encourages you to run in electric mode.
There’s a decent amount of space up front but the steering wheel is only adjustable for height and not reach, so the driving position may be a little compromised for some.
Kia has cleverly packaged the battery pack beneath the rear bench, so it doesn’t impede on packaging. As a result, rear leg and headroom is comfortable enough for two adults while the boot space is a reasonable 427-litres, although that is smaller than the Toyota Prius (502-litres).
Ride and handling
Despite Kia’s claims that the Niro is the best driving car in its class, that’s not much of a boast when you consider it benchmarked the handling of the Toyota. While the body rises and falls in a reasonably controlled and comfortable manner at dual carriageway speeds, the ride is quite jiggly at lower velocities. Handling is pretty sloppy, with a defined nose-heavy feel and tardy steering reactions. Consequently, the Niro is more at home on the straights and definitely not the kind of motor you want to hurl down a country lane.
The Niro is powered by a 1.6-litre petrol engine and 32kW electric motor, which together, develop 139bhp. It’s described as a parallel hybrid, which means that most of the time the petrol and electric power units work together. Unfortunately, despite our twinkle-toed efforts, the powertrain stubbornly refused to remain in pure EV mode above 10mph, preferring to call the petrol engine to arms as soon as possible. Ideally, we’d like to experience zero emissions more often, but unlike the Toyota Prius, there’s no button that allows you to force the powertrain into EV mode.
Undoubtedly the biggest feather in the Niro’s cap is its twin clutch automatic, which is infinitely superior to the CVT contraption that’s found in the Prius. Unlike the Prius, the Niro delivers near instantaneous drive and because the shift gaps are filled in by power from the electric motor, the changes are seamless. It isn’t worth pushing too hard in the Niro, as performance feels stately at best and the mechanical blare emanating from under the aluminium bonnet becomes quite intrusive when the petrol engine is extended.
Kia is convinced that diesel power has had its day and within five years, 20% of the cars we buy will be powered by petrol-hybrid powertrains. The Niro is capable of returning an official 74.3mpg and produces a paltry CO2 output of just 88 g/km. Beware though, not only does it cost more to buy the 3 and First Edition, the extra equipment on the top two trim levels significantly effect economy and emissions. The CO2 emissions rise to 101g/km, while average economy drops to 64.2mpg.
Also bear in mind that hybrids work best within the confines of a gentle urban driving environment, where the electric mode can be employed. Get any hybrid legging along a motorway and the petrol engine will be working full time, and, because it is dragging the extra weight of a battery pack, it’ll actually be less efficient than a traditional petrol car, let alone a frugal diesel.
Like all Kias, the Niro comes with a superb seven-year/100,000-mile warranty – the best on any hybrid available in Britain – and is also available with Kia’s Care-3 and Care-3 Plus servicing packages, which offer retail customers fixed-cost servicing for three or five years. All these packages are fully transferable if the car is sold.
The Niro has yet to be tested by EuroNCAP but if the rest of Kia’s cars are anything to go by, we expect it to perform well in crash tests. The Niro has seven airbags fitted as standard with bags for driver and front passenger, and the driver’s knees. Additionally, first row side airbags, first and second row curtain airbags and ISOFIX child-seat tether and anchor points are also standard to the second row of seats. An ESC system is fitted as standard to help ensure stability under braking and cornering by controlling the vehicle’s braking and steering. The 3 and First Edition models gain extra safety equipment including Autonomous Emergency Braking, Blind Spot Detection with a Rear Cross Traffic Alert and Smart Cruise Control.
From launch, the Niro comes in four trims, with the regular 1, 2, and 3 joined by a special ‘First Edition’. All come with a Lane Keep Assist System, Cruise Control, DAB radio and Bluetooth connectivity, as well as alloy wheels, dual-zone climate control and all-round electric windows. On top of this, the 2 also has a touchscreen sat-nav system, a reversing camera, part-leather upholstery and automatic wipers, while 3 adds the larger eight-inch touchscreen, bigger alloys and black leather upholstery.
If the majority of your motoring is spent commuting into city centres, and you’re still not convinced by the practicalities of electric vehicles, then the Niro could well work for you as it will provide a low taxation threshold and go along way to salving your green credentials.
It also offers plenty of space, lots of standard kit and the convenience of an automatic gearbox. Whether you’re able to gloss over the poor interior quality and put up with the lackluster driving qualities is quite another matter. If it were our money we’d be more inclined to ignore the crossover tag and plump for Kia’s sister company’s Hyundai Ionic.