The Kia Niro is the Korean automaker’s first dedicated hybrid vehicle. But if you look at any of marketing materials, you will notice that ‘hybrid’ doesn’t appear anywhere. Take for example this line from a TV ad:
“We call this the Kia Niro, but that’s only because ‘breakthrough, game-changing crossover that gets over 40 miles per gallon combined and is really fun to drive’ just wouldn’t fit on the back.”
It is a smart move by Kia as more people are buying crossovers like they’re going out of style and it reflects in the sales. In July, Kia moved 2,763 Niros. The Hyundai Ioniq, its sister model only moved 1,252 units.
This left us wondering; how does the Niro stack not only as a hybrid vehicle but also as a crossover? We got to spend a week in the midlevel EX to find out.
We couldn’t decide if the Niro was more wagon or crossover in terms of the overall design. For the former, the Niro has the two-box design you see on a wagon - separate spaces for the engine and passengers/cargo. The body features smooth, rounded lines that not only gives more credence to the wagon idea but also helps with aerodynamics - the Niro has a drag coefficient of 0.29. For the latter, there is a fair amount of lower body cladding to give the illusion of a taller ride height. Other crossover cues include a faux rear skid plate and roof rails. No matter which side of the argument you come down on, you’ll most likely agree that the Niro looks quite conventional for a hybrid vehicle.
The Niro’s interior is very straightforward and normal for a hybrid model. It looks like any other Kia vehicle we have driven with a fair amount of high-quality plastics, the simple control arrangement of the center stack, and a clear set of gauges. The seats were upholstered in cloth and leather and felt nice to sit on for short trips. Longer trips revealed the seats to be lacking in support. Rear seat passengers will like the decent amount of head and legroom on offer. Being a clean sheet design and not taking an existing vehicle to hybridize means Kia was able to maximize the cargo area. Open the rear tailgate you’re greeted with a flat floor, not a raised floor like competitors. Space measures out to 19.4 cubic feet behind the rear seats and 54.5 cubic feet when folded. This puts the Niro towards the top of the class when compared to other subcompact crossovers. Only the Honda HR-V offers a more spacious cargo area - 24.3 and 58.8 when equipped with FWD.
Most Niros get a 7-inch touchscreen with Kia’s UVO infotainment system. The top-line Touring comes with an 8-inch screen and navigation. Kia’s UVO system is beginning to show its age as competitors begin to introduce updated interfaces and brighter screens, but it is still one of easiest systems to use. A logical layout for the interface, quick performance, and physical shortcut buttons keep it at the top of our favorite infotainment systems' list. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto is standard across the board. We found the Apple CarPlay integration to be seamless with the system quickly finding our iPhone 7 Plus and bringing up the CarPlay interface.
Power comes from a hybrid system comprised of a 1.6L GDI four-cylinder (104 horsepower and 109 pound-feet) and electric motor (43 hp and 125 lb-ft). Total output stands at 139 hp and 195 lb-ft. This is paired with a six-speed dual-clutch transmission and front-wheel drive. Before you ask, Kia isn’t planning on offering all-wheel drive on the Niro for the time being. The Niro feels slightly quicker than the Prius in around-town driving thanks to the higher torque figure from the electric motor. Stay light on the throttle and the Niro can get up to 40 mph on just electric power alone. But the Niro begins to show some weakness at higher speeds as it takes a long time to reach them. This makes merging or passing a somewhat tricky proposition. Kia also needs to do some more work on smoothing out some of hybrid system’s rough edges. At various times, there was a delay from us putting our foot on the accelerator pedal to the powertrain responding. We also noticed surges and pulsation from the powertrain at low-speeds.
Kia and sister brand, Hyundai have stood out by not equipping their hybrid vehicles with CVTs. Instead, they tend to go for either an automatic or in the case of the Niro, a dual-clutch transmission. The upside to this is that the Niro feels like a normal vehicle as it doesn’t have the loud droning from the CVT during hard acceleration. But the dual-clutch does introduce some other headaches. Gear changes are noticeable and at times as the transmission seems hesitant to go down a gear when you need to get up and go.
Most Niro models will have EPA figures of 51 City/46 Highway/49 Combined. We saw an average of 51.2 mpg in mostly city driving. The base FE returns figures of 49/52/50 and the top-line Touring comes in at 46/40/43. This mostly comes down to weight and various features fitted to each model. For example, the Touring is the only model to come with 18-inch wheels.
The Niro is a bit of mixed bag in terms of ride and handling. On smooth and slightly bumpy roads, the Niro does a good job of soaking up bumps. This changes when driven on a rough road as passengers will be bouncing around somewhat. Going through a corner, the Niro exhibits a fair amount of body roll, making you think twice about having some fun. Steering is not particularly quick but does exhibit a nice amount of weight when turning. Wind and road noise is quite noticeable on the highway, but quiets down somewhat when driven in an urban area.
Judging the Kia Niro depends on how to look at it. As a crossover, the Niro scores quite well as it offers plenty of space and the tall ride height many buyers are looking for. The lack of all-wheel drive might make it a tough sell. From the hybrid perspective, the Niro begins to lose some ground. It offers slightly better performance than the Prius around town, but struggles when getting up to highway speeds. There also the need for the hybrid system and dual-clutch automatic to go back in the workshop for the various rough edges to be smoothed over.
Kia made a wise move by designing the Niro as a crossover and it is paying off. It offers the plus points of the Prius without the exuberant design. But the Niro has some issues that Kia needs to address ASAP or it may lose out on this golden opportunity the model currently has.
Disclaimer: Kia Provided the Niro, Insurance, and One Tank of Gas
Engine: 1.6L DOHC GDI Atkinson Cycle Four-Cylinder, Electric Motor
Driveline: Six-Speed Dual-Clutch Automatic, Front-Wheel Drive
Horsepower @ RPM: 104 @ 5,700 (1.6L), 43 @ 0 (Electric), 139 (Total Output)
Torque @ RPM: 109 @ 4,000 (1.6L), 125 @ 0 (Electric), 195 (Total Output)
Fuel Economy: City/Highway/Combined - 51/46/49
Curb Weight: 3,161 lbs
Location of Manufacture: Hwaseong, South Korea
Base Price: $25,700
As Tested Price: $28,895 (Includes $895.00 Destination Charge)
Sunroof & Advanced Technology Package - $2,300.00