The Kia Niro is an all-new compact hybrid wagon that made its world debut at the 2016 Chicago Auto Show. Niro seats five and sports a conventional four-door wagon bodystyle. For 2017, Niro is available only with a hybrid powertrain, however, in 2018, a plug-in model will be added to the lineup. Competitors include the Chevrolet Volt, Hyundai Ionic and Toyota Prius.
Niro is powered by a 1.6-liter engine coupled to electric motors and a battery pack to produce a combined output of 139 horsepower. Unlike most hybrids, the Niro has a conventional 6-speed automatic transmission. Niro is offered only with front-wheel drive.
Trim levels include the FE, LS, EX and Touring. Standard features include auto headlights, 7-inch touch-screen UVO infotainment system with Bluetooth and Apple CarPlay/Android Auto support. Prices start as low as $22,890 for the FE and climb to $29,650 for the Touring.
Kia's somewhat conservative approach to a hybrid powertrain makes for a very conventional driving experience. Acceleration is leisurely but acceptable - helped by the slick-shifting six-speed automatic. With a light load, Niro has no trouble keeping up with traffic and boasts reasonable highway passing response. However, add in three or four passengers and things slow down considerably. Overall, Niro is significantly quicker than the Toyota Prius but lags behind some larger hybrid competitors - like the Toyota RAV4.
Drivers would be hard pressed to tell the Niro is a hybrid, save the all-electric operation at low speeds. The engine and electric motors work extremely well together with the transmission to provide smooth and drama-free acceleration. Because Niro is a hybrid, there no need to plug in to charge the battery. At the same time, you should expect fuel economy to suffer in extremly cold or hot climates.
Speaking of fuel economy, most Niro models are EPA rated at 46 mpg city and 40 mph highway, The fuel-sipping FE model nets ratings of 52/49 mpg. In routine driving with moderate temperatures it is easy to match the EPA numbers, perhaps even exceed them. However, getting the most out of any hybrid requires a slight modification in driving style and a deep understanding of how hybrid technology works to save fuel.
Dynamically, Niro drives like a small, front-drive wagon. There are no expectations of sportiness and no drama as the front tires lose grip well before the rears. The suspension easily soaks up road imperfections to deliver a ride that's comfortable albeit composed. Body lean and slow steering response hamper enthusiastic driving and a mushy brake pedal - especially in hard stops - doesn't inspire much confidence from behind the wheel.
Interior noise levels are impressively low, more so at highway speeds. The engine/electric motor does drone in hard acceleration, which is not uncommon in this class. Kia should be commended for working hard to reduce wind and tire noise overall.
Inside, it's clear Niro was built to a price point. That doesn't mean cheap, rather materials are more durable and functional than luxurious. Above the beltline, there are plenty of soft-touch surfaces. Drivers face a meaty steering wheel and a traditional twin-dial setup. Though, rather than a tachometer, the left dial imparts fuel-efficiency information. Center stack is a now-traditional array of touchscreen, climate and radio controls.
Front seats are standard economy fare with reasonable padding but minimal bolstering. In other words, they are fine for every day and long-haul driving but don't hold you in place like a sport seat. Head and leg room are impressive for a compact and outward visibility is excellent. Step-in height is near perfect and wide opening doors afford excellent ingress/egress.
Despite Niro's diminutive dimensions, the back seats are no penalty box with good head and leg room. Sliding the front seats all the way back might impinge on taller rear-seat riders, but a flat floor is a boon for middle seat riders.
Like all new Kias, Niro is fitted with the UVO infotainment system that nicely incorporates Apple Car Play and Android Auto. There's a modest learning curve, especially considering the hybrid information is also added, but most common audio and climate control functions are handled by simple buttons or dials.
Niro lacks cargo space when compared with larger crossovers but had a leg up on small sedans and hatchbacks -- think Prius and Volt. The rear seatbacks fold flat to increase cargo space and the hatch opening is quite large. Interior storage is modest with just a few open and covered bins -- again, trailing traditional crossovers.
In all, Niro is a great first effort by Kia. Its matches or exceeds the competition in most areas and doesn't try and do too much. Prices start at $22,890 for the fuel-sipping FE and can climb to more than $28,000 in the top-line trim. Even so, you get a lot of vehicle for your money. Urban drivers will certainly appreciate the Niro's compact dimensions and cargo versatility and suburbanites will like the highway refinement and impressive fuel economy.