The 2023 model year welcomes aboard the second generation of Kia’s trend-setting Niro, a family of compact, front-wheel drive vehicles straddling the internal combustion engine (ICE) universe and the emerging electric vehicle (EV) market.
The first-generation five-door Niro crossover made a thunderous world debut at the 2016 Chicago Auto Show. Niro set itself apart from other rivals at that time with its highly flexible platform built with alternative power in mind from the get-go rather than shoehorning emerging technology into an on-the-shelf, existing ICE platform.
Returning in 2023 are three distinct alternative technologies: a plug-in hybrid-electric version (PHEV) combining the best of emerging and conventional technologies; a conventional, self-charging gas-electric hybrid (HEV) requiring no nightly plug in and a pure electric (EV) version with a heightened all-electric range. All three 2023 versions are now sold throughout all 50 states.
Kia’s U.S. lineup includes a dozen entries consisting of uni-body crossovers, sedans coupes and a mom-friendly minivan. Body-on-frame pickup trucks and large off-road SUVs are not currently part of the corporate DNA. Kia’s also an early adaptor within the EV community. In addition to the Niro EV, a performance-tilted all-electric EV6 pumps out 576 worth of pure-electric horsepower.
Kia Motors became an affiliate arm of fellow South Korean auto builder Hyundai Motor Group in 1998 when the larger Hyundai brought the struggling, bankrupt Kia at the height of an Asian financial crisis. Since that low point, Kia has blossomed with impressive, worldwide sales numbers.
This second-generation Niro (built upon an all-new ‘K3’ platform) features a wheelbase (distance between front and rear axle) growing eight-tenths of an inch while overall length grows by two-and-a-half inches. Even with these added dimensions, overall weight reduces, helping improve mileage potential. Headroom remains plentiful in all five seating positions. Trim level designations get rearranged with 2023 featuring entry LX, EX, EX Touring, SX and SX Touring. Each trim comes well equipped with precious few factory-based a-la-carte extras.
This review centers on the traditional best seller and first to arrive in the U.S. during the 2023 model year, the Niro HEV powered by a 1.6-liter GDI (gasoline direct injected) four-cylinder engine boosted by a 32-kilowatt permanent magnet electric motor fed by a small 1.3-kilowatt hour lithium-ion polymer battery. All work together powering the front wheels for a combined 139 horsepower, identical to Gen One horsepower.
Mileage estimates in the HEV Niro deviate slightly depending upon the tire size selected. If choosing standard 16-inch tires, combined miles per gallon (City and Highway) reaches an impressive 53 (top-of its HEV class). Our SX Touring tester upsized to 18-inch tires (bigger tires contribute to a dip in fuel economy) and a combined mpg of 49. The 11.9-gallon fuel tank holds regular, 87-octane fuel.
Thanks to additional window insulation, this compact rides with a quieting ambiance with predictable, pleasant handling. Gas-electric hybrid acceleration won’t blow occupants away, but it’s enough to merge with confidence onto Interstates.
Our HEV Niro SX with Touring package started at $34,790 with a bottom line of $36,435 (representing the poshest version in 2023) after factoring in a $1,295 destination fee and dealer extras including extra black C-pillar cladding ($195) and $155 carpeted floor mats. The Touring extras including larger 18-inch alloy wheels, LED projector headlights and aluminum foot pedals. A power tailgate along with a power sunroof comes standard in SX and SX Touring trims. The lowest-priced Niro HEV (and lowest-priced of all Niro opportunities) a LX, checks in at an ultra-competitive $26,490.
While the first-generation Niro include a pleasant, non-descript exterior, this second one takes on a few additional visual liberties. Our SX Touring tester included a unique bi-color palate combining a dark green exterior with a high concentration of black accents. These dark nuances cover circular wheel wells in addition to a majority of lower cladding areas including the front grille and rear cargo bottom. The lone exception is a patch of open green along rear side door bottoms.
An eye-opening amount of black swath behind rear back doors adorning the D pillar forms a sizeable black arrowhead shape at the side’s rear end which Kia dubs the ‘aero blade.’ It’s functional as well, set an inch from the rest of the bodywork allowing air flow. High-mounted, red taillights also highlight the arrow-shaped contour. For those wishing less flash, the aero blade also comes in a traditional body color.
Another notable update from the first generation; Kia’s new corporate logo, replacing thick, sans serif block lettering inside an oval sphere with a free-form connected stick-like layout found on the hood, tailgate and steering wheel. Gone from Generation One is the elongated, bow-tie front grille design (too retro Chevrolet for many tastes), replaced with a bi-level facia now becoming the standard choice with Kia vehicles.
The engine once again teams with a dual clutch transmission. This technology doesn’t involve any driver input with an old-school foot clutch, instead relying upon two computer-controlled under hood clutches working in tandem to deliver split-second accuracy, shifting gears quicker than human capabilities. It’s the favored choice when stacked against continuously variable transmissions (CVTs) utilized by many hybrid/EV rivals stretching fuel mileage, while lacking performance gusto if pushing the accelerator pedal to the floor medal.
When seated behind the wheel, this six-speed dual clutch system operates from the driver’s perspective as a traditional automatic transmission design with a vertical mechanical shift via a T-bar grab handle found between new slim design front bucket seating. This shifter gets framed by columns of push buttons summoning heated seating, heated steering wheel and parking sensor deactivation.
The electronic start/stop button resides in front and to the left while an electronic parking tab anchors the south end. A nice nearby upgrade includes diagonally arranged beverage holders with curved, spring-loaded, retracting separators creating a larger birth for larger drink cups if called upon.
The two-spoke steering wheel also includes an eight-o ‘clock appendage for selecting between eco and sport driving modes, although Niro highly tilts towards the eco designation with sport mode delivering a bit more engine hum by holding lower gears for a slightly longer duration.
A sweeping multi-function flat screen with curved topside combines the digital instrument panel in front of the driver and sound-system/navigation screen in the center. The animated IP section includes speedometer and tachometer readouts flanked by a multi panel center window monitored by a steering wheel face push button. When Niro sleeps, this screen fades to black but once activated, digital wizardry takes up shop.
The center 10.25-inch easy-swipe touchscreen (8 inches in base LX) includes many icons (and word underscores) tackling an array of duties, including ambient light/brightness control and hybrid energy flow schematic. Android Auto and Apple Car Play interplay comes standard. SX and SX Touring upgrade to a Harmon Kardon sub-woofer with eight speakers. What’s missing? Old-school twist knobs controlling volume and station selection. The steering wheel face includes push tabs handling the bulk of this work along with a better-than-expected voice activation system.
Each end of the dashboard includes vents resting at 45 degrees. Center horizontal vents separate the flat navigation screen from a lower, narrow touch-sensitive screen monitoring HVAC controls and front/rear defrosters. The few twist dials found on the dash operate dual front temperature zones with the center touch-sensitive area in between commanding direction and fan speed.
Below one finds a recessed region accommodating wireless Smartphone charging along with USB and USB-C plug ports. Niro includes an additional USB port of the passenger backrest accessible via back seat travelers. Front side door armrests, home to power window and mirror functions, reside at a 45-degree angle.
Row two now includes 60/40 split backrests with two-stage latch button allowing manually reclining into a second tier. It’s more a subtle than sizeable difference, but enough to overcome pesky back fatigue during long journeys. Behind resides a cargo area accommodating 22.8 cubic feet, above average for a compact hybrid.
The first-generation Niro HEV sold briskly with a non-descript exterior making it hard to tell this comfortable compact actually qualified as an alternatively powered vehicle. Gen Two arrives as an evolutionary effort, not a revolutionary return with a similar hybrid-electric powertrain design and a well-stocked list of standard passive and active safety features (even when ordering the base model). Its interior upgrades quiet the inside and modernizes surroundings. Niro returns as a great value and an easy-to-drive, fuel friendly HEV.
Price as tested: $36,435
Gas Engine: 1.6-liter four cylinder
Combined Horsepower: 139
Wheelbase: 107.1 inches
Overall Length: 174 inches
Overall Width: 71.8 inches
Overall Height: 60.8 inches
Curb weight: 3,071 pounds
Powertrain/battery warranty: 10-year/100,000 mile
Fuel Economy: 53 mpg city/ 45 highway
Assembly: Hwasung, South Korea