Kia Niro chases growing hybrid market

Stop anyone in the street and ask them to name a hybrid car and the chances are they will name the Toyota Prius. After all it has been around, in its various generations, for 20 years. But there are other hybrids on the market, with the Honda Insight coming along just two years after the Prius.

Kia Niro

The latest to join the growing UK hybrid market is Kia with the launch of the new Kia Niro. The Niro was unveiled at the Chicago Motor Show last year and this is Kia’s first dedicated hybrid model. Under the skin it shares some of the technology with the Hyundai Ioniq hybrid hatchback.

Hybrid sales in the UK and Europe have doubled in the past five years so this is a good time for Kia to launch their new contender. It might seem a little strange to enter the a market dominated by hatchbacks with a car that has something of an SUV crossover style. But, this is quite deliberate.

While Toyota and Honda have gone for streamlined futuristic looks for their pioneering hybrids, Kia say they did not want the Niro to look like a hybrid.

The design for the Kia Niro has evolved from a 2013 concept car developed by Kia’s design studio in Frankfurt, headed by Peter Schreyer. That car had ‘butterfly doors” which opened up into the roof. But, novelties like this are common to catch attention for concept cars and are usually sacrificed for practicality when it comes to the production version.

Hence the Niro’s ‘crossover’ look – a look that is so popular in the family market at the moment. If you think back, it was similar thinking that saved the day for Nissan, when they shelved their family hatchback and introduced the Nissan Qashqai. Now crossovers are the hot ticket in the family car market.

Kia Niro interior

Kia describes the Niro as a “sub-compact hybrid utility vehicle”. As such it slots into the Kia range below the Sportage.

The Kia Niro has a 1.6-litre petrol engine that puts out 104 bhp and an electric motor that delivers 43 bhp. As with other hybrids, the Niro can run on the petrol engine, or the electric motor. Or when maximum power is demanded the two motors run in combination. The battery packs are replenished by reclaiming energy when braking, or using the petrol engine as a generator. Kia say a plug-in version of the Niro will follow soon, meaning that you will be able to charge up the battery to run on electric more of the time.

On the economy front Kia claim fuel economy up to 74.3 mpg and to underline the Niro’s economy credentials they set it off with a headline-grabbing economy drive across America, from Los Angeles to New York. On that 2,787-mile route, the Kia Niro recorded an average of 76.6 mpg.

During my time with the Niro, I never achieved quite such outlandish economy but I did find 50 mpg easy to achieve and the economy only dropped to 44 mpg on a city commute.

On the environmental front, the Niro records a very low 88 g/km for carbon dioxide emissions, which could result in a significant savings, particularly for company car users.

Open the door of the Niro and you would think you are about to drive a Japanese car. One of the attention-seeking chimes starts up immediately, stopping only when you insert the key. This sound is complemented by an equally-unnecessary little tune as you switch off at the end of your drive! No, I have no idea why.

On the other hand, it’s a nicely understated interior that avoids the temptation to go mad on gimmicks and gizmos that shout about its hi-tech power sources. Yes, you can find a display that shows where the power is coming from and where the generation is going to, if you want to understand how it all works.

In today’s world of connected devices, it is good to see no less than three 12-volt outputs and a USB connection in the front.

So this is a practical and nicely understated interior. You can tell the Niro is produced to price and plastics are noticeable in expected and unexpected places – like the roof rails for example.

The Niro has a notably long wheelbase and that translates into good room for passengers. I left the driver’s seat in my preferred long-legged driving position, and nipping round to the rear door I found I could slot myself behind with my knees lightly brushing the seat back.

Because it is not as tall as some crossovers, you don’t so much climb up into the Niro as slide in to the seats. So I’m pleased to report that there is ample space and headroom for four good-sized adults, maybe five at a pinch.

You have a choice of two driving modes for the Niro – ‘Eco’ and ’Sport’, which you select by sliding the gear selector to the left or the right.

In ‘Eco’ the throttle pedal feels unresponsive, becoming a little bit more alive in ‘Sport’. The brake pedal is not as progressive as I would wish. So, initially, I found it all too easy to get passengers’ heads nodding as the brakes tended to snatch a little harder than intended. Familiarity did lead to a better understanding and smoother progress, but this could do with some fine tuning.

I found the steering accurate, but a little lacking in feedback. So while this is not the car that an enthusiast might leap for the keys to take on a B-road drive across country, you can make reasonable progress, helped by relatively taut suspension.

1226791_Kia Niro 044

Unlike the Toyota Prius, enthusiasts at least have the chance to change down a gear to stabilise the car when entering corners. But you have to use the selector on the console as there are no paddles on the steering wheel. The six-speed dual-clutch gearbox is not quite as slick as some and, on a couple of occasions, running in ’Sport’ it seemed to stutter while deciding which gear to select.

Officially the Niro’s 0-62 mph time is 11.5 seconds, but it feels somewhat livelier than that figure might suggest.

If this is not a car to set enthusiastic driver’s pulses racing, it is one that the family motorist would find practical. As I already mentioned there is good space for a family of two adults and three children plus all their luggage, with a good low load sill on the rear hatch. The Niro is also quite relaxed transport. Engine noise is well controlled and general cabin noise levels is reasonable.

With a starting price for the basic Kia Niro 1 of £21,295 it seems destined to be a strong seller for those who want good mileage and low emissions without the stigma that is now affecting oil burners.

Kia Niro 2
Price £23,135
Carbon dioxide emissions: 88 g/km
Combined fuel economy 74.3 mpg
Top speed: 101 mph
0-62: 11.5 secs
Power 104/43 bhp petrol/electric
Engine size 1580cc petrol
Boot capacity 427/1425 (back seats up/folded)
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