Overall score: 3.5/5
+ Very comfortable
+ Practical for families
+ Popular crossover body-style
+ Generous equipment
+ Competitive price
– Diesel still probably best for people who use motorways
– Not particularly engaging to drive
– The brakes lack feel
– Using a foot-operated parking brake is weird
Pronounced as ‘Nero’, the name of a Roman emperor – or, yes, a chain of coffee shops – the ‘Niro’ moniker assigned to Kia’s newest model is derived from combining ‘near-zero’ qualities and ‘hero’ status in the eco-car world. Just over a fortnight into the New Year, many of us will have already given up on some or all of our resolutions, but if yours happened to involve switching to a more environmentally friendly car, you could be in luck, as Niro is a low-emissions hybrid. Indeed, unlike the Honda Insight and Toyota Prius, Kia’s hybrid doesn’t look like its styling has been influenced by an unhealthy interest in insects or fish, the designers having clearly cottoned on to the fact that most car buyers and leasers these days want chunky SUV crossover thingies.
Indistinct but likeable, and far from fugly
Aesthetically, it’s hard to fault Niro from any angle, Kia’s latest family grille iteration looking wholly cohesive, the blocky taillights giving it an edgy, urban vibe, the shiny bumper flicks framing the front and rear fog lights bestowing additional flair and its face firmly resembling the latest Sportage. Heck, a friend who owns a previous generation Sportage even mistook Niro for the new model, which is quite a compliment. Niro’s indistinct but likeable exterior is finished off nicely with privacy glass, and even the base 16” alloys are far from fugly.
Comfortable and hard-wearing, with one oddity
Typically for a compact crossover SUV, Niro is effortlessly easy to slide across into, posing no issues for unusually tall people or those with bad backs, for example, and the seats are superbly comfortable, making long journeys or indeed tailbacks pleasurable for one’s gluteus maximus. Shoulder, leg and headroom in the rear are also impressive, setting Niro up as a credible hybrid for families or drivers who regularly travel with three or even four passengers. Kia’s interiors in recent years have positioned themselves as hard-wearing and ergonomically effective if a little bland and undeniably plasticky in places, and Niro’s follows this ethos, which is fine in the main but may put off customers looking for something a little more premium. Kia’s opting for an American-style, foot-operated parking brake is quite odd, which I believe has got something to do with saving weight, and takes a bit of getting used to, especially with the pedal being positioned and sized far too closely to what would be the clutch in a manual car.
No kitchen sink, but it’s got everything else
LED daytime taillights, a 3.5” instrument cluster and plenty of charging ports come as standard, while grade ‘2’ as tested provides high-gloss black inserts, leather trim for the steering wheel and gear selector, splashes of chrome around the cabin, heated and folding wing mirrors with LED indicators, a handy under-floor storage tray, part-leather seats, roof rails and a 7-inch touchscreen mapping and infotainment system encompassing a large reversing camera, DAB radio, Bluetooth (which paired instantly with my Samsung Galaxy S3) and all the other mod cons people expect nowadays. Kia Connected Services are also provided in parallel with the 7-year warranty, the tie-in with TomTom coming with handy traffic, weather, ‘points of interest’ and speed camera info amongst other stuff.
Is it practical and roomy enough for families?
Kia has designed its debut hybrid very much with practical usability in mind, evident in the positioning of the 1.56kWh lithium-ion polymer battery under the rear seats, rather than encroaching on boot space, which results in a decent 427-to-1,425-litre capacity range including a useful hidden storage tray underneath. The height of the boot floor makes it a doddle for loading in shopping, suitcases and the like. In comparison, Prius offers 343 litres upwards so is clearly less practical, as is Renault’s Captur with 377 litres, while Honda’s new HR-V beats the Kia with 470 litres. Taller drivers should just be careful not to clout their bonces on Niro’s tailgate, which seems to be angled relatively low when raised. Just like the exterior, the inside of Niro isn’t spectacularly unique or exceedingly attractive, but its copybook isn’t really blotted in any way and plenty of realistically-minded families, younger and more senior drivers plus Motability customers will love it.
A creep, but in a good way
Niro’s primary boast is its hybrid technology and anyone new to the whole concept will be pleasantly impressed that turning the ignition key results in the dash lighting up but no engine sound ensuing, the 32kW/43.5bhp electric motor able to propel the car in near silence for up to around 2-3 miles. The nation’s night-workers can indeed sneak off in the wee small hours without disturbing neighbours in the Land of Nod. The hybrid system, shared with its Hyundai IONIQ sister, combines a special version of Kia’s 1.6-litre ‘Kappa’ GDI petrol engine with the motor and battery in a parallel setup that works its magic behind the scenes, using geeky techniques such as the Atkinson cycle and EGR to deliver optimised fuel efficiency and low CO2 emissions. Most of the time, the petrol and electric power units work in partnership and some of the energy produced when braking is used to recharge the battery. Niro’s ability to run just on battery juice at certain times gives it an advantage over some other hybrids and it’s a remarkably relaxing car in urban environments. Creeping along in slow-moving traffic while imagining that you’re in a milk float or sitting on a London Underground train is quite amusing.
(Very) gently does it.
Smiles unfortunately turn to grimaces on fast A-roads, dual carriageways and motorways, though, at least if Niro’s automatic gear selector is left in default Eco mode, acceleration proving quite painful to experience at times, the 11.1 seconds to hit 60mph sometimes feeling longer. Nudging the gear selector across into Sport mode that allows manual gear changes does give the car more urgency but this is inevitably marred by reduced fuel efficiency and the tone of the petrol engine under load isn’t particularly mellifluous. To make Niro a worthwhile choice for a private motorist or business driver, the full arsenal of eco-driving techniques would need to be utilised, requiring dedication, commitment, restraint, patience, skill and more generous journey times. Drivers already well-versed in smooth acceleration, coasting, anticipation and other facets of advanced driving will lick their lips at the prospect of eking out every extra decimal ‘mpg’ possible from Niro, but it could leave other drivers feeling pretty cheesed off, frustrated that the claimed 74.3mpg combined average seems nigh on impossible to achieve.
Gamification is a big thing these days and Niro unsurprisingly includes its own eco graphic, in this case a tree that increasingly lights up the more the car is driven economically. Additionally, the trip computer can be toggled to show a continuously updating breakdown of aggressive, normal and economical driving, depending on how it thinks you’re doing. While it can feel rewarding achieving high scores, such gamified features can also prove distracting and could even be downright dangerous if they become obsessive to the point of regularly diverting a driver’s attention away from the road in front. Niro’s classification of ‘aggressive’ driving may leave some folk feeling bemused, as the score can randomly jump from 2% to 5%, for example, despite having accelerated in purposefully feather-light fashion.
Healing the planet requires a new mindset
Saving any further suspense and baited breath, it’ll be too much of an effort for most average drivers to achieve anywhere near the ‘on paper’ fuel consumption figure of 73.4mpg, with even the most careful of custodians unlikely to average more than mid-60s mpg at a push. Mid-to-high 50s is more realistic overall, unless your commute is almost entirely comprised 50mph zones such as where smart motorway upgrades are in progress, as this kind of speed is the sweet-spot. Motorists who can’t bear anything but whisking their cars down the slip road and out into the fast lane as soon as possible will set themselves up to average low-40s, showing that unless there’s a willingness to significantly adapt one’s driving style, a diesel may still be the best bet for such drivers.
Niro’s wider driving experience away from simply its eco merits is actually pretty positive, though, the ride on 16” alloys soaking up potholes and speed bumps surprisingly well, and although the steering lacks feel and engagement, the suspension setup with MacPherson struts at the front allows Kia’s hybrid compact crossover to be chucked around roundabouts with smile-inducing speed, body roll kept in check remarkably. Poor surfaces do transmit noise into the cabin, though, and tyre noise at motorway speeds is also an issue on occasion.
Another unconventional move
The incorporation of a double-clutch automatic gearbox like those found in many VW, Audi and Skoda models rather than the CVT type traditionally relied on by Toyota and other Japanese manufacturers is a refreshing move from Kia and although gear changes can sometimes be felt, it behaves smoothly the majority of the time. Applying the brakes in Niro takes a bit of getting used to, though, as they don’t inspire confidence unless given a damn good prod.
Chewing the fat
A plugin hybrid (PHEV) version of Niro is on the way so it may be worth hanging on until then, and the blingy 18” wheels are definitely to be avoided to stand any chance of achieving reasonably decent fuel economy and keeping your spine in good nick. Its sister, Hyundai’s IONIQ, despite looking much more stereotypical like a Prius, is an intriguing and currently more versatile alternative through its availability in electric, plugin-hybrid and conventional hybrid (a la Niro) forms. It’s also worth bearing in mind that new lease or retail cars registered on or after April 1st 2017 will be subjected to increased road tax in the first year, followed by a standard rate of £140 for the second year onwards unless they emit no CO2 at all, so it’s certainly a sensible move to get your calculator out before deciding that any hybrid is definitely for you.
‘Near zero’ is clearly not true when totting up Niro’s foibles and it’s not exactly a hero, but as an all-new hybrid that refreshingly comes in the chunky crossover style that is oh-so-popular, it could actually end up racking up more than the 2,500 UK registrations Kia is expecting. That wouldn’t be a bad thing, as Niro is comfortable, cossetting, well-equipped and very likeable on the whole, particularly for its relatively impressive £22,795 price tag in ‘2’ trim, which makes it around £2,000 cheaper than the less practical but slightly more economical Prius. Yup, choosing a hybrid is quite a conundrum, so unless you’re won over by the Kia’s more socially normal looks, you’d better give Rachel Riley a tap on the shoulder.