Billed by its maker as a ‘Hybrid Utility Vehicle’ - which essentially means it combines crossover looks with hybrid technology – the vehicle is part of Kia’s aim to increase its green car line-up from four cars to 11 by the end of this decade.
First revealed at the recent Chicago motor show, it is the first Kia product to make use of a new platform specifically for hybrid and plug-in hybrid vehicles that’s been developed for use by parent firm Hyundai.
The Kia Niro occupies a new space within the brand’s model line-up in terms of its size. The Niro is 4355mm in length, 1800mm wide and 1535mm tall, with a wheelbase of 2700mm, making it smaller overall than the all-new Kia Sportage, though occupying a larger footprint than the Cee’d hatchback.
At the heart of the Niro’s power supply is a new 1.6-litre four-cylinder petrol engine that has been engineered specifically for hybrid applications.
The 102bhp engine maximises efficiency by combining the Atkinson Cycle, cooled exhaust gas recirculation (EGR), direct injection and when Kia calls a “long-stroke-narrow-bore specification”. An exhaust heat recovery system speeds the engine’s warm-up by routing coolant to a heat exchanger in the exhaust system.
A transmission-mounted 32kW (43bhp) electric motor is powered by a 1.56kWh lithium ion polymer battery and works in tandem with the petrol engine to produce a total of 139bhp and 195lb ft of torque.
Kia says the battery pack, which weighs 33kg, is the “lightest and most efficient” used by the manufacturer to date and it features an brake energy regeneration system.
Fuel economy and CO2 emissions have yet to be officially ratified, but Kia engineers are targeting a CO2 output of 89g/km for the Niro.
The power is fed to the front wheels via a six-speed dual-clutch transmission (DCT). The transmission also offers a manual shifting mode.
To minimise noise, vibration and harshness, the Niro is fitted with specially designed engine mounts, equal-length driveshafts, and a damper inside the steering wheel hub to minimise vibrations felt in the steering wheel. Other NVH measures include a special embossed foam under the carpet, and a dense insulating pad underneath the bonnet also dampen noise.
Kia said it paid special attention to achieving a “seamless” feel to the transition between electric and petrol propulsion. It also focused on braking feel from the regenerative braking system, to offer “consistent and linear” braking.
The new petrol-electric platform uses 55% of Advanced High Strength Steel (AHSS), including reinforcement in the A- and B-pillars as well as the roof rails, to reduce weight and increase durability. AHSS was also used to engineer other elements, including the unusual lightweight seat frames.
Engineers brought down the overall weight by using aluminium for the bonnet, tailgate and several suspension elements including the front lower control arms, front and rear knuckles, and in the brake calipers.
Detail tweaks such as a parking brake pedal made from fibre-reinforced plastic contributes to the weight savings. Kia also eliminated the traditional 12-volt battery found in conventional cars to reduce weight, instead, utilising the 1.56kWh lithium-ion polymer battery.
The battery itself is situated underneath the rear seats to maximise cabin and cargo space and allow for a flat floor in the load bay. The Niro offers 421 litres of space with the rear seats in place. The fuel tank for the petrol engine has a 45-litre capacity.
Although the Niro sports a crossover body style, Kia said it was also designed “with aerodynamics in mind” and has a drag coefficient of 0.29.
The Niro will be introduced under Kia’s EcoDynamics sub-brand, the name of which appears on many of its most frugal models.
Like the rest of Kia’s lineup, the Niro will be offered with a suite of technology including blind spot detection; adaptive cruise control; lane departure warning and autonomous emergency braking.
The petrol-hybrid SUV was jointly designed by Kia’s design centres in California, USA and Namyang, Korea. It will rival a disparate group of cars when it hits UK roads in early 2017, including the Toyota Prius.
Key design details include the relatively wide stance, which Kia says conveys “stability and a low centre of gravity” and the long wheelbase, which reduces the front and rear overhangs for a more dynamic look, while also allowing for maximised interior space.
At the front Kia’s signature grille is present, flanked by aggressively shaped headlights. It also gets the flared wheel arches, rocker cladding, roof rails and a rear skid plate that are de rigeur in the crossover segment.
Artur Martins, Kia’s European marketing director, explained why the Korean manufacturer had chosen a crossover design for the Niro: “Good design will be important if this segment is to grow to 700,000 vehicles in Europe by 2020 as we expect. The segment depends on good products; there’s a consensus that people like the idea of the powertrains but don’t feel the design of car fits in with these expectations. The powertrain is very futuristic, but the design is not.
“People still buy cars mainly for the design. This is a good combination of design and powertrain. I think we can be successful, and this is a good opportunity. At the moment the restrictions on hybrids being successful isn’t the powertrain, it’s the design.”
The interior features an elevated seating position similar to that of the Soul, with a minimalist cabin design in line with many modern hybrids. The interior will be a single-tone cabin, available either in black or dark grey, and upholstered in cloth, a mix of cloth and leather or full leather.
Kia says there is 1117mm of legroom for front passengers and 950mm in the rear, with a 1800mm-wide body providing occupants with 1423mm of shoulder room in the front and 1402mm in the rear. The manufacturer is also claiming “class-leading” headroom, with up to 1049mm in the front and 993mm in the rear.
There will be a choice of a 7in or 8in touchscreen infotainment system, with optional navigation. Both systems support Bluetooth smartphone and audio connectivity and DAB digital radio and are connected to a six-speaker audio system. There’s also an option of a 320-watt JBL eight-speaker audio system.
The new Niro will also be the latest model from the company to adopt Kia’s Connected Services. This new connectivity package offers drivers a wide range of up-to-date information, including live traffic updates, speed camera locations and alerts, local point-of-interest search and weather forecasts. Available in cars equipped with the optional navigation system, Kia’s Connected Services will be available free of charge for European buyers for seven years after the car’s purchase.
The Niro is also available with a new wireless charging pad for compatible mobile devices.
For Europe, the Niro will be available with a choice of seven colours, and buyers can choose from a selection of 16- or 18-inch alloy wheel designs.
The new Niro will join the latest Toyota Prius is being able to offer towing ability. A few months after it goes on sale in the UK, the Kia will be available with optional towing functionality allowing owners to tow braked loads of up to 1300kg.
At first, the Niro – which will be built at Kia’s Kwasung plant in Korea – will only be available with front-wheel-drive, but Autocar understands there is scope for a four-wheel-drive variant to be added to the line-up later on. There are also plans for a plug-in hybrid and all-electric variants later in its life cycle.
The new Niro hybrid is due to come to the UK in late summer. Pricing is to be determined closer to the time, but Kia sources indicate that it's likely to be priced competitively against the Prius, and it's possible that the Kia will even undercut the Toyota.
Although the Niro takes its name from a concept car shown at the Frankfurt motor show in 2013, it is not related to that vehicle, which was a small SUV. That car is set to make production under a different name by 2018, as a rival to the Nissan Juke.