Darren craved more driver appeal from it
It's easy to load heavy stuff but mind the payload
On paper, the Kia Niro is a tempting proposition.
Here’s a crossover with space for the family and their luggage, but with the attractive running costs of a hybrid and low tax bills to match. It even squares up well on looks and Kia’s seven-year warranty further sweetens the deal.
But on-paper appeal is different from real life, and over eight months and more than 6800 miles, we’ve found Kia’s first dedicated hybrid to be something of a mixed bag. And, as Frank Sinatra once sang, I’ve learned some things that only time can teach.
Where the Kia really found its footing was during my weekday commute, seven gnarly miles along a mix of tight urban streets and dual carriageways, with the top speed of 50mph on a clear run. Here, the Niro could use its electric power in stop-start traffic, minimising the fuel consumption. Or that’s the theory: in the real world, disappointingly, my average hovered around 45-46mpg.
Even when we drove as carefully as we could, we were unable to get close to Kia’s claimed fuel economy figure of 64.2mpg (combined). In fact, the best we saw was 51.9mpg.
We travelled far and wide in the Niro, too, from my home county of Northamptonshire to the Lake District and into mainland Europe. That gave us plenty of time to assess how it performed on motorways. There was sufficient performance from the 1.6-litre petrol engine to get you up to speed, but the car was far from quiet in terms of wind and road noise. When I used the cruise control, the Niro oscillated either side of the pre-set speed rather than holding a constant velocity.
There were things we liked, though. Executive editor Matt Burt was impressed by how the Niro handled country lanes, where at slower speeds the hybrid system could merrily flit between its petrol and electric power sources.
It’s also worth noting that the Niro’s interior, despite not offering the same quality you’d find in rivals such as the Volkswagen Tiguan, was comfortable. The seats were supportive, and when I filled the rear bench with friends, there weren’t any complaints about leg or head room. I was grateful for our car’s heated seats and heated steering wheel during the cold winter months, too.
The Niro was 90% of the way towards being a good car to live with, but it was the final 10% of the experience, which manifested itself in small niggles and issues, that would put me off buying this model. A bit more engagement in the everyday driving experience, a more linear throttle response, better quality inside and an increase in fuel economy, and this model could be more appealing.
I say ‘this model’, because I wouldn’t rule out the Niro entirely. Plug-in hybrid and pure-electric versions are on the way. As a plug-in hybrid, I reckon the Niro would be a far more accomplished car. It would be a crossover that could cover my short commute on electric power alone and still offer a good driving range for weekend trips. If you’ll allow me to return to Ol’ Blue Eyes, the best is (probably) yet to come. DM
LIKE IT: SPACE - Swallowed airport luggage and extra passengers with ease. GEARBOX - Six-speed auto is much better than the CVTs we’re used to in hybrids.
LOATHE IT: INTERIOR QUALITY - Cabin is comfortable but there are too many hard plastics on display. DRIVING EXPERIENCE - From dead steering to a non-linear throttle, there’s little engagement. FUEL ECONOMY - Despite our best efforts, the Niro isn’t as fuel efficient as it should be.
When faced with a week’s holiday with my parents in the rural Lake District, ideally I would have sought out a rugged diesel SUV rather than the Niro, which is described by its maker as an ‘urban crossover hybrid’.
In fact, the Niro was a qualified success on our trip. As I found with the Toyota Auris Hybrid I once ran, long motorway journeys at a constant cruising speed don’t really offer a chance for the electric motor to deploy so you end up lugging around heavy batteries that are largely redundant.
In the Lakes, though, the Niro was more proficient. I soon realised that, in some ways, Lakeland roads aren’t too dissimilar from urban areas: your average speed is fairly slow because space is tight and there’s plenty of braking, stopping and pulling away. Those factors play to the strengths of the Niro’s hybrid powertrain.
Then there are the steep hills,which offer opportunities for the regenerative braking system to recharge the battery on the declines but also highlight an absence of useful torque, at least when the Niro is in the default Eco driving mode. Given how we’re often told that a benefit of an electric motor is instant torque from zero revs, it’s disappointing there isn’t more low-end punch when it is needed most.
My brim-to-brim fuel calculations for our 424-mile week suggested the Niro returned 48.8mpg; not too bad, but not significantly more than a careful driver could expect to achieve from a standard diesel-engined car.
KIA NIRO 1.6 GDI HEV 3 DCT
Price £24,695 Price as tested £25,240 Economy 45.6mpg Faults Battery drained Expenses None Mileage 4968
Okay, so a small hybrid crossover probably wasn’t the ideal car to scrounge for my week off.
Let me explain: I’d set myself the rather ambitious task of building a brick wall in my garden for a new greenhouse to sit on. The job involved carting many, many bags of sand and cement from a DIY store back to my gaff. Custodian Darren Moss kindly offered the Niro’s services and, well, it was that, a Morgan 3 Wheeler or a Renault Twizy. Easy decision.
Anyway, each bag weighed 25kg, so after some quick back-of-a-fag-packet calculations, I worked out that I could legally carry 13 bags at once. To put that in some sort of context, our Audi SQ7 long-term test car could have managed 31 bags, and even our 1.0-litre Volkswagen Golf would have taken 17. That was the difference between one, two or three round trips for me, so clearly the Niro isn’t the ideal choice if you’re planning lots of home improvements. In fact, even carrying four well-fed passengers could easily tip the Niro over its maximum gross weight limit.
But the Niro’s boot is suitably practical in other ways. Lifting heavy things in and out is easy because there’s no big lip at the entrance, and the boot floor is (for me, at least) roughly at waist height. Fold down the rear seatbacks and they lie parallel with the floor without leaving any irritating steps or crevices, so you can simply slide things without having to manoeuvre over obstacles.
In other respects, the Niro is a better car than I’d been led to expect, too. Kia finally seems to be making some progress improving the weighting and positivity of the controls. The steering is a long way from perfect, but it’s a noticeable step forward compared with the gloopy and imprecise racks on, say, the Cee’d or Sportage. And despite all the weight I was dragging around, the Niro still averaged a very creditable 47mpg over the course of my week off. WN
KIA NIRO 1.6 GDI HEV 3 DCT
Price £24,695 Price as tested £25,240 Economy 45.6mpg Faults Battery drained Expenses None Mileage 3012
The Niro has been put through our True MPG test, which is much more accurate than the trip computer’s readout. The result suggests that 50.1mpg is achievable. That’s some way adrift of the 64.2mpg Kia claims for the hybrid. Mind you, the rival Toyota Prius fares worse, recording a 50.5mpg True MPG figure compared with a claimed 85.6mpg. DM
KIA NIRO 1.6 GDI HEV 3 DCT
Price £24,695 Price as tested £25,240 Economy 45.6mpg Faults Battery drained Expenses None Mileage 2705
I devised a basic test to see what the car is capable of in the real world. I planned to drive 100 miles from my home in Sunbury-on-Thames to visit my parents in Northamptonshire, a journey that includes motorways, dual carriageways and urban roads.
On the outward leg I’d use some ‘hypermiling’ driving techniques in a bid to tease out the fuel economy, but for the return leg, I’d drive the Niro in a more carefree fashion.
Autocar’s resident eco-driving obsessive offered advice, namely to anticipate the road ahead, avoid sudden acceleration or deceleration and stick to electric power at lower speeds. I also travelled at night when there was less traffic.
I measured the fuel economy on the trip computer. It isn’t always the last word in accuracy, but it gave me a comparison. The result was a disappointing 48.5mpg for the outward leg and 45.0mpg for the return trip. A fluke, perhaps? To find out, we’re putting a Niro through our more thorough True MPG test. Stand by for the results.
Photoshoots are part and parcel of being on our fleet. Our cars are shot in detail when they first arrive and again before they leave, and it’s a chance for us to catalogue everything about our new car.
For the Kia Niro, we decided to do part of the shoot outside, around our offices near Twickenham. But for the ‘detail’ pictures we moved to the security and warmth of our studio, where the car sat with its lights on and the ignition off for perhaps half an hour. And in the process we managed to completely flatten the 12V battery and leave the car stranded.
I received a call from snapper Will Williams, initially to say that, having finished with the car, it was showing a brake error message and wouldn’t start – and therefore couldn’t be moved. After giving the Niro some time to ‘reset’ itself, Will called back to say he’d managed to roll it out of the studio, but the interior lights and other electrics were playing up; even the door locks wouldn’t work. Before long, the car was completely dead, and no one was quite sure whether trying to jump start a hybrid was a good idea.
A call to Kia resulted in our Niro being towed away by the RAC to be diagnosed professionally. The explanation we received from Kia later that day confirmed a drained 12V battery, which was duly recharged. Kia’s diagnostics system revealed no further issues.
Now that we’ve got the car back, I’m slowly learning to adapt to running a hybrid car: how to use the regenerative brakes to pump friction energy back into the battery, and learning where the acceleration cut-off between fully electric and electric/petrol engine power lies.
We’re still working on our fuel economy, though, because the 45.6mpg we’re seeing at the moment isn’t particularly impressive. We’ll see if a couple of motorway runs to see family and friends in the next few weeks can improve that number, and I’ll be taking a leaf out of resident frugal driving expert Tim Dickson’s big book of hyper-miling tips to find out what’s achievable.
KIA NIRO 1.6 GDI HEV 3 DCT
Price £24,695 Price as tested £25,240 Economy 45.6mpg Faults Battery drained Expenses None