From £25,7158

Second generation of compact crossover gains some much-needed style and attitude

This is the second generation of the Kia Niro, a car that’s nowhere near as revolutionary as the Kia EV6 but arguably more important for the brand, being its second-best seller after the Kia Sportage.

With the first-generation Niro, Kia beat most of its rivals to the wildly popular segment of compact crossovers; and did so with reasonably priced hybrid options and an EV with a long range.

In Eco mode, there is no tachometer and the steering wheel paddles adjust the level of regeneration. In Sport mode, a rev counter pops up and the paddles change gear. Cleverly done.

And that highlights something quite unusual about the Niro: it’s available both as a hybrid, a plug-in hybrid and an EV. Accommodating both combustion engines and big battery packs on the same platform can lead to an unhappy compromise, but the original Niro managed to be both a convincing hybrid and an impressive EV when it came out.

Today, though, Kia has more competition to worried about. The Toyota C-HR, Honda HR-V and Renault Arkana all want a slice of the hybrid crossover pie. The electric Niro can sleep slightly easier for the time being, but there are hordes of new rivals on the horizon.

What's new?

The new Niro aims to build on the current one’s success. It sits on an all-new platform – the second-generation K3 platform also found beneath the Hyundai i30 – but follows much the same recipe as before.

The hybrids get a mildly tweaked 1.6-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine and a six-speed dual-clutch automatic gearbox.

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Electric assistance comes from a 1.32kWh battery and a 43bhp electric motor in the case of the regular hybrid or an 11.1kWh battery and an 83bhp electric motor in the plug-in hybrid.

The fully electric Niro, which now takes the name Niro EV instead of Kia e-Niro, uses a 64.8kWh battery – the same as before – for a roughly 290-mile range.

We will come back to that in future reviews, as the electric version has so far made up half of all Niro sales. Today, we’re driving a late prototype of the full hybrid, which typically has taken 40%. Plug-in hybrids only account for a handful of Niros in the UK.

While the Niro’s technical make-up remains much the same, the big changes are in the design. The old Niro was more butch MPV than crossover, but the new one has a more confident SUV stance and follows the EV6 and Sportage in adopting an aggressive, alien-like face. The Kia tiger-nose grille remains in a way but forfeits its original purpose as an air intake, becoming more of a decorative monobrow.

What's the new Kia Niro like inside?

The whole car has grown, too, becoming 65mm longer and 20mm wider. Whether that’s a good thing on crowded roads is one thing, but it certainly benefit’s the car’s stance and interior space.

The back seat is now a realistic proposition for adults, and unlike in the Honda HR-V, that’s not to the detriment of boot space.

At 451 litres, it's a good deal bigger than what you get in the HR-V or the C-HR but slightly smaller than in the Arkana. The hybrid battery naturally robs space compared with pure-petrol rivals.

Despite the growth spurt, Kia has managed to avoid making the Niro any heavier. Thanks to the more flexible platform, the EV has even lost 70kg.

The big leap on from the outgoing Niro is in the interior ambience. It emphasises the EV6 family connection with fused twin screens, wildly swooping lines and that curious two-spoke steering wheel.

What’s remarkable is that the aesthetic actually works better on the Niro. Where the EV6 and Sportage have a bit too much shiny black plastic and scratchy surfaces for their price point, those cheaper materials sit more comfortable in the more affordable Niro. In fact, the designers have seized the opportunity to introduce some creative touches.

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Instead of the usual elephant-skin texturing, they’ve gone for a stone-like surface on the plastic door and dash panels, and there are flashes of colour to keep it all light. The trim panels are plastic but look like tarnished brass. And recycled materials are used in the seats and headlining.

Amid all the style, function hasn’t been forgotten, with plenty of easy buttons and switches. Kia’s switchable dual-purpose touchbar for the ventilation and the infotainment shortcuts is a little fiddly, but we’ve seen much worse.

The seats are comfy and supportive, and the lofty driving position will be appreciated by SUV buyers, but taller drivers will wish for some more reach adjustment in the steering. The Niro has Kia’s standard infotainment system, which requires a cable for smartphone mirroring but is otherwise easy to use.

What is the new Kia Niro like to drive?

To drive, the Niro is… fine. It’s not great, it’s not offensive. The old one was lacklustre at best, and on the evidence of its commercial success, the new one probably needn’t do much more than that. However, given the dynamic sparkle evident in the EV6, we had hoped a little more progress.

As the powertrain is largely carried over, it logically feels similar. Its peak figure of 139bhp sounds healthy, but up hills and when merging on the motorway, the four-pot has to work quite hard and communicates as much.

As before, you get two driving modes: Eco and Sport. The old Niro suffered from overly languid throttle calibration in Eco mode, but that has been addressed now.

Apart from having no reverse gear (that is taken care of by the electric motor), the dual-clutch gearbox is utterly conventional. In this case, there’s nothing wrong with that. Having six gears to cycle through means the drone from the engine isn’t quite as omnipresent as in the HR-V or the 1.8-litre C-HR, and the powertrain is a bit more alert than Renault's E-Tech solution.

It mostly goes about its business smoothly, save for the very occasional and very slight snag when the engine has to suddenly chip in.

It’s a similar story with the chassis. The ingredients are promising: a wider track than before, a multi-link rear axle and Continental Premium Contact tyres.

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In practice, the Niro deals with bad roads slightly clumsily and the very worst potholes send a shimmy through the car’s structure. It's not brilliant but not truly grating either.

In corners, it’s competent rather than inspiring. It hangs on well enough and the steering isn’t entirely mute, but the degree of body roll and the surprising amount of tyre squeal will quickly remind you of the futility of hustling a small SUV up a mountain road.

Acoustic refinement in general isn’t the Niro’s strong point. Slightly more road roar, suspension noise and wind whistle filter through into the cabin than in rivals, but, like the ride, it’s nothing you wouldn’t quickly get used to.

Should I buy one?

Pricing and equipment for the new Niro is broadly in line with its rivals. On the hybrid, there are three trim levels, simply named 2, 3 and 4; 2 costs £27,745, rising to £30,495 and £33,245 for 3 and 4 respectively.

We can’t say anything conclusive about real-world fuel economy as our test route wasn’t representative in this area, but we can't imagine it will stray too far from the 50mpg we averaged when we road-tested the old Niro.

It’s a mite disappointing that Kia hasn’t made more improvements to the Niro’s chassis and refinement, but then that’s unlikely to be a top priority for intended buyers. Crucially, though, they’re not far off the pace.

A little extra power wouldn’t have hurt either, but it does appreciably better in that respect than the drony, underpowered alternatives from Honda, Toyota and Renault. Where the Niro scores is with a thoughtfully designed interior that offers excellent space, looks that stand out from the crowd, strong standard equipment, good infotainment and Kia’s market-leading seven-year warranty.

The new Niro isn’t a landmark car for Kia like the first one was, but it does improve on the old one in the ways that matter and secures Kia’s place in a segment that’s only going to get more important.