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Kia taps into the zeitgeist with an all-new hybrid compact crossover, but conventional models like the Nissan Qashqai, Renault Kadjar and Honda HR-V will take some beating

It’s hard to imagine a car more conspicuously of its time than the all-new Kia Niro.

For a start, it is that most prized family-sized possession: a compact crossover – supposedly as useful as a double-decker pram and three times as covetable.

A crossover packaged as cleverly as this will appeal to those who’ve always found the Prius impractical

And second, the Kia  has got it’s finger on the ecological pulse when it comes to its motive force. Not only is there a hybrid (as tested here), there’s also a plug-in hybrid and an all-electric, the Kia e-Niro. It’s basically as voguish and right-on as a soy cashmere jacket.

The Niro has been the electrified vanguard for Kia, being its first hybrid model to be available in the UK. Yet since its launch only five years ago it’s been joined by the Kia Soul, Kia Ceed, Kia X-Ceed and Kia Sorento that have variously been made available with hybrid, plug-in and EV power, plus there’s the all-electric Kia Kia EV6 that packs a Porsche Taycan-baiting 577bhp in top GT guise. No surprise when you consider that its parent, the Hyundai Motor Group, has been successfully dabbling in alternative-fuel solutions for well over 20 years.

It is also not a late-to-the-party adaptation of existing architecture. Instead, the Niro is built on an entirely bespoke platform that allowed it to accept the three different forms of electrified propulsion.

None of that, of course, necessarily makes the Niro a decent prospect, especially in a segment now so well stocked with conventional alternatives. Still, a light refresh in 2020 has helped keep the Niro in contention, even if it was limited to some subtle changes inside and out.

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Prices start at £24,335 for the entry-level 2 self-charging hybrid, which is likely to be favoured by buyers and is the model we test here.

Kia Niro design & styling

In size at least, the Niro is intended to sit below the Kia Sportage in the firm's crossover line-up.

Its look, another Peter Schreyer design, is familiar: the front end bears the latest evolution of the brand’s ‘tiger nose’ grille and the rear gently tapers over chunky wheel arches. The appearance is conformist, then, but also rigidly unmemorable, although the facelift in 2020 did add some rather neat LED daytime running lights that sit below the front bumper.

The platform on which it sits has been specially formatted to accommodate electrical components, including not only the motor and battery pack in the self-charging Niro but also the larger battery of the plug-in model and the even larger cells and motor of the Kia e-Niro.

With extra weight an inevitable factor of such features, attention has been paid to the architecture’s mass: the structure is 53% high-strength steel and Kia has employed lighter-still aluminium in the Niro’s bonnet, tailgate panel, front bumper and a number of suspension elements in a chassis made up of front MacPherson struts and a multi-link rear. Meanwhile, the A and B-pillars and wheel arches use hot-stamped steel to enhance rigidity.

The platform’s packaging means that both the 45-litre fuel tank and the 1.56kWh lithium ion polymer battery (which, at 33kg, is said to be one of the lightest, most efficient packs deployed by Kia) fit side by side under the rear seats.

The fuel tank feeds a 104bhp 1.6-litre petrol engine and the battery powers a 43bhp electric motor mounted within the standard six-speed dual-clutch automatic gearbox. Like the Toyota Prius, its electric motor runs in parallel with a petrol engine with only very short bursts of all-electric running, making this a ‘self-charging’ hybrid in the current lexicon. The plug-in version can be charged from the mains and has a more useful 36 mile range thanks to a larger 8.9kWh battery.

The gearbox, based on the seven-speed unit in the Cee’d, is fundamental to accessing the full potential of the two power sources, which work in parallel to drive the front wheels, and is said to be superior to a continuously variable transmission, especially in its responsiveness at higher speeds.

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The combined peak outputs of both the hybrid and PHEV are claimed to be 139bhp and 195lb ft, although buyers not looking to win every traffic light grand prix may be disappointed to learn that those healthy figures are available in first gear alone.

The Niro’s engine, like that of the Prius, uses the more efficient Atkinson combustion cycle and, also like the Toyota, the Niro has a brake energy recovery system to help recharge the batteries. The reduced load on the motor afforded by electrification means Kia can claim combined fuel economy of 58.9mpg, with CO2 emissions of 110g/km, although both these WLTP figures are some way short of the, admittedly far less SUV-infused, Prius.

The PHEV model makes do without exactly the same powertrain, but with the addition of a larger 8.9kWh battery. This allows a claimed zero emissions-in-use range of 36 miles and a slightly pie-in-the-sky official fuel economy of just over 200mpg. Of course, it all depends on how you use it, but frequent high mile trips will reveal there’s little in between the plug-in and self-charging flavours of Niro when it comes to fuel efficiency.

INTERIOR

10 Kia Niro 2021 road test review cabin

Endowed with a reasonably generous wheelbase of 2700mm (eclipsing that of both the Skoda Karoq and Nissan Qashqai), the Niro is decently roomy inside.

Space for five plus luggage was the model’s conventional design criteria, and although that leaves one person feeling inevitably short-changed, the hybrid is accommodating of adults in both the front and back.

It is a shame Kia couldn’t have got the 40/60 split folding seats the right way around for RHD customers

However, its lack of genuine SUV-style height is noticeable. There’s the distinct feeling of plopping into a seat rather than stepping comfortably up into the cabin – and that’s a potentially crucial difference for some buyers looking for a crossover’s trademark elevated view.

The interior is unlikely to set many hearts racing. Its organisation is highly credible and the fit typically decent but, as ever, Kia tends to tick the essential boxes while leaving all the aspirational ones firmly unchecked, even with the improved materials of the 2020 update.

Those shopping around will find their fingertips better indulged by the latest Volkswagen Tiguan, and most likely their eyeballs, too.

Even so, the grade of plastics is generally good, the 2020 update bringing with it higher grade materials and sleeker looks. The temptation to go confusingly off piste with the hybrid readouts is well tamed; charge, eco and power dials in place of a rev counter are legitimate and perfectly legible, even on the 7in TFT instrument cluster that’s standard on the range-topping 4.

Up front, Kia has incorporated a new seat design, reportedly 1.3kg lighter than its current equivalent. It features a higher density of cushioning in slimmer bolsters and affords a reasonable level of comfort. It’s certainly superior to the rear pew, which is left wanting somewhat for padding.

There’s no backrest or slide adjustment in the back, either, although the Niro’s general spaciousness makes this non-essential.

The 382 litre boot is adequately proportioned without the need to move the seats, too, and it comes with the convenience of a luggage undertray (even if this does reduce the height of the load space somewhat). The 60/40 rear seats fold forward, providing 1380 litres of flat-decked capacity – provided you keep the hefty Z-fold floor in its upper deck position.

That’s not prodigiously big, but neither is there any impression on the inside that the Niro’s practicality is being impeded by its hybrid running gear. Although it’s worth bearing in mind that on the PHEV the increased size of the battery pack results in a reduction in boot volume to 324-litres.

Kia Niro Infotainment and sat-nav

Every Niro meets our bog-standard entertainment requirements and then some — a DAB tuner and Bluetooth connection are standard, as are Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, all accessed using an intuitive 8.0in touch screen. 

Also included as standard on every version is a reversing camera, rear parking sensors, dual-zone climate control and part leather trim for the seats. There’s a comprehensive array of safety kit too, with adaptive cruise control and lane keep assist both featuring among the usual additions.

Moving up to the 3 gives you access to powered, heated and leather covered seats, wireless phone charging and the firm’s larger 10.25in infotainment system that features navigation as well as Kia Connected Services, providing traffic updates and speed camera locations for free for seven years

 

Those paying the premium for 4 trim benefit from an eight-speaker JBL Premium sound system, while those in the front getting ventilation for their seats and those in the rear getting to toast their behinds at the touch of a button.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

18 Kia Niro 2021 road test review engine

It was with some surprise and a nod of approval that we reviewed the performance benchmarks recorded by the Niro.

Kia’s 0-62mph acceleration claim for the car is 11.5sec, which would be a decent if unremarkable showing from an economy-minded crossover – if it wasn’t a significant underestimation of the Niro’s true potential.

Go hard around a sharp corner and you can get trailing-throttle oversteer, followed by power-on understeer

In slightly damp conditions, the car’s two-way average 0-60mph time was actually 9.7sec, whereas most of the diesel-powered, low CO2 crossovers we’ve tested of late have struggled to go under 12.0sec.

Unlike in a Toyota hybrid, it’s possible to hold the Niro in a selected gear at full power (provided you don’t activate the kickdown switch at the bottom of the accelerator pedal's travel), and doing so shows that the car is also surprisingly strong on in-gear acceleration.

For example, 30-70mph in fourth gear takes 13.7sec, which is several seconds quicker than direct rivals can manage.

So at full power and with good condition in its high-voltage battery, the Niro earns its corn. But the reason those figures surprised us was that, at anything less than full pedal, the car is smooth but pretty unresponsive and often reluctant to accelerate.

The Niro offers you two drive modes for its hybrid powertrain (Eco and Sport), toggled between without the need for extraneous buttons or menu screens, simply by sliding the gear selector right or left when ‘D’ is selected. (There is also the option to use the lever to select gears manually, as suggested earlier.)

However, neither mode gives you the linear pedal response you’d want as part of a normal, everyday-use setting.

In default Eco mode, the accelerator feels utterly dead throughout almost all of its travel. In Sport, it’s a bit more progressive but still seems to save a disproportionate amount of power for the last half inch of travel.

You might expect the impression of ample torque instantly available as you flex your right foot, but rarely do you get it.

Kia’s decision to use a dual-clutch gearbox with this hybrid powertrain, when other manufacturers use a CVT, has pros and cons. Leave the gearbox in ‘D’ and, because you so often need to ask for full power to prod the car into any meaningfully brisk kind of motion, it typically kicks down anyway and the revs flare, just as they would in a Toyota hybrid.

There’s no ‘elastic band’ acceleration effect here, but then the latest Prius has largely banished that anyway, its integration between motive force and CVT one of the best in the business.

 

Meanwhile, in its unwillingness or hesitation in changing gear, you can tell that Kia’s transmission has plenty of thinking to do before responding to a big stimulus.

Engine isolation is good, particularly compared with that of the diesel models against which the Niro competes directly, but overall there’s just a little bit too much road and wind noise in the cabin for us to declare the car an outstandingly refined car in outright terms.

RIDE & HANDLING

19 Kia Niro 2021 road test review on road front

That the Niro doesn’t score more highly here is perhaps because Kia has tried to achieve a little too much with the car – chasing efficiency, performance, refinement and handling dynamism has inevitably stretched the fabric of the car’s driving experience somewhat thin.

On the 16in wheels and Michelin Energy Saver tyres that are standard on the entry-level 2 and all PHEV models, the car has limited reserves of outright grip, but spring rates some way stiffer than the crossover norm create quite crisp handling response from the suspension.

Full-power, load-intensive climbs seem to stretch the dual-clutch automatic gearbox and it doesn’t always kick down when it needs to

It’s a combination that makes the car feel wieldy and eager up to a point, but not desperately sophisticated or engaging thereafter.

Kia’s electromechanical power steering set-up produces quite heavy, muted steering feel. It’s moderately direct and weights up as cornering forces rise but ultimately does little to entice you into the driving experience or tell you when those front contact patches are running short of grip.

The car’s adhesive limits are pretty modest, too. That firm suspension refuses to let the body roll very much and it’s quite noisy and brittle-feeling over bumps.

Corner hard and you’ll find those grip levels are at least broadly well balanced, the car being prone to sliding at either axle – and doing so quite suddenly once you’ve breached its comfort zone, only for the ESC to intervene quite hard and late in proceedings.

For most testers, it was the Niro’s slightly noisy, fidgety ride that was found to be more bothersome than its shortage of grip and feedback – and we would expect crossover customers to feel similarly. Some very minor changes to the car in 2020 resulted in a slightly quieter ride, but it’s still less cosseting than most.

What’s clear is that there’s little, if anything, that the car gains for its attempted athleticism that’s either coherently delivered in the driving experience or that an added-practicality family hatchback really needs.

The Niro’s relatively firm springing, slightly raised axis of roll and smallish economy-minded tyres are a recipe for surprising liveliness as it approaches and runs beyond its reserves of grip.

The electronic stability control (ESC) is effective ultimately, but it doesn’t act quickly enough to prevent the car from running quite untidily into quick-onset understeer if you use too much power in the heart of a corner. And if you are in a hurry, the non-linear accelerator response and hesitant gearbox make it quite easy to do that.

Likewise, if you’re too ambitious with your entry speed and unload the rear wheels on turn-in, the Niro will oversteer just as suddenly, getting well past neutral before the ESC intervenes.

Stopping distance is also far from commanding. All in all — and perhaps only on those 16in wheels — you’d say the car probably relies on low rolling resistance a little too much for the safety and well-being of its passengers.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

1 Kia Niro 2021 road test review hero front

Being competitively priced against the segment’s low-emissions diesels and increasing numbers of electrified and hybrid rivals, the Niro delivers plenty of good news here but, predictably or otherwise, no revelation on real-world economy.

WLTP testing has been hard on hybrid cars - and the Niro is no exception. The tougher test has seen the car’s official CO2 emissions figure balloon from 88 to 110g/km, attracting a benefit-in-kind rate of 27% for the 2, although for company car users that still represents a saving of nearly £1,000 in tax over a similarly powerful and priced Seat Ateca 1.0 TSI.

It’s been around for a while now, but demand for the Niro remains high, particularly so in the case of the all-electric model

But they should also know that a Nissan Qashqai 1.5 dCi 110 and, a Renault Kadjar with the same engine both returned better – and in identical laboratory test conditions.

It’s possible to drive the Niro to an indicated miles-per-gallon return well into the 60s, but not without a lot of patience and commitment - although for some this mastery of the electrified drivetrain is all part of the appeal; another skill behind the wheel to be mastered.

And if you do like running your hybrid on emissions-free battery power only for extended periods, this one doesn’t seem to have either the motor power or the battery range to really do it. For that you’ll need the PHEV, which can manage a claimed 36 miles from its 8.9kWh lithium-ion battery, although it costs around £5,000 more - a difference in price made all the more painful by the Government’s axing of grant’s for plug-in hybrids.

 

 

VERDICT

21 Kia Niro 2021 road test review static

It took Toyota four model generations to come up with a Toyota Prius – the car with which Kia’s first dedicated hybrid must inevitably be compared – that feels normal to drive.

And by ‘normal’, we mean fully realised: broadly uncompromised on driveability and handling as well as being efficient. The updates in 2020 went some way towards addressing some of the car’s weaknesses, but not its dynamics. The same is true of the PHEV, which remains one of the most affordable of its type, even if this USP has been undermined by the abolishment of Government subsidies for cars of this type.

Kia’s landmark hybrid is ambitious but somewhat poorly resolved

 

Kia must be given the freedom to grow at its own pace, but the Niro certainly feels like a first attempt, even though in many ways it shouldn’t.

It’s cleverly packaged, keenly priced, well equipped, swift enough in outright terms and dynamically passable.

But in real-world use, the Niro lacks easy driveability, accessible efficiency and ride and handling sophistication. And somehow it fails to make the electric part of its powertrain work hard enough to provide a convincing selling point within its driving experience.

Being handsome, practical and appealingly good value, the Niro has made a splash in the growing hybrid market, even if it’s a sufficiently contrived, muddled car to drive to prevent it from vying for class leadership. That said,  the long waiting lists prove that for many buyers its many strengths easily outweigh the odd demerit.

 

Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

Kia Niro (2016-2022) First drives