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.
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.