Kia Niro - First Drive

How do you categorise a car like the new Kia Niro? Chris Pickering takes it for a drive and gives it his best shot.

Outwardly the Niro is just another crossover, but under the bonnet it packs a state of the art hybrid drivetrain. Aesthetically too, it’s a bit different. While all crossovers are essentially just high riding hatchbacks this one abandons all pretence of rough and ready off-road ability, in favour of something more restrained.

It uses a 1.6-litre 104 bhp petrol engine, running on the high-efficiency Atkinson cycle, coupled to a 44 bhp electric motor. Both units drive the front wheels via a 6-speed dual clutch transmission, resulting in a claimed 74.3 mpg and 88 g/km for the lower spec (‘1’ and ‘2’) models. Higher spec (‘3’ and First Edition) models suffer somewhat on account of their larger 18-inch wheels, but they’re still good for 64.2 mpg and 101 g/km.

Those are impressive figures for a crossover, but they’re not game-changing. On paper, the diesel engined Nissan Qashqai can match the Niro’s fuel economy down to the last decimal point, while it’s only one band further up in terms of both BIK and road tax. So while the Niro may be the greenest car in its class it will still need to compete on merit.

As it turns out that’s something it does rather well. Although you can’t manually switch between the two drive modes, the Niro makes good use of its electric-only capability around town. This means you can glide from traffic light to traffic light in virtual silence. When the petrol engine does kick in, it’s almost impossible to detect and the DCT works in a similarly seamless manner.

Accelerate hard and the engine noise does become more audible and the gearshifts lose some of their silkiness. There’s also a touch of wind and road noise at higher speeds - perhaps made more noticeable by the hushed powertrain - but it remains a pretty refined experience overall.

There are a few quirks. You can feel the level of engine braking changing as the petrol engine shuts down and the Niro’s electronic brain shuffles between the various drive modes. The brake pedal also feels a bit wooden to start with, although both soon blend into the background. Acceleration, on the other hand, is impressively linear. And while the Niro is by no means a fast car it feels stronger than the leisurely 11.1 second 0-60 mph time might suggest.

Extensive use of high strength steel and aluminium has helped to mask the weight of the Niro’s battery pack, which sits under the rear seats. It feels quite nimble as a result, with alert steering that weights up nicely on the move. Our only gripe is that the ride can be a little crashy around town, particularly on the larger 18-inch wheels.

Inside it’s all fairly standard Kia fayre. Some of the dashboard materials are better than others, but they’re generally pretty good for the price. Interestingly, the mid-range ‘2’ spec model - expected to be the bulk seller - actually had a nicer looking interior to our eyes than the top spec First Edition. 

The driving position is lower than a lot of crossovers, but it still gives you a more commanding view than a conventional hatchback. More importantly, there’s bags of space. Rear seat head and leg room is among the best in class, while the boot is also a respectable size.

It packs plenty of kit too. Even the £21,295 base model comes with DAB radio, Hill Start Assist, Lane Keep Assist System, cruise control and Bluetooth with Android Auto. The sweet spot in the range appears to be the ‘2’, which includes a 7-inch touchscreen navigation system with European mapping and a 7-year subscription to Kia Connected Services, including real-time traffic and weather updates from TomTom. There’s also a reversing camera and a part-leather interior. It’s great value at £22,795 and it’s worth bearing in mind that all models include the DCT gearbox and Kia’s 7-year 100,000 mile warranty.

From there, the ‘3’ adds full-leather upholstery, a larger 8-inch touchscreen display and an upgraded hifi for £24,695. Finally, the First Edition provides two-tone leather, keyless start, heated and ventilated seats, a large sunroof and a raft of additional electronic safety features for £26,995. 

But what of the Niro’s trump card? Well, we saw 50.3 mpg during mixed driving in the Launch Edition. That’s around the same as the best diesels and it suggests high fifties would be likely with the smaller wheels and a lighter foot. So it’s not a revolution, but it is competitive. With the impressively refined hybrid powertrain, high-efficiency engine and DCT gearbox it may also be a glimpse of the future.