When we last met the Kia Niro in Metro Detroit, it was back in 2017, in its base EX trim which aimed to not only deliver buyers a compelling CUV in a rapidly growing segment of the marketplace, but also the hybrid fueled efficency that is a key draw for green minded buyers. While it certainly suceeded in delivering on both of these fronts, it lacked the style and aesthetic flair to truly stand out against segment rivals. Kia aims to solve this problem with the Touring model, but does the Touring have what it takes to inject some much needed freshness to the decidedly functional Niro? Or is it about as fresh as a pair of 90's era parachute pants?
Unlike other models that joyfully embrace the Touring moniker, the Niro's interpretation of the subject is not as flashy, with the Niro retaining much of its functionality and buisness first persona. However, Kia designers still found ways to add more spice to this seemingly utilitarian package. For example, all Touring models feature 18-inch alloy wheels that look sharp, and are a noticeable upgrade over the decidedly smaller hoops that are shod on lesser Niro models. More brightwork is also apparent, and is a commendable attempt at making the Niro more upscale and distinctive amidst its growing pool of rivals. The look here is not as extreme as the Toyota CH-R's, but that's a good thing, considering that the exterior canvas does not impose some of the compromises on utility and overall looks that the CH-R and similar members of its species impose on buyers in everyday commuting.
The interior of the Touring also goes out of its way to bring some of the amenities that are too often sacrificed for the sake of meeting the bottom line, or achieving fuel economy targets. For example, the drivers hands are greeted by a heated leather wrapped steering wheel that is perfectly sized and feels great to touch. Meanwhile, the two tone leather seats feature heated and cooled capabilities, and did a good job delivering a balanced spreadsheet of comfort and support. They are not the most sporting thrones ever put into an automobile, but for many drivers they should be sufficient for every day commuting. Like the CH-R's seats, the Niro's furniture is raised a few inches higher off the floor, but that allows occupants to have a great view of their surroundings. It's just a pity that the good vibes don't extend to the rear window which features prominent rear blind spots created by the chunky rear pillars, and that made some parking maneuvers more frustrating than they needed to be. On a brighter note, the Niro does not have the same infuriatingly compromised interior that we experienced in the CH-R. The Niro's cabin is decidedly more conventional, but the gauges in our tester were easy to read, and the cupholders are logically placed and offer more storage flexibility than the Toyota.
The seats in our tester gravitate more towards comfort versus being outright sporty, but that should suit the bulk of this car's target audience just fine. Older buyers for example will appreciate the plushness and the minimal bolstering that the seats provide. While this also means that the seats are a bit too flat for some drivers, the Niro makes up for it by offering decent amounts of front leg and headroom with rear passengers also benefitting from equal amounts of room to stretch out and relax. Unlike other CUVs, the Niro has less cargo room, but it is not due to the battery pack which is nestled nicely into the floor. Rather, it is due to the rear seats which do not form a flat load floor when they are folded down. As a result, loading bulkier cargo is not advised, but the Niro can still swallow 19 cubic feet of stuff. This allows it to tie the Chevrolet Trax, and also outshine the sportier but much more compromised Mazda CX-3 and it's rather pitiful 12 cubic feet of space.
Performance for our Touring tester comes from a 1.6 liter four cylinder that is shared with other Niro models, and is hooked up to a novel hybrid system. While the 139 horsepower it generated made us want to load the gas tank with discount cans of Red Bull, we feel that the extra kick would make the Niro's drivetrain even more unrefined than it already is. It's a shame, since the Niro nails the right formula when it comes to seamless transitions between gasoline and hybrid power. Wheras other hybrids often suffer from rough transitions between the two, the Niro makes the process seem seamless, and it proved to be extremely smooth when being driven on the daily commute. The Niro also made a good showing in freeway driving with the lone exception being a total lack of passing power in certain situations, thus we tended to stay in the city for the duration of its stay with us.
The six-speed dual clutch automatic that is linked to this engine is smooth, but it is not quite as stealthy in overall operation as the CVTs that are commonly found in other hybrid models, with our tester occasionally being caught sleeping on the job when it came time to accelerate off freeway on ramps or from stoplights. While we're complaining, we wished there was a bit more control over the regenerative braking, which felt jerky and too noticeable for our tastes. This is in contrast to rivals like the Toyota Prius that offer smoother braking, and also delivers the hybrid driving experience that is sadly missing from the Niro. It is simply not distinctive enough from many hybrid entries, and at times the Niro felt nothing more than an underpowered gasoline powered car versus a sate of the art hybrid offering. Part of this is due to its higher curb weight which is partially due to the added equipment that the Touring brings to the table. The extra flab also dings its fuel economy figures slightly, with the Touring having a slightly lower 40/46 mpg EPA rating when compared with its more sparsely equipped counterpart.
Pricing for the Kia Niro Touring starts at $32,150 which is in the higher end of the hybrid vehicle segment. Our 2018 grade tester arrived loaded with a generous amount of equipment, and rang in at just over $33,000. Buyers will undoubtedly be impressed with the Touring's impressive suite of equipment, but once they look at the finer details, they will see that there are some models that offer roughly the same equipment arsenal but with a lower price tag. Meanwhile, the Niro falls behind some crossover entries in terms of utility and cargo space, and for some buyers this level of compromised functionality for the sake of a few extra miles per gallon may force them to shop elsewhere for a fuel efficient CUV.
That said, the 2018 Kia Niro Touring does have a few aces up its green tinged sleeve for buyers that are willing to put up with some of its compromises. It shares the same revolutionary platform as the Hyundai Ioniq, it is one of the few hybrid compact CUVs on the market today, and the Touring's commendable attempt to blend equipment, comfort and efficiency into one compelling vehicle should still appeal to buyers that need more creature comforts. With the Niro lineup continuing to grow with the introduction of the all new Kia Electric, it's clear that Kia has bold ambitions for the green vehicle segment, and we are curious to see if the Niro can truly be an all out solution for everyday commuters once it has the opportunity to fully plant its heels into the green vehicle marketplace.