As auto journalists, we’re constantly asked about what’s new, what we like, what we’re driving. So, it’s surprising that the vehicle we’re talking a bunch about lately is the exciting Kia Niro hybrid.
Yes, Yes, and really… Yes.
And we’re just as surprised as you.
We were expecting a decent little vehicle – probably more of a penalty box – in the pursuit of all elusive high mpg numbers, at the expense of everything else.
But it ain’t so.
The Niro is a stylish, well-equipped, little hatch/crossover that happens to be great fun to drive.
And fun to drive, in an enthusiast way.
Not a well, it’s cool tech-for-tech’s-sake fun like the Prius.
Don’t get us wrong, the new Prius is great, but it would be a hard sell for someone who lives to drive.
Niro’s design is the first clue that the Niro is different. Instead of looking like the Aero-cordless shaver that many MPG masters emulate, the Kia is a cross between a small crossover or a tall hatchback.
Since it’s not trying to be a little SUV like an HR-V or CX-3, Niro sits lower to the ground, and the 5-door hatch body hints at practicality and utility.
It’s also a cute little bugger, with the Kia family grille, and crisp lines. While there’s some clever aerodynamics to help it punch through the air, it looks modern and friendly.
That lower-than-crossover height makes for an easy step in, and modern and friendly are also good descriptors for the Niro’s interior. The design is contemporary, and it’s notable that it’s not trying to wow you with a futuristic, spaceship theme.
Outside of an instrument panel that has a few digital screens to handle the hybrid info, the Niro is typical Kia, which is a good thing, with high quality materials and logical, thoughtful design. No giant tablets, no complicated technologies to understand. You plop in the seat and drive away.
And if you’re expecting minimalism as the price for high mpg, you’ll be surprised. Our tester was the top of the line Touring model, and it’s one luxurious little ride. Memory system, soft leather, heated and cooled front seats – even a heated steering wheel. Plush!
The info-tainment is top-notch, too. We’ve always like Kia’s UVO system for its quick handshake and ease of use, and with the Niro’s Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, your smartphone has never been more useful. There are other cool goodies like wireless charging (we just used the convenient USB Port), and a fine sounding Harmon/Kardon premium audio system.
The rear seat is competitive in class for comfort, and when carrying gear, there’s hidden underfloor storage in the cargo area. The cargo area behind the seats is a bit short – if carrying gear with passengers in back is a major concern, you might want to look at a Sportage. With the rear seats folded you’ve got a good size hold for forays to the Costco, Best Buy, or anywhere else you like to load up on goodies.
If you’ve come looking for a hybrid, you’ll be asking about the fuel economy. And here the Niro is a Hero. To maximize your mpg, the FE model gets an estimated 52 city/ 49 mpg highway. Compare that to a Toyota Prius V at 43/39, and you see just how efficient the Niro can be.
We say can be, because when you load it with goodies like our Touring model, the mpg dips 46/40. That said, even with our hot-shoeing, we averaged 43 mpg. Stellar in our books.
There’s some neat tech at work here, too. The ECO-DAS (Driver Assistance System) analyses the navi system and driver’s route to improve efficiency by coaching the driver on when to coast and brake. It even monitors topographical changes on the road to manage energy, determining when to recharge the battery and when to expend stored energy. Cool.
But there’s more! In a Prius, the smile on your face comes from MPG.
Which is what makes the Niro so surprising – it’s a very entertaining drive.
If you keep it in regular mode, it’s pretty much as you’d expect, minding the store, and trying to sip fuel as much as possible. You can try to keep in EV mode, but you have to have a pretty light touch, and a lot of patience.
Nudge the shift lever to the left, engage Sport mode, and things get interesting. Part of that has to do with the transmission. Rather than the slushbox CVT you might expect, Kia gives the Niro a 6-speed dual-clutch automatic – the kind of transmission you find in sporty vehicle like VW’s GTi.
And that makes a huge difference. In Sport mode, the shifts are responsive and quick, the gas pedal becomes more responsive, and the steering firms up. Another surprise is the gas engine has a throaty little exhaust note, and the extra torque from the hybrid’s electric motor gives lots of low-end kick. While the numbers say the Niro isn’t especially quick, it feels so willing, so ready to play, it’s a hoot.
Handling is nice and responsive, too, with well-weighted steering. The ride is comfy but not wallowy, and with the higher seating position – thanks to its near crossover profile – you get a good view of what’s ahead.
Hybrids are often becoming their manufacturer’s tech showpiece, and the Niro steps up with available Autonomous Emergency Braking, Smart Cruise Control, Forward Collision and Lane Departure Warning, Blind Spot and Rear Cross Traffic Alert, and Park Assist.
How much for all this goodness?
Kia gives you a variety of Niro’s to choose from, starting with the FE model at $22,890 that tea-totals with 52 mpg and 49 mpg highway. There are LX and EX models that add goodies and price. Our tester was the top of the line Touring, and started at $29,650.
Notable options included the Touring Advanced Technology Package with ponies up all the safety goodies like Autonomous Emergency Braking, Forward Collision and Lane Departure Warning, and Smart Cruise, as well as impress-your-friends HID Projector Headlights and Wireless Phone Charging. Yours for a reasonable $1,900. All totaled with $895 destination, our Crimson Red tester rang in at $32,445.
Loading up a Prius V, and we totaled 34,270, meaning the Niro also strikes us as a smart buy.
We were very pleasantly surprised with the Kia Niro. Perhaps we shouldn’t be – lately every Kia we’ve driven has been a great vehicle in its own right. With the Niro though, along with superb fuel economy, you get style, technology, safety and most importantly – a fun drive.
A great car for enthusiast or economist.
Ben Lewis grew up in Chicago, and after spending his formative years driving sideways in the winter – often intentionally – moved to sunny Southern California. He now enjoys sunny weather year-round — whether it is autocross driving, aerobatics, and learning to surf.