2020 Kia Niro PHEV EX Premium by Ben Lewis

We recently tested the 2020 Kia Sportage, and noted that Kia in a very Porsche-like manner, continuously tweaks and updates as it goes along, and like the Sportage, we find the same is true for Niro hybrid model.

Since the Niro is one our favorite Hybrid, Plug-in Hybrid and EV models, that’s all good news for us. Let’s take a look at the changes.

Updated Looks

On the outside, the Niro has received some updates to keep it looking fresh. Up front, there are new projector-type headlights and fogs, dual chevron-style LED daytime running lights, and a new diamond-pattern grille.

Out back, dual chevron LED daytime running lights, LED combination lights and a more aggressive rear faux skid plate match the front end’s update. Our tester’s profile is the familiar small crossover body style, made fresher with new 18-inch alloy wheels. Dressed in a tasteful blue Kia calls Deep Cerulean, the Niro remains one of the nicest looking hybrids on the road.

Nicer Inside

The exterior changes are subtle, but on the inside the upgrade for 2020 is more pronounced. On our top of the line EX tester, there is a massive 10.25-inch infotainment screen with navi, that plays through a delightful 8-speaker, Harman/Kardon audio system.

Kia (and Hyundai) have always had excellent smartphone interface, and the same is true here with UVO link. Apple CarPlay hookup is quick and seamless, and our WAZE looked great on the new big screen. All models feature a restyled 7-inch digital display (called Supervision Instrument Cluster!) with a center screen and two “wing” displays that look modern and fresh.  With so many competitors going to virtual digital dashes, like Audi and VW first did, the Niro looks leading-edge.

You also feel well looked after, the EX features heated and ventilated front seats, driver’s memory seats, heated steering wheel, dual-zone climate control and adjustable mood lighting with six different colors. The leatherette seat trim does a good imitation of moo cow, and the 10-way power driver’s seat is very comfortable.

There’s a nice leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift leather with cool blue contrasting stitching and new optional paddle shifters for a sportier drive, and access to the regenerative brake control.

Interior dimensions haven’t changed, and that’s OK, there’s good room for adults front and rear, and the Niro’s tall body means good headroom and excellent visibility. The cargo area with the seats up is smaller say, than the Hyundai Ioniq we recently tested but we’d guess with the rears folded you get much more room. Plus, if you’re carrying anything taller, the Niro will make your life a lot easier.

Smooth and Fun!

Driving the Niro is what really separates it from other frugal fuel sippers like the Toyota Prius. The Niro model comes in three models – Hybrid, full EV, and like our tester, plug-in hybrid. (PHEV to those in the know). That plug lets you get up to 26 miles of pure EV joy on a full charge, and once that is used up, it acts like a traditional hybrid, with the gas motor jumping in when needed.

In pure EV mode, it’s all silent and smooth, with the exception of the space-age sound effects that the Niro pumps out to let pedestrians know that a stealthy SUV is sneaking up. It’s kind of fun. The fun doesn’t stop when the electrons are depleted – the 104-hp, 1.6-liter, 4-cylinder has a throaty growl, and combined with the electric motor, which bumps it up to 139 hp, feels punchy and responsive, especially in Sport mode.

And you’ll enjoy that Sport mode – the Niro features a DCT dual-clutch transmission that is the kind you find in high-end performance machinery, and it’s light years ahead of the rubber-bandy CVT transmissions you find in most hybrids and fuel-miser vehicles today. The shifts are crisp and fast, and the steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters let you have a little Formula One style fun, tapping up and down through the gears.

Yes, the fuel-efficient (up to 46 mpg!) SUV gives you sports-car like grins. Steering feel is good, and that extra weight of the battery pack actually lets the Niro hunker down and zip through turns.

The ride is a little bit noisy – we’re guessing that’s due to low-resistance tires and the hatchback design, but it is certainly livable. Being a top of the line EX Premium tester, our Niro was loaded with safety/driver assist features, including Forward Collision warning with Pedestrian alert, blind spot warning and Rear Cross Traffic Collision warning.

On those longer drives, standard Driver Alertness Warning, Lane Keep and Lane Following Assist (new for 2020), plus Smart Cruise Control with Stop & Go really take the stress out of the drive. You just cruise serenely along and enjoy it as the Niro does the heavy lifting by keeping a good distance from traffic and steering to keep you centered in your lane.

Conscience at a Price?

With the assortment of models, there’s a Niro that’s sure to suit your budget as well as eco-mindedness. The road to hybrid enjoyment starts with the base Niro LX at $24,590. It’s not a plug-in, but it will get you excellent fuel economy, and a great driving experience. A bargain.

Those wanting the plug-in and that 26 miles of pure EV ability, will need to step up to the Niro Plug-In Hybrid LXS, which starts at $29,490. At the other end of the spectrum was our tester, the Niro PHEV EX Premium, lavishly equipped, starting at $36,390. A cargo net, some floor mats, and a $1,120 Destination fee saw us ring the bell at $37,790. (And for quick reference, the Niro EV 100% electric starts at $39,090, but depending on State and Federal rebates, it could cost much less.)

Competitors for the PHEV would be the Toyota RAV4 XSE Prime, Loaded up it is a significant step up to $42,600. You will enjoy all-wheel-drive, though. A Prius Prime, would come in at a bit less, around $35,000. But it’s much less fun to drive.

The strict value play would come in with the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV SELS S-AWC/ (that’s a mouthful) at $38,100. A larger AWD vehicle to be sure, but the rest of the Outlander feels like a much older vehicle.

We think the Kia Niro PHEV EX Premium hits the sweet spot. The great economy of a hybrid. The cool, silent EV performance. Small SUV utility, and best of all a truly, enjoyable drive.

The 2020 Kia Niro is a win-win-win!