The Kia Niro has always been an interesting player. More of a tall hatchback than a true small SUV, we’ve found that its fun to drive nature and responsive performance made it one of the most enjoyable small hybrid vehicles.
Well for 2023, we have an all-new 2nd generation Niro, so we’re wondering, is it a second helping of Kia goodness, or a sophomore slump? Let’s find out.
Big on Bold
Season 2 starts with a bold new look for our hero. Kia calls the new design philosophy “Opposites United” – yes, it does sound like a pro soccer team – that infuses inspiration from nature with aerodynamic design. We’re seeing a new family look to the brand, which we noticed in the EV6 and seems similar here. Upswept daytime running lights flank the signature “Tiger Nose” grille, although it’s much more subtle and blended into the front end than before. The new Kia script style looks gorgeous though, and the large lower grille with skid plate garnish looks tough and capable.
The profile is stunning in a couple of ways. It’s notably longer than the previous model, and the aggressive lines look sporty, especially the massive D-pillar Kia calls an Aero blade. But if you ask us, that blade is very much like an Audi A8 supercar – hey if you’re going to steal, steal from the best! On our tester it was painted a gloss black that really stood out and offered some visual punch. We also like the deep cutaways in the doors with a contrasting lower panel that blends with the design. We also loved the 18-inch snowflake style alloy wheels that look like they belong on a BMW. Hmmmm…. We’re seeing a trend here.
The rear is equally good looking, replacing the previous horizontal taillight clusters with vertical slivers that come around from the sides, giving a clean, sparse look that also adds visual width. Another lower contrasting skid plate garnish finishes things off with an outdoorsy look. We also liked the Mineral Blue color scheme on our car, working beautifully with the black Aeroblade, and contrasting garnish, it is a handsome vehicle and a significant step upscale from the previous model.
Eco, Tech, and Koala-Friendly Interior
Open the Niro’s door, and your eyes get immediately drawn to the beautiful big-screen display, made up of dual 10.25-inch screens, creating a modern look that reminds us of Kia’s EV6 electric vehicle. The signature two-spoke steering wheel adds to the horizontal vibe that also makes the interior feel spacious as soon as you step in.
The gauge package is bright and futuristic looking, and it changes depending on driving mode selected, from a cool blue green in ECO to a hot red in Sport mode.
The center touch screen is easy and intuitive to use, and our tester featured standard Navi, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, as well as a wireless charger in the center console. Everything is well laid out, and easy to use. We’d like a dedicated volume knob, but the switch on the steering wheel works well.
A change from the previous model, the PHEV swaps out the shift lever for a new rotary gear select knob that’s easy and intuitive to use, unlike some of the ones we’ve seen on Honda/Acura products that just left us frustrated. The Niro also serves up paddle shifters if you’re feeling especially sporty.
Suiting your mood is easy, with multi-color ambient mood lighting, a set of screens on the audio system that calls up ambient imagery and sounds like “rain forest”, etc.….and an excellent sounding 8-speaker Harman/Kardon premium audio system.
The Niro really shows off the company’s commitment to eco-friendly driving with an interior composed of animal-free textiles. The headliner is made of recycled wallpaper, the seats are covered with high-quality bio polyurethane and Tencel made from eucalyptus leaves. A reminder to lock your vehicle if you live where there are wild and hungry Koala bears!
You can enjoy all of this in a vehicle with best-in-class passenger room, and the back seat is not only comfier for adults with 2 inches more legroom, but there are also standard USB ports on the sides of the front seats for an easy charge for those in back. Storage space is plentiful, and the rear seats fold nearly flat for a spacious cargo hold. We also appreciated the power rear hatch – a luxury touch on a small vehicle!
You actually have a choice of three powertrains for the new Niro, a traditional hybrid, a plug-in hybrid (PHEV) like our tester, and a full-on EV with 139, 180 and 201 horsepower respectively.
While all have their pros and cons, we like the PHEV, now with a larger 83 hp electric motor that gives you a decent 34-mile, EV-only range. When you run out of juice, it’s a traditional hybrid and serves up an impressive 48 mpg. (The regular Niro hybrid tops that with a best in class 53 mpg!) With a level 2 charger, you’re looking at a full refill in 3 hours. EV smooth and eco-friendly, plus excellent efficiency in gas mode. That’s a win-win.
Actually, make that a win-win-win. With the standard 6-speed direct-sequential automatic, the little Kia pops off shifts quickly, especially when in Sport mode. (Hint – the drive mode select button is on the steering wheel). In EV mode, you’re quick and silent. In combined gas/hybrid with Sport it’s very responsive and surprisingly quick – slicing and dicing traffic like a Ginsu knife.
We were a little disappointed in the handling. While it’s confident and competent, it’s lost some of the fun-to-drive vibe of the previous model. Probably most Niro PHEV buyers will be delighted by the efficiency and punch and be quite happy with good road manners. We’d just like a little more enthusiasm in the corners, please.
Buyers will be enthused with the Niro’s comprehensive standard safety goods, including Forward Collision Avoidance with Pedestrian Detection, Lane Keep and Follow assistance, Blind Spot Warning, Rear Cross Traffic Collision avoidance, Driver Attention warning and Safe Exit Warning and Rear Occupant Alert.
Our Touring level added even more with Cyclist/Junction Turning, Highway Driving Assist II and Smart Cruise Control with Stop & Go.
What’s the Charge?
With the 3 different powertrains, you get a nice choice of price/performance options. The hybrid Niro LX model starts at just $26,490, for a stylish, well-equipped crossover that can give 53 mpg, that’s tremendous value.
Opting for the Plug-in Hybrid EX (no LX for the PHEV) will start you at $33,470, and that’s probably the sweet spot for the PHEV model. Our tester was the luxo SX Touring trim that gives you the royal treatment for $39,490. Add in Black Pillar trim ($195) Cold Weather Package ($500), floor mats ($155) and Destination ($1,295), and we range the bell at $41,635.
PHEV tech unfortunately doesn’t come cheap. Load up the Toyota RAV4 Prime, and you’re flirting with a $49,000 sticker for 2023. Keeping in the Hyundai/Kia family will lead you to the Hyundai Tucson PHEV, a bit pricier than the Niro at $44,895, but we’d point out that it’s a larger vehicle, and offers a stout 261-hp powertrain. We like the performance/economy of all these PHEV’s – it’s more about fitting your budget and taste.
With great new looks inside and out, significant performance upgrades and loads of features, the all-new 2023 Kia Niro PHEV is an impressive step forward.
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.