The word “Niro” makes us think of a few things: Robert de Niro in his classic film roles; strong black coffee; or some kind of futuristic city. It doesn’t immediately make us think of a car. But that’s about to change, for Korean car giant Kia has just put the Niro, its first ever electric-petrol hybrid, on sale in the UK.
Maybe our meandering brain wasn’t too far off the mark: Niro (well, “nero”) can be translated as meaning “strong”, which is certainly a bold statement of Kia’s intent in the ever-growing and highly competitive crossover market.
Indeed, having driven the Niro around the north and Newcastle for a day, does it have the strong characteristics that its name purports, or is it all pomp?
Kia Niro review: Design
The all-lower-case and futuristic-looking Niro logo made us think that this car would transport us to some kind of space-age futuristic Niro-land. But it doesn’t exactly. As five-door, five-seaters go, its design is like a wood pigeon in among the rock pigeons – that’s to say barely any more exciting looking than, say, the Nissan Qashqai, of which there are many – with just a few fancy feathers and electric motor smarts to help it stand out from the flock.
To look at the Kia Niro is harmless enough, though. Its small-mouth grille and morphed Mini-like headlights – the LEDs in particular do give it an extra lick of specialness – serve a familiar, tried-and-tested aesthetic. It’s not trying anything wild like the Nissan Juke. And in its First Edition trim, as shown here, the Kia’s blue coat of paint helps it to look, well, entirely normal and predictable.
Step inside and, somehow, Kia has managed to clash an ageing on-screen user interface (we’ll get to this in more detail later) with some much smarter looking new driver dials, featuring bright colours and illumination, plus a dedicated driver’s screen. The newer parts of this make-up are great – helping get our minds to reach hypothetical Niro-land – but it simply feels mismatched in the wider picture.
The same goes for the interior as a whole: the textured plastic interior shell is dull, so Kia has decided to offset it with some glossy white plastic inserts in the First Edition model – the door inserts look like mistakes, while the dash and wheel highlights don’t exactly add desirable definition.
However, the ride position is good. It’s high without feeling half way to the moon, there’s loads of room for your legs to casually slink about, including those of your passengers both up front and in the back seats. Which, ultimately, is where the Niro is at its most “nero”: there’s ample family space here, without the need to feel like you’re driving a van on wheels.
Kia Niro review: Drive
With some cars you can sit behind the wheel and after two minutes you’ve felt all that they’re going to give you. That’s the Kia Niro in a nutshell: it’s light and ultimately easy to drive. We found it too light and warbly on the steering, really, but it’s not going to be taxing for anyone to skirt around town in.
The Niro’s pièce de résistance is, of course, its hybrid make-up, which pairs a 1.6-litre petrol engine with 32kW electric motor. It’s not a plugin – although that model will become available in the future – so you’ll need to regain battery charge from regenerative braking.
Given the Niro weighs around 1.5-tonnes, however, that petrol-electric combination – which can deliver a combined total of 140bhp (dipping to 104bhp if there’s no battery charge) – means it only chugs along. Foot-to-floor sees a 0-62mph time of 11.1-seconds, which can really be felt in the real-world when it comes to overtaking – you’ll need a long straight, so we were often hesitant to pass some meddling doing-45-in-a-60-zone drivers.
There’s no dedicated electric (EV) mode, which might sound surprising for a hybrid, but in this configuration makes sense: the car is too heavy to pull away from any level of incline without kicking in the petrol engine. Realistically, the electric element is here to help lower emissions (its 88g/km CO2 on small wheels, 101g on larger 18-inch wheels of the First Edition) compared to an all-petrol equivalent.
There is, however, a sports mode, activated by slipping the automatic gearstick to the right. It spruces up reactivity a touch, but ultimately doesn’t make a huge level of difference. It negates some of the eco-warrior positives, too. That auto box works very well though, with the Niro happily slipping between changes with deft smoothness.
Nia Niro review: Tech
In its First Edition form the Niro actually comes with plenty of decent tech. It’s got lane assist – including active lane assist, if you activate it from within the settings – and active cruise control, which we’ve let bring the car to a full halt without getting the fear (well, too much fear). This is becoming more and more standard in-car tech from all manner of companies, but it works well here as part of the ADAS (Advanced Driver Assistance Systems) package.
To the centre dash there’s also the all-important 8-inch touchscreen, flanked by some traditional quick-access buttons and climate controls. The size is right, the positioning is fine (albeit a bit of a reach), but the user interface looks like its from Nokia’s Symbian phone days. It’s dated, and then some.
Yet the actual tech isn’t dated: there’s Android Auto available, which we duly plugged into via the USB port using our phone, to pump out some tunes through the eight-speaker JBL sound system (which has overly sharp top-end front and centre, but can be successfully tweaked with EQ controls and sounds rather good at volume).
Seriously, though, that user interface needs a revamp. With car companies delivering far better considered systems – from Volvo to Audi at the higher end, Renault and others for more affordable offerings – it’s only Ford’s setup that seems stuck in the similar dark-age design aesthetic.
Kia has set out on the right path. Its new tech, new safety features and new, colourful driver dials – plus driver’s screen, which can be used to toggle through various visuals using a button on the steering wheel, from say sat nav to music – are all good. There are too many steering wheel buttons, too much plastic and an archaic looking user interface to match it, though, which makes for a mishmash finish overall. A capable one, but a mishmash nonetheless.
Kia so often has a not-so-secret weapon: it makes highly affordable cars. With the Niro, however, the addition of the electric motor component might skew the apparent value for some buyers. The First Edition model, as reviewed, costs £26,995/$40,4925 (starting price in the range is £21,295/$31,9425).
All considered, it’s about on par with an equivalent specced-up Nissan Qashqai (which is petrol/diesel all the way, not hybrid). The Toyota Prius offers similar value and greater efficiency, but is altogether whackier looking.
That’s the rub of it. The Kia Niro might not be a full-on thrill ride to drive, and is more an exercise in box-ticking design than no-holds-barred futuristic concept, but is an easy to command and semi-green driving machine. It’s comfortable, practical, predictable and, therefore, we’re pretty sure you’ll see a heap of them on the UK’s roads in the near future. Well, if you’re eagle-eyed enough to even notice.