The Niro is the ultra-efficient hybrid that enthusiasts WON'T hate.
The Kia Niro isn't really talked about in enthusiast circles where more often than not, how much power the latest McLaren makes is more important than how fuel efficient the latest hybrid Kia is. However, we think that the Kia Niro might be the most important car to ever come out of Korea to date. The Niro was instantly compared to the Toyota Prius, which is a car that is almost universally hated by enthusiasts. We spent a week with a fully-loaded Kia Niro Touring to see if it really is a Prius-killer that enthusiasts can get on board with.
Let's talk about the number one reason why enthusiasts won't hate the Kia Niro: its looks. We know that looks are a subjective thing, but the newest Toyota Prius isn't what we'd call under-the-radar. Prius drivers seem to enjoy letting the world know that they are saving the planet with their car. Kia has taken a different approach with the Niro. We'd say that the design is handsome and unoffensive. The front is a very cooperate Kia design and the rear reminds us a bit of the Jeep Cherokee. Even if you don't love the Niro's design, it's objectively better looking than the Prius. Non-enthusiasts may not even realize that this car is a hybrid, which is a win in our books.
The Niro's sense of normalcy continues inside. Other than some minor blue trim around the air vents and a small "ECO hybrid" badge on the dash, there is little to distinguish the Niro from a normal crossover. Unlike the dashboard in the Prius, which looks like it's from the Starship Enterprise, the Niro's design is normal and functional. We love the optional eight-inch UVO system that comes with the Touring trim. Unlike a Toyota infotainment system, UVO includes Apple Car Play and Android Auto as well as built-in navigation with advanced search and excellent voice control. Kia's infotainment may be one of the best systems we've used recently.
Fuel economy is one area where the Niro isn't quite able to match the Prius. Like the Prius, the Niro achieves better fuel economy in the city than on the highway. We noticed that in slow traffic, the Niro was able to use its 43-hp electric motor more and not rely so much on the 1.6-liter 104-hp gas engine. The most efficient Niro FE starts at $22,890 and can achieve 52 city, 49 highway and 50 mpg combined. Optioning up to our Touring model brings the price up to $29,650 and drops mpg down to 46 city, 40 highway and 43 combined. For reference, a standard Prius gets 58 mpg city and 53 mpg highway.
The drop in economy can most likely be attributed to added weight and parasitic draw on the drivetrain. Our test model came equipped with a sunroof, leather seats with heating and ventilation, front and rear parking sensors, heated steering wheel, blind spot monitoring, adaptive cruise control and a wireless charging pad. Even though the Niro isn't quite as efficient as the Prius on paper, we were still able to achieve an impressive 46.5 mpg average during our week with the car. Our commute also required a lot of traveling at speeds of around 45 mph. We noticed that the Niro could best the 50 mpg mark when traveling long distances in stop-and-go traffic.
Aside from the looks, the most important area where the Niro distinguishes itself is with its driving dynamics. Toyota clearly didn't design the Prius with fun in mind, but we think that Kia did want to make the Niro somewhat enjoyable to drive. The Prius has 121 hp going to the front wheels through a CVT transmission. This combination can get the Prius up to 60 mph in a coma-inducing 10.5 seconds. The Niro is a bit more spritely with a combined output of 139 hp going out through an unconventional six-speed dual-clutch transmission. Yes, you heard that right, a dual-clutch. It's no performance car, but the Niro can hit 60 mph in 8.7 seconds, almost two seconds faster than the Prius.
The Niro also drives better than the Prius in almost every measurable way. The Niro has nice steering that can be made heavier by putting the car in Sport mode. The default mode in the Niro is Eco, which makes the car feel very sluggish. Like power mode in the Prius, the Sport mode in the Niro makes the car come alive and feel like less of a burden in traffic. The Niro even has a manual mode to shift gears, but there is no RPM gauge anywhere in the car to know when to shift. Kia has also perfected hybrid brake feel. The Niro is the first hybrid that we have driven with an even brake feel that didn't change when the regeneration kicked in. Even the Porsche 918 failed to master this.
Kia has really managed to do great things with the Niro. We think that this may be the ultimate affordable hybrid for people who actually like cars. Unfortunately, the Niro is not without a few faults. Even though the hybrid is undoubtedly sportier and more fun than a Prius, it may not be smooth enough for some drivers. We enjoyed the seven-speed dual-clutch in the Kia Soul Turbo, but this six-speed unit was about as smooth as falling off a cliff. Even when we tried to maintain a single gear, it felt like the drivetrain was constantly disengaging and reengaging as while moving along. Perhaps this dual-clutch is not the best transmission to use in conjunction with a hybrid drivetrain.
The transmission was often jerky when slowing down to a stop, and shuddered when we accelerated again. On the bright side, the adaptive cruise control is actually one of the best systems we've used. The system was able to keep us close to the car in front without aggressively slamming on the brakes or accelerating too rapidly. Unfortunately, when we came to a stop, the system beeped and shut off, requiring us to get on the brakes. The car can bring itself to a complete stop, so holding itself in traffic should just be a simple software change that Kia should make. If Kia can smooth out the drivetrain and reprogram the ACC, then the Niro could end up being perfect.
Even with its tiny issues, we would happily buy a Niro over Prius any day. We find it strange that Toyota wasn't the first company to take the efficiency of the Prius and put it into a normal looking crossover. People love crossovers and fuel efficient cars, so we think that the Niro should sell like crazy.