Kia's Niro hybrid would be welcome

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The boot has a low load-lip and a decent 427-litre capacity, albeit with intrusion from the wheel-arches, while the back seat, which provides reasonable leg and head room, accommodates three at a pinch. Photo: David Thomson

Kia is considering adding the Niro hybrid SUV to the local line-up, and has dispatched a couple of examples to New Zealand for evaluation. David Thomson gets behind the wheel of one. 

At first glance the Kia Niro is an unremarkable machine: neat but inconspicuously styled on the outside, and similarly tidy but conservative within, it potentially slots in just below the mid-sized Sportage in the company's line-up.

Yet there is an absolute revolution under the skin. The Niro sits on an entirely new Kia platform, the first from the Korean manufacturer to be designed solely for hybrid and all-electric vehicles.

In hybrid form the Niro has a 45-litre fuel tank and 1.56kWh battery pack fitted side by side under the back seat, in an arrangement that minimises loss of passenger and luggage space.

Power comes from a 77kW/147Nm 1.6-litre petrol engine and 32kW/170Nm electric motor. The petrol engine uses the fuel-efficient Atkinson combustion cycle that Toyota favours for its hybrid machines. The electric motor, meantime, is integrated with a six-speed dual-clutch automated gearbox rather than the continuously variable transmission (CVT) hook-up that is the hybrid norm.

The electric motor also serves as a generator to recharge the batteries when the Niro is braking. Drive is to the front wheels only.

The Niro hybrid made its international debut last year, and the two examples dispatched to New Zealand for evaluation are United Kingdom-specification vehicles. Oddly, the vehicle supplied to Drivesouth had all of its displays showing in Korean when I arrived to collect it. However, after five minutes cross-referencing its menu settings, the language issue was rectified. 

As noted at the outset of this test, the Niro is pleasant yet unremarkable in its appearance. An eco-hybrid badge on the tailgate is the only exterior clue to its underlying nature; the test car even sat on quite conventional 225/45 ZR18 Michelin Pilot Sport tyres rather than the smaller economy-focused 16-inch versions that optimise fuel efficiency.

Those 18-inch tyres were provided because the test car is step-three on the four-rung ladder that comprises the Niro hybrid line-up in the UK. Other features in the tier include keyless entry and start, auto lights and wipers, dual-zone climate control, leather trim, heated front seats, a heated steering wheel, a premium eight-speaker JBL audio system, cruise control, rear cross-traffic alert and blind-spot monitoring.

The satellite navigation system was disabled for New Zealand, but normally would be provided via the centre colour touchscreen that is home base for the usual range of connectivity and ICT items. Wireless phone charging, two conventional power sockets, and USB charge socket were all fitted.

With a reasonable 2700mm wheelbase and clever battery positioning, the interior of the Niro is decently spacious.

The boot has a low load-lip and a decent 427-litre capacity, albeit with intrusion from the wheel-arches, while the back seat, which provides reasonable leg and head room, accommodates three at a pinch, but is more comfortable for two, with the centre armrest deployed. A 60-40 split-folding arrangement delivers load-carrying flexibility and with the back seat fully folded, carrying capacity expands to 1425 litres with a flat extended boot floor.

The driving position is a halfway house between the low-slung stance of a car and the command position of an SUV. There is room between the comfortable front seats for a decent lidded storage bin that doubles as an armrest, and there are plenty of other useful storage cubbies within the cabin, too. The test car's interior was finished to a good standard.

While there is nothing especially daring about the look or layout of the dash and main instrument cluster, some of the detailing is impressive. A great example is the dual-zone climate control; if you are travelling solo - as I was for much of the test - it is possible to maximise economy by switching off the passenger's side air-conditioning.

The Niro's hybrid system is unobtrusive in day-to-day operation. Indeed, aside from the vehicle's ability to set off silently under electric power alone, a quite low-key battery charging gauge within the main instrument cluster is the only obvious give-away.

The transmission provides two automatic settings - eco and sport - as well as a manual shift option. Performance is subdued in ecomode, but adequate for round-town motoring or an everyday highway cruise. Sport mode delivers a more responsive experience, with solid in-gear acceleration, though it is less smooth in the gear shifts. Accessed via a tiptronic shift gate, manual mode includes the facility to hold the vehicle in a chosen gear at full power.
Drivesouth's test of the Niro included plenty of urban motoring as well as a return run from Dunedin to Invercargill.

Journeying around town, the Niro was an easy drive, with light steering and a good turning circle among its best attributes. Ride quality and refinement at urban speeds were fine. Although rated at 4.4l/100km for the standard economy cycle when fitted with 18-inch tyres, real-world fuel consumption on test settled at 5.4l/100km around Dunedin, which was satisfactory given the city's hilly nature.

Out on the open road, the test car was pleasant for an intentionally light-footed Dunedin-to-Invercargill run, netting a 5.2l/100km economy return. There was a fair amount of coarse-chip road rumble evident at highway speed, in part because mechanical and wind noise are well contained when cruising.

Noise levels rise when pushing hard to overtake, negotiate steep hills at speed, or simply having fun through tight twists and turns. While no sports car, the test car was more entertaining than anticipated through the bends: body roll was well contained, lateral grip was decent and the brakes were more progressive than on many hybrids.

Those 18-inch tyres certainly played a part in delivering a thoroughly acceptable driving experience. On the other hand, if economy was the overriding concern, 16-inch tyres would be better yet.

Hopefully the feedback gained by showcasing a couple of examples of the Niro hybrid here will provide our national distributor with the evidence Kia head office needs to add the machine to its local line-up before too long.

It would be great to see it available in two forms: the first a sub-$40K variant running on 16-inch rubber, and aimed primarily at fleet customers; the second, similar in specification to the vehicle tested, listing for a few thousand more and aimed at the private buyer. This could then pave the way for the future addition of the fully electric version due to appear internationally next year.

Kia's Niro hybrid would be welcome
At a Glance
At a glance

 

KIA NIRO Overall: ★★★★
Design andstyling: ★★★+
Interior: ★★★★
Performance: ★★★+
Ride/handling: ★★★+
Safety: ★★★★★
Environmental: ★★★★★
For: Real world economy, decent cabin and performance
Against: Not yet available in New Zealand
Verdict: Kia shows it is ready for a more electric future
SPECIFICATIONS Price: Not applicable
Engines: 1580cc Atkinson cycle four-cylinder petrol and 32kW electric motor, with combined maximum outputs 109kW ofpower and 264Nm of torque
Transmission: Six-speed twin-clutch automatic, front-wheel drive
Brakes andstability systems: Disc brakes with regenerative charging, ABS, ESC, EBD, TCS
Safety rating: Five-star Euro NCAP (with full active safety pack)
Wheels, tyres: Alloy wheels, 225/45 R18 tyres
Fuel and economy: 4.4 litres per 100km on EU combined cycle (with 18-inch tyres), petrol capacity 45 litres
Emissions: CO2 110 g/km on combined cycle (with 18-inch tyres)
Dimensions: Length 4356mm, width 1800mm, height 1534mm

RATING (4/5)