New Kia Niro hybrid SUV 2016 review

We get a hold of the new Kia Niro hybrid SUV in the UK - can it stand up to the Prius?

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4.0 out of 5

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The Kia Niro isn’t a revolutionary hybrid; instead it’s a solid first effort. Kia made the right choice in pitching it as a family friendly crossover, because the claimed figures are good rather than outstanding. Look at it from this angle, and it makes a lot of sense. It’s not as cheap compared with the Prius as Kia originally hoped, but many buyers will choose it over the Toyota simply because of its more conventional looks.

Hybrid technology is being rolled out by more and more manufacturers, as they strive to make efficiency gains that petrol power alone can’t manage – and the latest firm to embrace electricity is Kia. But rather than simply bolt a hybrid system into an existing model, Kia has produced a whole new car, in the shape of the Niro crossover.

However, in a somewhat contradictory fashion, Kia is marketing the Niro as a family car that just happens to have a hi-tech drivetrain, rather than championing its hybrid tech. It comprises a 1.6-litre GDi petrol alongside a 32kW electric motor, while energy is stored in a lithium-ion polymer battery. This configuration is similar to the one you get in a Toyota Prius, but even the most efficient Niro claims pretty ordinary economy of 74.3mpg and 88g/km CO2 emissions – falling short of the least frugal Prius, which promises 86mpg and 76g/km.

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The hybrid is bigger than its Cee’d sister car, yet smaller than the Sportage crossover. It’s been styled with the pseudo-SUV market in mind, so you get a relatively square body with black plastic cladding and roof rails, while the nose and high-set headlights are similar to those on the Sportage.

The rear design is a lot simpler, with a conventional tailgate and flashes of silver trim. Overall, the Niro looks restrained, especially when compared with the Prius.

Like the Toyota, the Kia has flashes of gloss-white plastic dotted around the cabin that give clues to its eco running gear. But besides the green driving sub-menus on the standard touchscreen and an energy flow meter instead of a rev counter, it’s typical Kia. That means there’s lots of black plastic, although there’s also a clearly labelled dash and lots of kit on our top-spec Niro 4 test car.

Those eco modes include a graphic that gradually turns a pixelated tree green every time you run in electric mode, and you also get a Prius-style drivetrain diagram that shows energy flow between the engine, battery and wheels. Another eco-minded feature is the option to switch the heating to driver-only mode when you’re not carrying any passengers (a feature first seen on the electric Soul EV), while other tech includes adaptive cruise control and lane keep assist. 

Start the Niro, and you’re greeted by a synthesised chime rather than a rorty exhaust note, because like other hybrids, the engine doesn’t fire into life straight away. However, unlike a Prius, it won’t be long before the 104bhp petrol engine cuts in, as even the slightest prod of the throttle sees it burst into life. The engine is relatively quiet, though, plus it delivers reasonable acceleration thanks to the boost from the electric motor.

The Niro comes with a six-speed twin-clutch automatic gearbox, but in use it feels a lot like a CVT transmission. You need to give the engine plenty of revs to make the most of its modest power, so the transmission tends to hang on to gears when getting up to speed.

When cruising, the Niro feels a little on the firm side, as it has a stiff suspension set-up to cope with the added weight of a hybrid system. As a result, it’s easily unsettled by bumps, and the low-profile tyres and 18-inch alloy wheels churn out plenty of tyre noise at motorway speeds.

And despite Kia imposing a strict diet to keep the Niro’s kerbweight as low as possible, it still feels quite heavy, plus the light and vague steering doesn’t encourage spirited driving. At least the Kia doesn’t suffer from a sharp brake pedal like a hybrid Toyota.

The lack of pace means you find  yourself driving the Niro like any other hybrid, as you try to maximise your  electric running. The drive system is reluctant to lose much of its charge, though, which is why the engine cuts in so often – it can be quite frustrating. It’s not particularly keen to replenish the battery pack, either, as you can’t  refill the charge as readily in stop- start traffic as you can in a Prius.

Senior test editor

Dean has been part of the Auto Express team for more than 20 years, and has worked across nearly all departments, starting on magazine production, then moving to road tests and reviews. He's our resident van expert, but covers everything from scooters and motorbikes to supercars and consumer products.

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