It is now over 20 years since the launch of the Toyota Prius, the car for many that epitomises the Hybrid technology. Whilst the first model, a rather dumpy small saloon did not attract that much attention, and many thought it could be one of those technically interesting ventures which could remain as a bold effort, but no more, by the time the second generation car arrived in 2003, the world started to take notice. When the trendy set in California started to buy it in quantity, to appease their conscience (and to get access to HOV lanes on the freeway, for which the car qualified thanks to its low emissions rating), the world really started to notice. What is perhaps surprising is how slow other manufacturers were to launch their own alternatives. For sure, a number of them did produce Hybrid-ised versions of models already in their range, not that anyone much notices for a good few years. Honda, who had produced their own Hybrid-only model in 2000, the two seater Insight – finally had another go, making the second car to bear the Insight name a direct competitor to the Prius, even copying the general styling trend. It was nothing like the success that the Toyota enjoyed, though, and this really did seem to be a market sector that the Japanese giant had created and then continued to own. With ever greater concern over emissions and ever tougher legislation coming along, though, it was inevitable that others would follow. To date, it is the Koreans that have got the closest, with models from Hyundai and Kia, both launched in 2016 that were conceived with Hybrid technology in mind, and not available solely with a conventional petrol or diesel engine. Hyundai’s Ioniq is a direct alternative to the Prius, and is aimed at those for whom the wacky looks of the latest Toyota are just too odd to contemplate. It is offered as a Hybrid, a Plug-In Hybrid and a pure Electric model. Sister brand’s Kia Niro was conceived to follow a similar path, but this is a Crossover type vehicle, competing in a sector where there have been only Hybrid-ised versions of conventional cars, like the RAV4 Hybrid and (now discontinued) Nissan Rogue Hybrid. A Plug-In Hybrid version joined the range for 2018 and an all electric model has just been launched, ready for 2019. Unlike other Hybrid-only cars, the Niro looks pretty conventional. Indeed, you would not guess from a quick look that is anything other than a family-sized crossover.
Ever eager to try different cars, when I spotted one at a sparsely populated Phoenix Sky Harbor Hertz area, I quickly grabbed the keys. It turned out that Hertz have only bought a small number of these cars, unsure of how they will be received by customers. Usually, their Hybrid models are categorised in a separate rental grouping, which means that anyone who makes a reservation for a specific group is assured that they will indeed get a Hybrid (currently most likely to be a Fusion Hybrid, a car I have driven, and found preferable to the entry level 2.5 litre petrol version), but this one was labelled as “B4”, which is Hertz speak for “small crossover, front wheel drive”, so an alternative to a Nissan Rogue, Ford Escape or Toyota RAV4. I was curious to see how it would fare when assessed against those models, all of which I have driven.
This being a Hybrid, when you press the keyless start button, there is no sound, just a light illuminates on the dash to indicate that the car is ready to move. Put it in gear, and off you go. The petrol engine will kick in once you press the accelerator sufficiently for the system to believe you need it. Moving from a parked position, that is usually almost instantly, unless you are just manoeuvering, but I found that if you are facing downhill, if you have the patience to let the speed build up, you can exceed 40 mph just on the battery. There is a small light in the lower left of the instrument pack marked “EV” which shows when you are not using the petrol engine. The cutting in and out of the petrol engine was very smooth indeed, so as more cars adopt this sort of technology, which they surely will, there is nothing really to fear. That petrol engine is a 1.6 litre 4 cylinder and coupled with the electric motor, there is is a total of 139 bhp available, which is adequate, but not enough to make the Niro what you would call fast. But then this is not a sporty machine that will be bought because of its performance characteristics. So judge it for what it is intended to be, and it is very fit for purpose. Acceleration is brisk enough, with a conventional 6 speed automatic gearbox helping you to make the most of the available power. What will really impress, though is the fuel economy. I averaged a spectacular 49.1 mpg – and that is US gallons, which computes to 58.6 mpg Imperial – during the day. A very impressive figure indeed for a petrol-powered car. This also means that there is a huge range, of around 500 miles available. And you may just be fine in driving most of that without stopping, as the noise levels are extremely low. A little bit of road noise from the back car was evident, but otherwise, it was the blast of the climate control on a day when temperatures exceeded 100 degrees outside which was the loudest thing you could hear.
The rest of the driving characteristics are pleasant without being especially memorable or engaging, pretty much as you would expect from a car of this type. The steering is well-weighted with just enough feel for you to be able to tell what the steered wheels are going to do, without being unduly heavy. There is a certain amount of body lean in the corners, but this is an SUV-esque vehicle after all, so perhaps that is not a surprise. That said, grip levels seemed good, and the natural tendency to understeer couple of the fact that you will run out of power before you are likely to get into trouble all seem appropriate for a car of this type. More importantly, it rides well. There are pretty high profile tyres by modern standards, 205/60 R16s, and these along with the suspension settings mean that the Niro cruises along with a lollopping gait that is complete in keeping with the character of the car. The brakes were just as you would want. A nice feel to the pedal, with none of the mushiness you sometimes get on cars with regenerative braking systems. There is a foot-pedal operated parking brake. Visibility was not an issue, with good areas of glass, a decent field of view from the mirrors and the now obligatory rear-view camera making it particularly easy to judge the back end of the Kia. Overall, this was an easy car to drive.
There are a couple of clues inside the Niro to remind you that you are driving a Hybrid-technology car. The “Eco Hybrid” badge on the dash is the one you spot first and then when you look at the dashboard, you will see in the instrument cluster that instead of a rev counter, there is a large dial which shows whether you are on Charge, or running on the battery. There’s also a conventional speedometer at the right hand side of the instrument pack and then connecting the two dials is a horizontal area which includes the trip computer and other data, selected from one of the steering wheel mounted buttons, as well as fuel gauge and battery charge status. I really did not miss the rev counter at all, and was more interested to see how the batteries were being used. There is more data on this available as one of the trip computer menu options, which shows the percentage of your driving which is “economical”, “normal” and “aggressive” and a screen in the infotainment panel which I will come to. Other than this, you get a totally conventional interior. It is nicely finished, and even the plastic moulded steering wheel is one of the better of its genre. There are some dark gunmetal inlays on the dash and doors which provide some colour contrast, and there are slanted lines rather than straight ones to provide a bit of interest in the shapes of things. The centre of the dash houses a small and integrated colour display screen for the UVO infotainment system. It is touch sensitive, but there are also knobs and buttons under it for the audio unit functions such as on/off, volume and tuning. The graphics are crisp and clear and the system is easy to use, though there were a number of greyed out functions on the top menu reminding me that this was a model from the lower end of the Niro range. Still, it had Satellite XM radio, which was what I wanted, and a display screen kept reminding me that if I paired a phone to it, I would have access to Apple Car Play and Android Auto as well. It was only really navigation that was missing, but for the journey I undertook, this was not exactly a significant lacuna. Under the controls this are those for the dual zone climate control, again a mix of knobs and buttons. Audio repeaters and cruise control are on the steering wheel spokes and there are a pair of column stalks, with lights incorporated in the left hand one. It all proved easy to use.
The seat trim was a kind of hard-wearing cloth which looked good and was pleasant enough to sit on. There is manual adjustment of both front seats, with a bar under the seat for fore/aft movement and two ratchet style levers on the side for seat height and backrest rake. The steering wheel telescoped in and out as well as up/down. I drove the Niro a long way, west along the I10 freeway, to the Californian border and a bit beyond, in quest of the blue skies you see in the photos, so spend a long time on the seat and can attest to its comfort. With very low noise levels, and a decent sound from the audio system you can easily do long trips in the Niro, and not feel that you have done so. There are plenty of places for odds and ends that you might need to access whilst en route, too. There’s a recessed area in front of the gearlever, which was useful for my camera, a pair of cupholders in the centre console, a cubby under the central armrest, bins on the doors with a moulding shaped to hold a bottle, and a decent glovebox.
It is pretty good for those in the back, too. The SUV-esque styling means that there is loads of headroom, and with a relatively upright seating position, the most is made of the available space meaning that even with the front seats set well back, there is ample leg room. The floor is almost flat, with only a slightly raised bit for a transmission tunnel. There is a drop down central armrest with a pair of cup holders in the upper surface. The bins on the doors are small, and there is only one net on the back of the passenger seat for odds and ends.
The boot is a nice regular shape, but it is not that big. Although the batteries are actually under the rear seat, there is still a relatively high floor, which whilst it means that there is no lip with the opening as you get in some cars, unless you want to pile things up beyond the window line, capacity for lots of luggage may be limited. There is a stowage area under the main floor, and you would get quite a few bits and pieces in there. More space can be created by dropping the rear seats down. The backrests are asymmetrically split and simply fold down, to create a flat and decently long load platform.
There are several Niro trims, all of which come with the same 139 bhp hybrid powertrain, a six-speed automatic transmission, and front-wheel drive. No all-wheel drive is offered, and nor is this planned. You probably don’t need to go above the EX trim, as this offers all the features you can get in the high-end Touring trim – the difference is just that everything is standard in the Touring. Even the lower trims, the FE and LX, have a nice assortment of infotainment features, so you’ll be fine with them if you don’t want premium seating or any of the driver assistance features. Entry point is the Niro FE, which has a base price of $23,240. Standard features include dual-zone automatic climate control, a six-speaker sound system, a rearview camera, Bluetooth, a USB port, and Kia’s UVO infotainment system with a 7-inch touch screen, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and satellite radio. There are no notable optional features with this trim. Next up is the Niro LX, with a starting price of $23,650, and this was the spec of the test car. The LX’s features list is nearly the same as the FE’s, though it does come with push-button start and an under-floor cargo storage area as well. However, it has more available features. You can add the LX Advanced Technology package ($1,450), which includes adaptive cruise control, forward collision warning, pedestrian detection, autonomous emergency braking, and lane keep assist. The plug-in hybrid Niro LX starts at $27,900. It comes standard with all the features offered in the base LX, including those in the Advanced Technology package. The Niro EX starts at $26,150. The EX comes with a rear USB power outlet, partial leather upholstery, and heated front seats. There are two option packages. The EX Advanced Technology package ($1,950) includes a power-adjustable driver’s seat, adaptive cruise control, forward collision warning, pedestrian detection, autonomous emergency braking, and lane keep assist. The EX Premium package ($5,300) adds all the features of the Advanced Technology package, plus a sunroof, an eight-speaker Harman Kardon audio system, leather upholstery, ventilated front seats, a heated steering wheel, wireless phone charging, and the upgraded UVO system with an 8-inch screen and navigation. The PHEV Niro EX has a starting price of $31,500. It comes standard with the base EX’s features and the contents of the Advanced Technology package. However, the Premium package isn’t available with the plug-in EX trim, but there is an EX Premium trim for the plug-in Hybrid. It starts at $34,500 and includes the Premium package’s features. The Niro Touring Graphite Edition starts at $28,450. This is a limited-production trim that has styling options not offered in other trims. The Touring Graphite Edition comes standard with 18-inch wheels, a power-adjustable driver’s seat, an eight-speaker Harman Kardon audio system, HD Radio, and the upgraded UVO infotainment system with an 8-inch touch screen and navigation. There are no notable option features with this trim. At the top of the range is the Niro Touring, which starts at $32,000. The Touring comes standard with nearly every feature you can get in a Niro, including a sunroof, wireless phone charging, full leather upholstery, ventilated front seats, a heated steering wheel, front and rear parking sensors, autonomous emergency braking, pedestrian detection, forward collision warning, and lane keep assist.
The answer to the question I asked myself at the beginning of this test is: “very well”. To all intents and purposes, you should think of the Niro as an alternative to the cars that Hertz co-categorise with it. It is just as good as them to drive, at least as well finished and equipped, and spacious enough inside, the slightly smaller boot notwithstanding. But factor in the fuel economy which was probably 20 mpg better than any of the others will likely achieve, and you could conclude that a Niro is a no-brainer. In my feedback to the Hertz staff locally, I did tell them that this is a good vehicle, and that I think that were they to get some more on fleet, it would prove popular. The market has been less sure, but that is because if you are a retail customer, there is still a price premium for Hybrid technology, just as there is with a Prius and anything else. Some careful consideration of usage and costing the savings and benefits may still be required to make this economically justifiable, but for anyone who had been sold on the fact that diesel is the answer for the high mileage motorist, and who is yet to be convinced that all-electric is yet realistic, then a Hybrid like this one really is the answer.