Take everything you don’t like about the Prius and chuck it – that’s the Niro.
– Cleveland, Ohio
The Kia Niro is meant to compete with the Toyota Prius head on. To make it a fair fight, Kia gave its hybrid two things the other one doesn’t have: better handling and some style. Oh yeah, and impressive fuel efficiency – nearly as much as the other guy – but that’s a given for any car that wants to take on the world’s most popular hybrid. The Niro, though, is something altogether new: an attractive, crossover-esque hybrid with utility, economy, and styling in spades. Plus, it drives nothing like your parents’ Prius.
Prius-level MPG. The Niro’s fuel economy is a moving target because it’s rated separately by trim level – the higher you go, the heavier and less fuel efficient your Niro will be. This base model Niro FE is the most efficient of the bunch and only burns a thimble more of fuel than the Prius – 50 miles per gallon combined versus 52, respectively, according to official estimates. In real world terms, that equals just 0.1 gallon more fuel burned over 100 miles of driving. During my week driving the Niro FE, which included a lot of highway driving, I matched the official rating of 50 miles per gallon according to the trip computer. Around the city, though, I saw 50-55 mpg and even 60+ mpg when I employed some hypermiling tricks.
Un-hybrid styling. This car’s corporate platform-mate, the Hyundai Ioniq, has the same basic shape as the Prius. The Niro, though, looks nothing like either, instead sporting an outline that evokes the styling of a modern crossover. It’s just an illusion; the Niro isn’t actually a crossover because it lacks available all-wheel drive and has low ground clearance. Those are technicalities, though. The Niro’s design nicely captures the crossover look that so many people want these days, and marries it with Prius-like fuel efficiency.
Good brake feel for a hybrid. Hybrids have the unenviable task of blending two forms of braking: the good old-fashioned friction variety and the regenerative kind that puts energy back in the battery. The Niro does a good job of merging the two so you can’t tell which is happening or when one takes over from the other. It’s seamless and, for the most part, braking feels like it does in a normal car with just friction brakes. Having just driven a brand-new Prius before testing the Niro, I can attest that Toyota doesn’t do nearly as nice a job in this regard as Kia.
Low on power. The Niro’s 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine produces 104 horsepower, while its electrical motor makes 43 hp. After meeting in the six-speed dual-clutch transmission, the two forms of propulsion combine to generate 139 hp and 195 pound-feet of torque. While the torque figure looks substantial, acceleration and passing on the road feels weak. There’s enough power here for the average driver, especially if he or she prefers to drive in a way that saves fuel, but there’s not much there when you bury the accelerator.
Firm, twitchy handling. Aside from its styling, the other part of Kia’s plan to differentiate the Niro from the Prius was to endow it with sportier handling (or so they told us when the car was launched). They achieved a result that’s better to drive than the Prius (an admittedly low bar), but they missed the mark on sporty. For instance, they were going for a higher level of accuracy with the steering, but they wound up with a twitchy tiller. The Niro goes right where you point it, which can be fun in some circumstances but requires constant attention in others, like driving long stretches on the highway. The same goes for the handling, which just feels firmer than normal instead of demonstrably sporty. It doesn’t let you drive around corners any quicker (the 16-inch wheels and high-efficiency tires poop on that party), it just makes the bumps your driving over more pronounced.
Photos: John Neff / Motor1.com