It’s been said dozens of times before, but with each new model it bears repeating – Kia has come a long way in three decades. The South Korean automaker sold just 12,000 cars in 1994 when new car sales in the U.S. numbered 15.2 million. That’s less than one percent of total sales. Last year, though, Kia sold more than 700,000 vehicles.
Now accounting for 4.6 percent of the US market, 2021 was also Kia’s best sales year ever. For perspective, that’s more vehicles sold than Mazda (332,756) and Subaru (583,810), both of which have been in the US two decades longer than Kia. So, yes, Kia is a hot commodity right now.
Also hot? Electrification. Grid overload be damned, Kia’s Plan S aims to offer 14 battery electric vehicles by 2027 with the expectation that more than half of its global sales will be of the electrified variety by 2030. That’s your hybrids, plug-in hybrids, and BEVs. So far this year, Kia’s already debuted hybrid and PHEV versions of the Sportage as well as the brand’s most powerful vehicle yet, the 576-horsepower all-electric EV6 GT. And now we’re onto the followup to Kia’s first electrified model, the Niro, which continues to be available in hybrid, plug-in, and all-electric varieties.
|Quick Stats||2023 Kia Niro Hybrid SX Touring|
|Engine/Motor:||1.6-liter I4 w/Two Permanent Magnet Synchronous Motors|
|Output:||139 Horsepower/195 Pound-Feet|
|Efficiency:||53 City / 54 Highway / 53 Combined MPG|
|Base Price:||$26,500 + $1,295 Destination|
Gallery: 2023 Kia Niro Hybrid: First Drive
Look At Me Now
A little bug of a car when it debuted in 2017, the second-generation Niro is less bubbly and bulbous for 2023. Kia sharpened the exterior design, better defining the corner edges away from yesteryear’s bean-like curves. Character lines are distinctive, giving the small Niro a toned profile, like it’s been working out.
On looks alone, the hybrid and PHEV models look nearly identical. They can be equipped with the same wheels and the same black-painted D-pillar. For the record, the D-pillar trim is referred to as the Aero Blade. Yes, it does serve an aerodynamic purpose and, yes, the contrast coloring is optional.
Distinguishing the Niro EV from its ICE-equipped brothers is a smoother, flatter minimalist front fascia. And because of the smaller grille opening, the EV looks less grumpy. Also, its Aero Blade can be optioned in silver to match the lower side moldings. The lighter color combo is more appealing than the drastic and moody black trim offered on the hybrid and PHEV. Enough with the random black splotches on perfectly nice paint jobs already. At this point, half of the vehicle is black contrasting paint so the $395 premium for some colors should be equally discounted.
The Niro interior has been cleaned up quite a bit, too. The infotainment screen sizes carry over but their placement is now atop the center console rather than within it. By showcasing the screen this way, the cabin instantly feels upscale. The 8.0-inch infotainment system with wireless Android Auto and Apple CarPlay is standard but only for entry-level LX models. Everything else gets the 10.3-inch touchscreen that also comes with navigation, satellite radio, a premium sound system, and Kia Connect remote services, including a shareable Digital Key. But you do downgrade to a wired connection for Android Auto and Apple Carplay.
Worth noting is that Kia is deftly serious about its Plan S future. Sustainability is as much about carbon footprint as it is about emissions. With the new Niro, Kia pushed its Team Earth goals further ahead by partnering with koalas. Okay, not exactly but the automaker did implement eucalyptus leaves into its vegan leather seats. No koalas were starved in the process, I’m sure.
Also, the paint used on the door panels is free of BTX toxins and the headliner is made from recycled wallpaper. Just goes to show that cars can be built using all kinds of trash, er, I mean, recycled and reusable goods. And none of it looks bad or weird! The headliner is a bit rough, resembling the feel of molded pulp used for shipping and packaging. Not a big deal, though, unless your noggin is constantly scratching against the headliner. In which case, shop for a larger vehicle?
I’ve Got The Power
Rather than trickle in the new powertrains like in years past, all three — hybrid, PHEV, and BEV — are new in the same model year. Kia corporate estimates that two-thirds of buyers will opt for the hybrid, likely due a starting price of less than $30,000 and an EPA-estimated 53 combined miles per gallon, a best-in-class figure.
Hybrids remain the gateway vehicle into the world of electrification. They don’t require learning a new method of driving, pedaling, or fueling. You just get in and drive like you would anything else with a gasoline engine. Go full throttle up a hill. Go full throttle down a hill. It’s all the same and fuel economy will still be fantastic, as was the case during my time with the Niro Hybrid.
Along a nearly 100-mile journey through San Diego County in Southern California, the Niro Hybrid experienced its share of speed variations, elevation changes, traffic congestion, canyon carving, and wide-open throttle straights. And with the distinct personality of two drivers, myself and my co-pilot. What did we average? Oh, 52.85 combined mpg just like the feds guestimated. But although the fuel economy was superb, the performance attributes of the Niro Hybrid were lacking. At least in the beginning.
When equipped with the available smart cruise control (SCC), the Kia Niro also comes with machine-learning capability. The AI algorithm will learn a driver’s on-road habits and adjust the SCC to best mimic how the driver actually drives and reacts. And I can only assume the machine learns quickly.
After testing the Niro EV first, I didn’t get into the hybrid until after lunch. And my first impression of the hybrid was, “Why the hell is this thing revving so high?!” Just commuting through small-town Santa Ysabel, the Niro seemed perpetually stuck in a wailing second and third gear. My driving partner and I exchanged disconcerted looks of disbelief. The Niro EV drove and handled fantastically. The Niro Hybrid, under the same driving conditions, was hollering like an angry toddler.
Thankfully, the child stopped crying.
We didn’t pull over to restart the car nor did we change our driving manners. Eventually, on its own, the Niro Hybrid’s transmission settled down and settled in. Maybe the pre-lunch driving duo enjoyed long gearing and kept things that way? No clue, but to each their own. Once the vehicle adjusted to its new pacing, the hybrid turned out to be a pleasant commuting CUV. The steering is fine in the standard Eco drive mode but becomes more precise and responsive in Sport. The suspension tune is comfortable with minimal vibration even when traveling over coarse asphalt.
The hybrid did feel heftier while cornering than the several-hundred-pound heavier EV. Like butt-dragging lazy at times. On its own and versus similar subcompact CUVs, the hybrid performs as expected. But against its electric sibling, it comes off as lackluster. The EV is definitely the most entertaining of the Niro trio. Also, there is slightly more road noise in the hybrid than in the EV and PHEV, but nothing so egregious as to dismiss it from your shopping list. For its segment, the Kia Niro Hybrid offers a relatively quiet cabin and a compliant ride.
Under the hood, power is up for the standard 1.6-liter four-cylinder and 32.0-kilowatt electric motor pairing to 139 horsepower and 195 pound-feet of torque. That’s 35 hp and 86 ft-lb over the previous hybrid model. But if the numbers sound familiar, it’s because they are the same as the outgoing PHEV. For 2023, the new Niro PHEV receives a larger battery pack (11.1 kWh versus 8.9 kWh) which ups its output to 180 hp. Torque remains the same 195 lb-ft. The Niro EV is unchanged at 201 ponies.
All Niro variants are front-wheel-drive only (womp womp). The EV is equipped with a single-speed transmission while the hybrid and PHEV are outfitted with a six-speed dual-clutch transmission. Driving range is also up across the lineup. Fuel economy for the Niro Hybrid is EPA-rated at 53 city, 54 highway, and 53 combined mpg for non-Touring models. The previous-generation hybrid offered 53/48/50 mpg. The Niro PHEV now travels 33 miles on electric-only range, up from 26 miles, and offers 108 MPGe, up from 105.
Range for the 2023 Niro EV increases by 14 miles to 253. And with a maximum charging capability of 85 kW, the Niro EV juices up from 10 to 80 percent in less than 45 minutes when connected to a DC fast charger. When plugged into a Level 2 charger, the vehicle will fully recharge within seven hours. To be available in all 50 states, the Niro EV can be optioned with a heat pump and battery warmer to preserve driving range in colder temperatures.
For more eco-friendly driving, all Niro hybrid and PHEV models with a navigation system (EX and above) now feature Green Zone mode. Although a drive mode, this one isn’t activated via the steering wheel-mounted button like Eco and Sport modes are. Green Zone is a specific selection within the Vehicle Settings menu of the infotainment system, switching the Niro into EV-only driving when passing through areas designated for low emissions or minimized vehicular traffic, otherwise known as green zones.
These locations focus on pedestrian- and bike-friendly pathways as well as lowered urban noise that’s associated with ICE-based vehicles. Generally, green zones are located near schools, hospitals, and residential areas. More prevalent in other markets, non-compliant vehicles are charged higher toll fees or banned from the green zone completely. This practice is especially common in the UK, where they’re called congestion zones. Although Kia’s Green Zone mode utilizes navigation data and driving history to determine where the areas are, the navigation doesn’t have to be in active use with a routed destination for the system to operate.
Still Strong On Price
Pricing for the 2023 Kia Niro Hybrid starts at $26,490 for the base LX. Next up are EX, EX Touring, SX, and SX Touring. The top-of-the-line SX Touring will set you back $34,790. Destination is $1,295 extra and other add-ons include premium paint ($395), black Aero Blade trim ($195), and a dual-level cargo floor ($60). There are no available package options, just a la carte accessories.
The Niro PHEV is available in EX and SX Touring trims. Before destination, pricing starts at $33,740 and $39,490, respectively. The new Niro EV gets different trim names this year. Trim options are the standard Wind and fully-loaded Wave. Pricing for the EV will be released closer to the vehicle’s on-sale date. All Niro models are slated to go on sale this year.
2023 Kia Niro Hybrid SX Touring