Even in the crowded compact crossover class, the Kia Niro stands alone. Why? It's the only one that comes standard with electrification. And in addition to the hybrid model tested here, Kia offers its Niro with plug-in power, or as a fully electric vehicle with an estimated 239 miles of range.
The Niro shares its underpinnings with the Hyundai Ioniq, which is a more traditional Prius fighter. But thanks to its crossover shape and extra cargo space, the Niro presents itself to be a much more compelling hybrid package.
Slow and steady
The Niro is powered by a 1.6-liter, four-cylinder engine that works in concert with a 1.56-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery to produce 139 horsepower and 195 pound-feet of torque. In a subcompact crossover that weighs about 3,300 pounds, that's simply not enough. Driving up steep sections of the Grapevine on Interstate 5 north of Los Angeles, I had to dig deep into the throttle in order to keep pace in traffic.
The silver lining to that sluggishness, however, is fuel economy. The most efficient Niro FE is EPA-rated for 52 miles per gallon in the city and 49 mpg highway. My top-of-the-range Niro Touring tester's 2-inch-larger wheels and nearly 200-pound-heavier curb weight reduce fuel economy quite a bit, though, to 46/40 city/highway mpg. After 12 days and 1,209 miles, most of which were spent on the highway, I averaged 41 mpg.
The lack of power isn't quite as noticeable off the highway, the electric assist offering short bursts of torque for off-the-line acceleration. The six-speed, dual-clutch automatic transmission is good at fading into the background, but takeoffs can sometimes be jerky, and the shifts lack the characteristic quickness you'll find in dual-clutch units from other automakers.
The rest of the Niro's driving qualities are well-sorted, just as they are in the Ioniq. On twisty back roads, the direct steering helps the hybrid feel nimble. The suspension expertly keeps body roll in check, while soaking up bumps with aplomb, and the brakes bring everything smoothly back to rest, free from the maligned regenerative lurch sometimes found in other hybrids.
Curiously, the Niro is a front-wheel-drive-only affair, so if you're looking for something a little more all-weather-capable, you may have to look elsewhere.
Although the Kia Niro shares a platform with the Hyundai Ioniq hatchback, the Niro has a more interesting-looking interior with higher-quality materials. On a six-hour drive from LA to San Francisco, the Niro's seats offer plenty of comfort. With a generous (for a subcompact crossover) 106.3-inch wheelbase, there's plenty of room to stretch out, whether you're seated up front or in back. There's also plenty of breathing room for cargo with 19.4 cubic feet of space behind the rear seats, and 54.5 cubic feet with the back seats folded.
The spacious, comfortable and quiet cabin is complemented by plenty of standard tech. The Niro is equipped right out of the gates with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto on a 7-inch touchscreen. Satellite radio and a six-speaker stereo also come standard. In fully stocked Touring trim, you get an 8-inch touchscreen with embedded navigation that's simple to use though Kia's voice-command system. The Touring also bundles an eight-speaker Harman Kardon , HD radio and wireless phone charging.
When it comes to safety tech, no advanced driver-assistance systems come standard, but with a starting price of $23,490 (plus $995 for destination), I'm not mad about that. My fully loaded ($33,245 including destination) Touring, however, comes with adaptive cruise control that works above 5 mph, automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection, lane-keep assist, blind spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, plus parking sensors front and rear.
How I'd spec it
My Niro tester's Deep Cerulean paint got several compliments, but I'd opt for the Runway Red instead, which costs an extra $295. That's the only change I'd make. Otherwise, the Niro Touring has all the equipment I like in a car, such as HID headlights, keyless access, a sunroof, auto-dimming mirror, leather upholstery, heated and ventilated front seats, driver's seat memory and a heated steering wheel. All in, we're looking at $33,540 out the door.
After a couple of years on the market, the Kia Niro still offers a compelling package. But with all-wheel-drive rivals like the Subaru Crosstrek Hybrid and the Toyota Prius AWD-e entering the market, the Niro might have to step up its game just a little to keep buyers interested.