Imagine your CEO stands up in front of the world and bravely declares: “by 2020, we will reduce the average CO2 emissions of our range by 25 per cent.”
It’s the kind of promise that strikes fear into the hearts of engineers everywhere – somebody with a chunky salary makes a bold statement, and you’re the one expected to deliver on it. And remember, 2020 isn’t that far away.
So what do you do?
If you work for most car companies, you’ll probably be forced to hunt through your existing range to find something into which you can shoehorn an electric motor and a stack of batteries, probably at the expense of boot space and passenger comfort.
Kia’s engineers, however, decided to do it differently.
They chose to create a brand new platform specifically for electrified vehicles, and went on to develop a new drivetrain that challenges a few of the accepted wisdoms.
The result is the Niro, a five-seat crossover powered by a 104hp 1.6-litre petrol engine plus a 43hp electric motor.
Kia chose to do things differently…
Where Kia chose to do things differently is that, instead of using a continuously variable transmission (CVT) that leaves the engine feeling as if it’s at the other end of a long piece of elastic, in the Niro power is transmitted through a six-speed dual-clutch transmission, with the system switching between electric-only, hybrid or petrol-only modes as conditions dictate.
In the real world, those transitions are almost seamless – the Niro favours the electric motor to offer near-silent pull-aways, with the petrol engine firing up automatically to help pick up the pace. Only in the upper reaches of the rev range is the engine really audible.
In Sport mode – accessed by nudging the gear-lever across the gate, where there’s also a tiptronic-style sequential override – the Niro can squirt its way into tiny gaps in traffic surprisingly quickly, thanks to a combined 265Nm of torque available from just 1,000rpm, while keeping your foot in will see 60mph arrive in just over 11 seconds.
In the default Eco mode, however, things are more lethargic. In fact, at times the Niro seems wilfully reluctant to pick up speed without mashing the accelerator, with hills on motorways often requiring a switch into Sport mode to avoid being left behind.
There are other foibles, too: the creep function is provided purely by the electric motor, but there’s a delay before it activates. Releasing brake pressure just before coming to a stop is followed a couple of seconds later by the electric motor chiming in with its 170 Nm of torque, propelling you towards the car in front. You soon learn to be prepared for it, but it can make nudging forward at a blind junction a little fraught.
We noticed the hybrid system seemed desperately keen to maintain at least a 50% charge in its 1.56 kWh lithium-ion battery, with the Niro using the petrol engine in situations where the electric motor was more appropriate once we’d breached half capacity.
And while the regenerative braking system seemed efficient at recovering as much energy as possible, the transmission can be felt changing down through the ratios as it does so, leading to a slightly lumpy braking experience.
Oh, and our car insisted on turning on the front fog-lights each time we switched on the headlights and, other than turning them off each time, there didn’t seem to be a way to stop it.
However, on the plus side, we achieved an average of just over 61 mpg over the course of a week’s testing, during which the Niro proved itself to be a refined and calming place to spend time.
Quality levels feel good – although we wouldn’t mind a little less scratch-prone gloss black plastic – the chunky steering wheel feels great in the hands, and we love touches such as the ‘driver only’ mode for the ventilation system.
It’s practical, too, with a 421-litre boot that increases to 1,425 litres with the seats folded, and a cabin that offers a number of useful storage spaces, most notably a handy slot for your phone. And although the front seats initially felt rather hard and unforgiving, there is at least a good range of adjustment.
All but the entry-level model come with an excellent navigation function, together with Android Auto for the first time in a Kia, although there’s no matching Apple CarPlay (yet – it may follow soon). We’re pleased to see Kia have fixed the system’s annoying habit of turning the radio back on each time you start the car, and some grades even come with a 320W JBL sound system and wireless phone charging.
Our observations about the car’s performance can, we’re sure, be easily addressed with just a little extra tweaking, but what has us excited about the Niro is the anticipation of a plug-in hybrid model expected to arrive next year.
As things stand, though, the Niro still has a lot going for it, and its low emissions of just 88 g/km will no doubt help the company on the way to honouring its CO2 reduction pledge.
The fact a Niro can be yours for just £21,295 complete with a seven-year, 100,000-mile transferable warranty only serves to tip the balance even further in its favour.
- Applaud the decision to use DCT instead of CVT
- Engine is near-silent in most conditions
- A nippy performer in Sport mode, but wilfully lethargic in Eco
- Creep function arrives after a delay; difficult to creep forward slowly at blind junctions. Seems to be an issue with the DCT.
- Downshifts can be felt during deceleration, leading to slightly lumpy braking sensation
- Hybrid system seems overly determined to preserve >50% battery charge
- Fog-lights always come on with headlights
- Gloss black plastic trim in high-traffic areas will quickly show marks and scratches
- Perceived quality levels high
- Good oddments stowage
- Seats initially feel hard
- Good navigation function; Android Auto but no Apple CarPlay as yet
- 61mpg on test
|Entry-level Price||£21,295||Price as tested||£22,795|
|Engine||1580cc 4-cyl petrol,|
|Power||139hp @ 5,700rpm||Torque||265Nm @ 1,000-2,400rpm|
|0-60||11.1 secs||Top speed||101 mph|
|Economy||74.3 mpg||CO2||88 g/km|
|Dimensions||4355 x 1805 x 1545 (LxWxH)||Kerb Weight||1500 kg|