► Kia Niro hybrid crossover tested
► Features dual-clutch gearbox
► Good kit levels, 7yr warranty, £22k
The new Kia Niro hybrid, which rides on an all-new platform and features a completely new powertrain, does two important jobs for Kia: firstly, it gives the company a much-needed C-segment crossover rival to the likes of the Mazda CX-3, Nissan Juke and Renault's Captur.
Secondly, with both the hybrid and crossover segments growing strongly (the former, Kia anticipates, at the expense of diesel power), it provides eco-friendly competition for a growing raft of hybrids – including Toyota's Prius.
Size-wise, the Niro's a little harder to pigeonhole, falling somewhere between C-segment hatchbacks and SUVs. So, within its own Kia stable, it's bigger than a Ceed and both shorter and lower than a Sportage. It does, however, have a longer wheelbase than the latter, hence the boast of class-leading seating space.
Powered by hybrid tech, so moos like a hybrid?
Within a shape that many will find striking only for its aerodynamic efficiency lurks an all-new hybrid powertrain that combines a 1.6-litre turbocharged petrol engine, an electric motor and an expensive lithium-ion battery compact enough to fit under the rear seats – thus safeguarding a boot volume of between 427 and 1425 litres.
Check out our Best Hybrids and Plug-In Electric cars list
Jostling power delivery between the engine and electric motor, or combining both, the system develops a total of 139bhp, which makes its way to the front wheels via a six-speed, dual-clutch automatic gearbox. Thus armed, the Niro hardly qualifies for boy-racer status, but – as a hybrid – it works rather well.
The first thing you'll notice is the absence of a continually variable transmission, which gently blights so many hybrids; heftier throttle applications are inevitably rewarded by the engine promptly racing to revs for peak power whilst the car then catches up to the accompaniment of an episode of Bonanza being filmed under the bonnet.
Thanks to its smooth dual-clutch automatic, progress in the Kia – with engine speed building to match vehicle velocity – sounds far more natural. Quiet too, and the whole affair is remarkably refined if you don't push things along too hard.
The Niro lacks the dedicated, switchable EV drive mode that allows some hybrids to murmur a couple of kilometres under electric motor power only. However, the motor and petrol engine interchange roles so smoothly and quietly in the urban environment that we don't consider this an issue.
Particularly since, over an hour and half of mixed driving, we were rewarded with average fuel consumption of well over 60mpg. That’s far closer to the quoted fuel figure than many hybrids appear to muster in the real world.
Hybrids are hardly noted for their vim...
True, and 0-62mph in 11.5 seconds and the full George of 100mph would appear to substantiate that. But the Niro feels pretty lively round town, and good off the line at lights thanks to its electric motor assist. On the other hand, it tends to have to work rather hard to maintain impetus on motorways.
Perhaps because there's no switchable EV mode, Kia has gone to inordinate trouble to make the powertrain as quiet as possible, especially under urban driving conditions when the petrol engine stops and starts frequently. This has been managed very successfully, with the engine bay ruthlessly well insulated from the cabin. You can barely hear the engine start.
High-speed stability on motorways is good, and there's practically no noise from under the bonnet unless you really floor it. Normal cruising speeds are accompanied only by wind noise from door mirrors and modest tyre roar.
The impending gleam of something called 'Predictive Energy Control', not yet fitted to the specimen we drove, works with the sat nav to optimise hybrid system performance. For instance, boosting electric motor power on inclines and charging the battery on downhill sections.
But I expect it handles like a cow in ice?
It's OK, actually. The power density of lithium-ion batteries means the pack is small enough to fit under the rear seats, so the Niro doesn't suffer from the tail-heavy behaviour of some rival hybrids. But, even though the battery pack is inside the wheelbase, you can still feel the weight.
It's very easy to drive around town, with light steering and good low-speed manoeuvrability, a lot of it under electric power alone. Out in the bundu, the Niro handles quite tidily through the corners. The steering's accurate, albeit devoid of noticeable feel, and body roll is well controlled.
Low-rolling resistance 16" tyres may be better for economy and low CO2, but it's not the world's grippiest rubber and it’s easy to provoke the front tyres into squealing merrily if you push too hard. Drive to the strengths of the powertrain, however, and it handles very much like a quiet, conventionally powered crossover.
Ride quality is more of an issue, though. In response to public criticism of other hybrid vehicles’ driving dynamics in general, the suspension has been tuned to ensure the Niro handles well enough. The downside is that the ride feels a little tough on 18" wheels to us, but we'll need to drive the new Kia on UK roads to find out just how tough.
And life on board?
The driving position is good, with reach and rake steering adjustment and comfortable front seats. Good visibility too. And rear seat accommodation is excellent, with head and legroom for six footers in comfort. A load space uncluttered by a battery pack beneath is on a par with rivals.
It’s otherwise all standard, latest-generation Kia fare, the replacement of the rev counter by a power meter the only clue as to the presence of a hybrid drive system. Kia interior quality has improved out of all recognition of late, with soft-touch materials wherever your fingers are likely to wander, and respectable quality switchgear.
Everything looks respectable, but not altogether homogenous in execution. It is, perhaps, starting to feel as if the next generation of interior design might be hurried along a little to raise the bar if premium competition is an aspiration.
Trim levels had yet to be decided for the UK at the time we drove the Niro, but expect both the usual 1, 2, 3 and 4 grade strategy and the usual enticingly high standard equipment levels.
These will include 7.0-in or 8.0-in multimedia touch-screens boasting optional 3D navigation mapping, DAB radio, Apple CarPlay, Kia's first use of Android Auto, wireless mobile phone charging and TomTom Live services – free for 7 years to match that enticing warranty. A spanking, eight-speaker JBL audio system powerful enough to blow the wax from your ears is also available as an option.
Kia has yet to firm up UK pricing, but with starting prices of around £22,000 expected, the Niro presents as an entirely companionable proposition. It's quiet, practical, undeniably spacious, drives smoothly and handles reasonably tidily.
The ride quality on 18-in wheels remains something of a caveat until we drive it on our own bombed-out boulevards; squishier 16-in alternatives are offered, which may prove more tolerable on UK roads.
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