Gareth Butterfield drives the Kia Niro
THINK of a hybrid car and you’ll probably picture the ubiquitous Toyota Prius. You’ll probably be imagining futuristic styling and swoopy angles, wrapping round smallaerodynamic wheels and enveloping a space-age interior. But that’s not always the case these days.
There are lots of cars now that cram all this petrol-plus-electric technology into a more conventional-looking vehicle. They’re all at it; Mercedes, BMW, Toyota, Hyundai… the list goes on.
But while many of the current hybrids consist of a conventional bodyshell with a load of electronic gubbins shoehorned in, there are a few that are designed from the ground up to swallow it all in the most efficient manner possible. The Prius is one, and the new Kia Niro is another.
Except the Kia Niro looks like a crossover. Or possibly a beefy family hatchback, I’ve not quite decided. But, unlike the Toyota Rav4, one of its closest hybrid rivals, this newcomer is only available as a hybrid. It’s been designed with no other powertrain in mind, which means its technology feels integrated and normal, not bolted on like some of its competitors.
Furthermore, quite refreshingly, it doesn’t have the ridiculous, possibly off-putting looks of the Prius et al. It looks normal, even quite attractive in the right colour. Your neighbours might never know you’re secretly trying to save the planet.
You might think it would inherit downsides from this clever act of deceit, but I’m struggling to find any. It weighs a similar amount to its rivals and there’s plenty of space. It feels, from the ground up, like a conventional car with a subtle but well-conceived trick up its sleeve.
It’s also worth remembering, at this point, just how far Kia has come. Its rise from being a forgettable budget brand to its current status as a credible alternative to Europe and Japan’s finest has been remarkable. And now it’s producing a hybrid that could easily be lined up alongside the Toyota Prius as a potentially better option.
But is it better than a Prius? Well, it’s bigger for a start. But you can see that by looking at it. That said, it’s also more spacious than some of its competitors. It feels as nicely built as a Renault Kadjar, as solid as a Toyota Rav4 and it’s as fun as the Nissan Juke.
Inside it has a youthful, fresh design to its interior, but with a decent infotainment system and a premium feel in the areas where it matters.
Its hybrid system is good, if not ground-breaking. Its petrol engine coughs up 104bhp and, while that sounds pathetic, its electric motor acts like a turbo and gets it to nearly 140bhp. It’s not exactly powerful, but it’ll be brisk enough for most people.
Importantly though, emissions are down below 90g/km and Kia will tell you it’s good for 74MPG. I managed 62MPG when I tried quite hard, so it’s pretty impressive and on a par with the Prius. It’ll certainly give some of its diesel competition sleepless nights.
It drives pretty well too. Pick the right wheels – too large makes it thirsty, noisy and bumpy – and you’ll be rewarded with a relatively supple and fairly comfortable drive. It won’t worry a Rav4 in the bends and it’s not got the soft ride of a Qashqai, but it hits an acceptably sweet spot somewhere between the two.
There are four models to choose from, with the range kicking off at £21,295 with the “1” and working its way through the “2”, the “3” to the range-topping First Edition.
True to form with Kia, even the lowly models come bundled with kit and it’s also worth remembering that, even with all the batteries and its CVT gearbox you’ll get Kia’s seven-year warranty.
Truth be told, it’s easy to tell, in comparison, that the Prius is a more accomplished and experienced hybrid. The Niro is a newcomer in this market and there are reminders. Its electric motor tends to give up with only the lightest prod of throttle and, despite its impressive 1,500kg weight, it still feels a bit heavy.
But for reasons I’ve yet to fathom, we Brits love a crossover. The Niro arguably looks better than the Prius, it has more interior space and it’s cheaper.
It might not be as clever, but it’s pitched at people who don’t necessarily want to drive round in a technological tour-de-force.
It’s a car for people who want a decent family runabout which looks good, drives well, and just happens to cost very little to run. Isn’t that what we’re all after, at the end of the day?