The Kia Niro is the brand’s electrified hatchback. With front-wheel drive, the Niro comes as either a regular hybrid or plug-in hybrid.
The Niro has a low and wide stance, a five-door body, and a rear liftgate for cargo utility. It drives nicely and handles well, thanks to light weight and a low center of gravity. The cabin is quiet, and there’s good room for passengers and cargo.
Both the plug-in hybrid and regular hybrid use a 1.6-liter 4-cylinder engine with direct injection, tuned for the highly efficient Atkinson cycle. It makes 104 horsepower, with an electric motor squeezed between the engine and the 6-speed direct-shift automatic transmission, bringing the combined horsepower to a functional 139, with a strong 195 pound-feet of torque.
The regular hybrid uses a 32-kw (43-hp) motor, with a battery rated at 1.56 kwh. The plug-in hybrid has a more powerful electric motor, at 45 kilowatts (60 hp), while its battery is rated at 8.9 kwh; it can go 26 miles on electric power without using the gas engine. Kia says charging the Niro PHEV (Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle) on a typical Level 2 home charger takes less than three hours.
The Plug-In Hybrid also costs at least $4,200 more than the regular hybrid, almost all of which can be recouped as a federal tax rebate, coupled to other various state incentives.
There’s also the Kia Niro EV, which runs on battery power alone. It’s covered separately.
Not surprisingly, the fuel economy in the hybrid Niro duo is outstanding. The best EPA rating for the regular hybrid is the stripped-down FE model, at 52/49/50 mpg; other models with more equipment and larger wheels drop the mileage down to the fully loaded Touring at 46/40/43 mpg. Those figures are in Eco mode.
The Plug-in Hybrid rates 46 mpg combined when used as a hybrid, but when its 26 miles of all-electric range are considered, that mileage increases. Kia says that on a full battery and full tank of gas, the PHEV can go 550 miles.
The IIHS rates the 2019 Niro as a Top Safety Pick+, with its top â€œGoodâ€ scores on all crash testsâ€”including both front- and passenger-side small overlap crashes. They rate the Niro hybrid’s optional automatic emergency braking system â€œSuperior.â€ The system is an option on mid-range models, and standard on the Touring.
As for the Plug-in Hybrid, it gets that active safety system standard on all models for 2019. It also gets new headlights on EX and EX Premium models.
The Niro is available in FE, LX, EX, S Touring, and Touring models; the Niro Plug-In Hybrid comes in LX, EX, and EX Premium.
The Niro FE is the least expensive, at $24,430 including destination. It gets 16-inch wheels with hub caps, cloth upholstery, dual-zone automatic climate control, Bluetooth connectivity, one USB plug and a 7.0-inch touchscreen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility.
The EX for $27,240 adds upgraded cloth upholstery, heated seats, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, rear climate vents, a rear USB charger, and blind-spot monitors. A $1,950 safety package adds forward-collision warnings with automatic emergency braking, active lane control, adaptive cruise control, and power-adjustable driver’s seat. A $5,300 premium package goes further with leather upholstery, sunroof, upgraded audio, an 8.0-inch touchscreen, navigation, wireless smartphone charger, cooled front seats, a heated steering wheel, and parking sensors.
The Plug-In Hybrid has automatic emergency braking on every model. The LX costs $4,200 more than a similarly equipped hybrid LX, while the EX adds $5,500 to the cost of a regular EX hybrid.
The Plug-In Hybrid EX Premium costs $35,840 and includes and 8.0-inch touchscreen, navigation, leather, heated and cooled seats, and a 7.0-inch digital cluster for the driver.
Plug-In Hybrids are eligible for a federal tax credit of up to $4,500 and applicable state incentives.
The Niro is clean, tasteful and understated. The grille is upright, the headlamps stretch rearward under the sides of a long good, the roof reaches back without drama, and the stance appears low despite a relatively high ground clearance to make entrance and exit easy.
It has big wheel arches with black flares, a thick cowl, rocker-panel cladding, roof rails, and a rear skid plate that makes it resemble a Jeep Cherokee from the rear. These are hardly aerodynamic touches, yet the drag coefficient is a low 0.29.
A small flash of blue trim around the front parking lights distinguishes the Plug-In Hybrids.
The quality of the cabin materials is good, and the surfaces are mostly hard matte black plastic, although there is some high-gloss plastic. The instrumentation is simple and basic, with big white-on-black gauges that give no indication it’s a hybrid, except for a big green leaf on the panel.
With seat frames that came out of the near-luxury Optima sedan, the front seating position is high. The front seats are comfortable in any upholstery; FE and LX trims get woven cloth, EX and S Touring get a cloth/leather combination, and Touring EX Premium get leather.
The cabin is wide and feels it. There’s comfortable room for four people, and enough elbow room for five, with three abreast in the rear, where there’s a solid 37.4 inches of leg room. Headroom is more limited; the rear seatbacks are canted, not upright, so the passengers’ heads don’t touch the ceiling.
There’s 19.4 cubic feet or cargo space behind the rear seat, where the cargo floor is low and flat, because the battery is under the rear seat.
With the rear seat folded, not quite flat, there’s 54.5 cubic feet.
Kia has done an excellent job of insulating the body structure and isolating engine noise. When you floor it and the engine howls, the noise stays out of the cabin.
Outward vision in the Kia Niro is generally good, although the view toward the back is compromised by thick rear roof pillars
Kia says the FE, LX and EX models can accelerate from 0-60 mph in 8.6 seconds, while the S Touring and Touring models take 9.6 seconds because they’re nearly 100 pounds heavier.
Even with an aluminum hood, liftgate, and suspension bits, the Niro weighs 3,200 poundsâ€”a lot for the Niro’s combined 139 horsepower. The Niro’s electric motor is just 43 horsepower, so the 1.6-liter gas engine has to do the vast majority of the work.
The Plug-In Hybrid makes the same 139 horsepower, although the plug-in has a bigger electric motor (60 hp vs. 43 hp), as well as a bigger lithium-ion battery (8.9 kwh vs 1.56 kwh).
In all-electric mode, the Plug-In Hybrid has a range of 26 miles, if you’re very easy on the throttle, and the road is level. It’s most useful for parking lots. It can gently accelerate to highway speeds, but the engine joins the powertrain going uphill or accelerating medium.
A drive mode switches between Eco and Sport, with big differences. Sport is significantly quicker but uses battery power up quickly; Eco saves money but it’s slower.
Sport mode is engaged when the driver pulls the shift lever to the left, almost like a downshift. The car comes alive, and easily keeps up with fast traffic on the freeway. The Sport mode enables sharper throttle response and transmission shifts.
As for handling, the Niro is drama-free. There is predictable body lean, as it’s a relatively heavy car with light steering. But its low center of gravity help it handle and hold the road well.
The transmission is quick, decisive and engaging in Sport mode. Kia chose a dual-clutch transmission, rather than a continuously variable transmission. The dual-clutch transmission uses gears like a manual transmission, but feels like an automatic, and can be manually shifted more sharply than a CVT.
The Kia Niro hybrids offer a nifty new alternative to the usual hybrid hatchbacks on the road. We especially like the Plug-In Hybrid, because you get more for the same money, after the government rebates. The Niro is stylish and the cabin has good cargo spaceâ€”and it has Kia’s excellent warranty coverage to boot.