I’ll be honest: I have my favorites when it comes to hybrid systems. To me, the most efficient hybrid is a Toyota-style ECVT setup, placed in an ugly hatchback body that I’ve probably conned myself into thinking is the pinnacle of driving efficiency. Sure, Toyota’s hybrids are mechanically robust, but in my opinion, they’re ugly, and generally not fun to drive. The power delivery is syrupy, like pouring corn-laden Mrs. Butterworth’s imitation maple syrup on a freezer-burnt Eggo waffle. In the same way that unsatisfying meal counts as adequate sustenance, those Toyota hybrids are functional transportation. For awhile, it felt like Toyota’s winning combo (and dominant sales numbers) meant every mainstream hybrid had to rigidly follow that formula.
But time has progressed. Hybrids are mainstream now, and Hyundai and Kia have proven that a brand doesn’t have to follow Toyota’s formula to have a good hybrid. When the Kia Niro was introduced, it appealed to people who wanted a regular-looking, regular-driving car that happened to be a really good hybrid. Now totally redesigned, the Niro punches up the styling, transforming into a head-turning smallish runabout that happens to be really good as either a hybrid or a fully electric car.
Full Disclosure: Kia flew me to San Diego, put me in an ocean-view Hyatt hotel/day spa/resort, and fed me while I got to drive all three flavors of the 2023 Kia Niro alongside a handful of other automotive journalists.
When the Kia Niro was introduced, it rode on the same platform as the original Hyundai Ioniq; both were introduced as Prius fighters. The Ioniq mimicked the Prius directly, with compact-car proportions and a liftback design. It was poised to be the pleasantly styled, less ugly Prius that everyone wanted. By contrast, the Kia Niro adopted a more upright silhouette that Kia tried to convince us was a crossover. The result was a pleasant if nondescript hatchback-thing that split the difference between Kia’s Soul and Sportage. The Ioniq kind of flopped, but the Niro has always sold briskly, even near the end of the first generation’s lifecycle: Kia claims Niro sales were up 27 percent in its final model year.
For this new second generation, the Niro rides on the entirely new “K3" platform that will see service in basically all future Kia and Hyundai front-drive runabouts. In turn, the styling has taken a quantum leap forward; the dowdy and nondescript exterior has been replaced with fresh lines and good proportions.
The front of the car is a unique take on the ubiquitous bi-level fascia found on many Kia products and across the automotive industry as a whole. The turn signals are stealthily integrated into a grille shape that runs over top of the underset running lights and headlights. On the electric version, this grille insert is completely closed, a shiny black diamond texture filling in the shape with the charge port sleekly integrated. On the Hybrid and Plug-In Hybrid versions, the grille insert has a chrome filler piece, and the lower grille valance is shaped a bit differently.
At the back, the Niro is adorned with what might be the skinniest production taillights on any car; the bumper hides the reverse light and turn signals. A circa 2010 Audi R8 blade-like contrast panel is integrated with the C-pillar; depending on the main body color, this piece is either black, silver, or simply body colored for those scared of fashion. I found the whole car to be a fresh and sharp take on car design, even if the rear kind of looks like a low-poly Mk. 2 European Ford Focus.
Inside, a whole new interior greets the driver. The twin-screen gauge cluster and stereo setup are mounted in a sort of faux-freestanding manner, while the HVAC vents appear from behind. Underneath lie knobs and control buttons that control both HVAC and audio. With just a tap of a button, the knobs switch from heat, fan speed and temperature to volume and tuning. I found it to be a cool-looking, clever setup, but I can see how this dual-use setup would turn off some buyers. Overall, the new Niro feels much more spacious than the old car, particularly in terms of rear legroom and trunk capacity.
The Kia Niro has always come in three flavors of powertrain; the conventional hybrid (now formally called HEV), the Plug-in Hybrid (now PHEV), and Kia Niro EV.
Interestingly enough, although the Niro uses an entirely new platform, the powertrain choices don’t look all that new on paper. The Niro HEV and PHEV are still powered by a 1.6-liter naturally aspirated four-cylinder working in tandem with an electric motor, mated to a six-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission. In the Niro HEV, the gas engine is paired with a 32-kW electric motor for a combined power output of 139 hp and 195 lb-ft of torque — numbers identical to the old car.
Yet Kia engineers insist that things are actually a bit different. “Our changes were more incremental,” a Kia engineer told me during the press drive. “All that little stuff adds up.” For example, Kia strengthened the crankshaft and main bearings on the 1.6-liter engine, among lots of other small changes. It all adds up to highway fuel economy ranging from 49 to 53 mpg, even cresting 54 mpg depending on trim. By comparison, in the outgoing model, only the miserly Niro LX with ugly wheel covers and skinny tires could touch 53 mpg, and most variants sat in the mid to high 40s.
Likewise, the Niro PHEV has had a thorough going-over. The car still uses the same 1.6-liter engine, but the electric motor is larger at 62kW, for total system output of 180 hp. The battery is larger too, now 11.1 kWh, allowing for 33 miles of all-electric range, up from the old car’s 26.
The Niro EV has arguably had the fewest changes — the motor and battery specs appear to be identical to the last model, but better aero and other tweaks have pushed the Niro EV’s range from 239 miles to a Chevy Bolt EUV-rivaling 253.
If the Niro HEV and PHEV have an ace up their sleeves, it’s the fact that they feel completely normal to drive. Based on market share alone, it’s safe to say Toyotas define the typical hybrid driving experience: Awkward, syrupy and indirect. Tromp down on the throttle in a Prius, and the gas engine loudly races to assist the electric motor. It works, but at the same time, it’s not exactly pleasant to use. The Niro is so seamless, I’d reckon a casual buyer might not realize they’re driving a hybrid.
Obviously, 139 hp isn’t a hell of a lot, even for a not-so-big hybrid crossover. But I never found myself wanting more power. The 1.6-liter is a fairly balanced engine, and the electric motor easily fills in the gaps where the piston engine falls short, like accelerating from a stop. The six-speed dual-clutch is so good you can ignore it, running to top gear with little fuss and adeptly kicking down as needed. During my roughly 50-mile stint in the Niro HEV, I only experienced a couple of harsh shifts, and only when I matted the accelerator all of a sudden, trying to wring every ounce of performance out of the car. Despite doing my damndest, the HEV was more than happy to return over 50 mpg at the hands of an auto journalist with something to prove. Impressive.
By contrast, the Niro EV’s 201-hp motor gives you linear, quick and quiet acceleration. It’s not exactly a roller-coaster launch, like what you’d find on most modern performance EVs, but the Niro EV is notably quicker than its HEV and PHEV siblings. I didn’t get anywhere near enough time to do a real-world range test, but in my hands, the Niro EV averaged about 4 miles per kWh, meaning I was on track to achieve about 250 miles of range. That’s pretty good.
The Niro’s suspension design isn’t anything to write home about, but that’s okay. MacPherson struts hold up the front wheels, and in the back you’ll find a fairly standard independent multi-link suspension. In all three Niro variants, the ride is generally good; in the EV, the extra weight of the battery smooths out nearly all road imperfections. Weirdly, the PHEV felt as if it had the worst ride of the three, but “worst” is a relative term here. All three were pretty comfortable.
Handling skews more toward “confident” than “engaging.” The ride is compliant and comfortable, and the steering is accurate, but the whole setup can feel a bit disengaged from the road when you get your hustle on. The steering is a bit slow and a bit dead in enthusiastic driving, but it’s also kind of silly to expect an eco-biased hybrid crossover to be a corner-carver. I’m sure most Niro buyers will be thrilled with the handling and comfort.
For starters, the Niro EV doesn’t have one-pedal driving. We know Kia has the technology — it’s standard on Hyundai and Kia’s E-GMP cars, as wee as the Genesis Electrified G80, where just a few flicks of the “increase regen” paddles turn on i-Pedal mode, with maximum regen for one-pedal driving in nearly all situations. The Chevy Bolt and Bolt EUV also have this feature, but it’s not present on the Kia Niro EV. A Kia engineer explained that if you really want to, you can trigger a sort of manual one-pedal mode by holding down the regen paddle whenever you let up on the accelerator, but that’s hardly the same thing.
When pressed on why one-pedal driving was excluded from the 2023 Niro EV, the Kia engineer insisted that oftentimes coasting is most efficient. The engineer did add that Kia is watching its clientele and surveying how drivers use the Niro EV; perhaps their observations will inspire them to add i-Pedal or one-pedal driving sometime soon.
I only got about 20 minutes in the Niro PHEV, but in “automatic” mode, the larger electric motor and 180-hp output didn’t feel much faster than the standard non-plug-in HEV. The PHEV does qualify for single-occupant HOV lane access, though.
Then there’s the matter of pricing. At $27,785, the non-plug-in HEV is a fairly attractive deal. On the other hand, the Niro EV and HEV face a lot of competitors, some of which have the tax man on their side.
The Chevy Bolt EV and EUV go about as far as the Niro EV on a full charge, and Chevy’s electric cars qualify for tax credits the South Korea-built Niro can’t get. Same with the Niro PHEV; its $35,050 MSRP appears to be competitive with the larger Ford Escape PHEV, but the Ford qualifies for tax credit incentives that can make it up to $5,000 cheaper than the Niro PHEV all-in. Pricing has not yet been announced for the Niro EV, but it will likely face similar issues regarding tax incentives.
Despite the situation around tax incentives for the EV and PHEV variants, the 2023 Kia Niro is a solidly good crossover-hatchback-hybrid-EV thingamajig. Not every vehicle needs to cater to the Gran Turismo pretend crowd; sometimes people just want a stylish, efficient vehicle that’s not too expensive to buy, looks cool and drives nicely enough. After years of the Prius dominating that market, it’s refreshing to have options that don’t look or drive like a Prius.
I’ll bet Kia ends up selling a bajillion of these.