You know how everybody in the world is an idiot except us? Sure you do. One of the ways everyone’s an idiot is the sad way the auto industry slavishly follows foolish marketing trends, like the current domination of crossovers and SUVs. Take the Kia Niro, for example. Kia keeps calling it a “crossover” which, to my eyes, is a great injustice. Because the Niro isn’t some stupidly tall mall-crusher with an AWD system that’ll never get used; it’s a smart little station wagon, and that’s an uncommon and wonderful thing. A small, useful wagon.
Let me be absolutely clear here: the Niro is not a crossover, and I don’t care what any of Kia’s PR drones say. Kia’s designed and built a wagon, and because of inane reasons it doesn’t feel comfortable calling it that.
But, as an inane person myself, I’m happy to. The Niro is a wagon. It’s only front-wheel drive, and there’s no useless option for AWD. The tires aren’t small, but they’re not crazy big, and the ride height isn’t all that tall.
It’s not a pain to load cargo into the rear, because it’s not jacked up for clearance to drive over rocks and cacti and dragon’s eggs and other mythical shit that no RAV4 ever really encounters. It fits my fundamental rules of wagonhood:
In fact, the Niro, in character and utility and usability and economy sort of reminds me of one wagon in particular:
Yes, the old Honda Civic Wagovan. Sure, the Niro’s beltline is jacked up, like an old man’s pants encroaching on his nipples. But there’s something about the straightforward small, useful car quality coupled with a nice dash of style that reminds me of the old Honda. Also, the fuel economy, which is genuinely surprising.
Wait, what are you surprised about?
Did you know the Niro is a hybrid? For some reason, that pretty significant fact slipped my mind until I actually got in the car and saw the “energy flow” display in the dash.
Somehow, Kia has developed technology that allows it to make a hybrid car without adding a bunch of goofy badges that have a fake blue glow around them and remind you on every body panel that the car is EcoGaiaBoosted or whatever.
Badges or not, the fact is the Niro is rocking a pair of separate yet co-dependent power sources in this thing: a 16-valve, Atkinson-cycle 1.6-liter inline-four making a modest 104 horsepower, along with an electric, permanent-magnet AC motor making a more modest 43 HP, and combined using the arcane, black magic math used to add up these sorts of things, comes to a still modest but usable 139 HP with 195 lb-ft of torque.
The result of this low-key hybrid system is that the Niro is rated at a double-take-inducing 50 city/52 highway/49 combined mpg for the lower-spec FE model, and a still impressive 43/46/40 mpg for the Touring edition I drove.
I think the difference in the MPG numbers has to do with the heavier weight of the Touring (3,264 pounds to 3,108 pounds) and the larger wheel size. Probably.
Those MPG numbers are no joke, and the FE model is within loogie-spitting distance of the Prius’ 54/50/52 mpg, all without having to endure constant spit-takes of alarm every time you see this face:
Gahh. I can never get quite used to that.
So, without making a big deal out of it, Kia’s made an attractive, practical wagon that gets near-Prius levels of fuel economy without having to look at that squinty, pinched, just-ate-a-horseradish/lemon/turd Prius face.
That’s a worthy achievement.
How’s it drive?
The Niro’s also a bit different from the Prius and most other hybrids in that instead of using a continuously-variable belt-type transmission, it’s using Kia/Hyundai’s impressive six-speed dual-clutch transmission.
I found the result to be that, while it’s really not a quick car at all, the DSG’s response, especially when compared to a CVT, gives the Niro a decently responsive feel. Again, it’s not fast, but it doesn’t feel too slow or ponderous, which is almost as good as actually not being slow.
It takes between nine and ten seconds to get to 60 MPH, from what I could roughly tell, so no racing for pinks, but you’ll get on the on-ramps just fine.
The ride is tuned for comfort, and handling’s not bad, especially since, as I said, this is a wagon, not a crossover, so it has a lower center of gravity and doesn’t feel as tall or top-heavy as many of its crossover rivals, because it’s not.
What about the look?
You know, I like the look of the Niro. It was designed at Kia’s design center in Frankfurt, based on the 2013 show car designed by Peter Schreyer, the guy from Audi who worked on the TT, among other cars.
Kia’s got one of the few company-wide grille designs that doesn’t feel forced or overdone, and it works well in this context (even if it is mostly fake). The Niro is a pretty clean design, foregoing a lot of surface detail and ornamentation for good proportions and a clean, taut look. It works.
Also, I’d like to applaud Kia for not trying to hide its dynamic-cruise radar window in some obvious and fake bit of grille-work like so many cars; it’s just in a simple and honest box in the center of the below-the-bumper air intake.
The Niro is a welcome change from the baroque light-and-crease-and-vent-laden era we seem to be in now, and while it may not be the most eye-grabbing thing ever, it’s handsome and I feel like it will age well.
What’s it like inside?
It’s pretty good! The Touring edition I had used a nice combination of light and dark materials, which kept the inside from becoming a light-sucking black plastic hole, which was nice.
In what I guess is some sort of reminder of that hybrid drivetrain, the inside does get the cliché blue accents, but the bit of color splash is actually welcome. It also shows up in the stitching on the steering wheel and the gearshift scrotum, as well as surrounding the vents.
Material feel and the various controls don’t feel cheap. You’re not going to mistake it for a Bentley if you’re blindfolded, but I don’t suggest driving anything blindfolded, really.
The Niro is reasonably roomy inside; like all modern cars, every panel seems to be thick with airbags or hardware of some kind, so it doesn’t have that airiness of, say, a car from the ’80s, but there’s around 100 cubic feet of passenger room, which includes decent rear seat room, and almost 20 cubic feet of cargo space.
What kind of electronic whatevers does the Niro have?
The Niro Touring has all the usual transistorized candy we’ve come to expect as our due from modernity: a center-stack touch screen with Apple CarPlay or Android Auto or Palm DriveDo (just kidding, that’s not a thing), lane-keeping assist systems, dynamic cruise control, satellite radio, parking assist systems, and even an actual 110V outlet in the rear so you can plug in your Cuisinart for car guacamole. (Editor’s note: Do not do this. Appliances require way more energy than a Kia’s stock inverter can handle. Don’t ask how I know, either. –Andrew)
Is it worth the money?
Aside from the fact that, deep down, I sort of think buying any car brand-new is crazy, yeah, the Niro seems worth the money. It starts at a very reasonable $23,340, and even that one is pretty well-equipped, and goes up to around $32,000 for the Touring edition you see here.
Personally, I think one of the lower end trim levels makes more sense here, since you get better mileage and most of what makes the car an economically sound choice. The bump from the $26,150 EX to the $32,000 Touring starts to get a little crazy. I mean, by the time you pay dealer fees on a fully-loaded top-trim Niro you’re dangerously close to the starting price of a Stinger GT. And yes, this has a little extra cargo space but come on.
Overall, though, I really liked the Niro. It’s fundamentally just good at the very basic job of being a car—getting you, your friends or family and your crap from one place to another, with comfort and efficiency.
Part of the reason for that is because the Niro is something Kia won’t come out and say—a compact station wagon. A compact wagon is one of the most versatile vehicles around, and the Niro is mostly free from the ridiculous and useless excesses of crossovers and SUVs.
I’d absolutely suggest a base Niro to a friend who was looking for a good, general purpose car and who was just done with my stupid suggestions to get an old VW Squareback or Nissan S-Cargo or old mail Jeep.