Now in its second model year, the 2018 Kia Niro gets a lot of things right – if you can handle the size. Kia would like you to think of the efficient front-wheel drive crossover as an SUV, but it leans more hatchback than SUV. Either way it delivers refined styling and competent road manners. I spent a week with my family of four in the Niro and found it to be a surprisingly capable replacement for our huge-by-comparison Honda Pilot. I typically write off vehicles like the Niro for family use because of their size, but after our week with the Kia, I’d think twice. It’s missing a small handful of things that would make it work as a primary family vehicle, but for many uses it hits most of the marks.
Our Niro Touring model was packed to the gills with every option available and delivered a comfortable, if somewhat cramped, experience for our family of four. Kia markets the Niro as the “eco-friendly crossover,” which for most hybrid vehicles means there have been some sacrifices made to achieve green-greatness. Thankfully for us, the Niro didn’t have to give up too much for the glory.
The Kia Niro, like its cross-brand sibling the Hyundai Ioniq, does a very good impression of a normal car. Nothing about the vehicle screams hybrid, which is a welcome change from the polarizing styling of other brands’ eco-friendly vehicles. Unlike the youthful and quirky Kia Soul, the Niro’s profile is more subdued and refined. The rounded nose and sculpted side panels combine to stretch the Niro’s silhouette and help the little crossover pull off a look that is proportionate and even sporty.
The Kia Niro’s 139 horsepower and 195 pound-feet of torque don’t sound all that impressive on paper, but they’re more than enough to swiftly move a vehicle of this size. The six-speed transmission had no trouble finding the right gear, both on the highway and in city driving, and the Niro’s front-wheel drive layout made for a confident driving experience. Kia has avoided the overly-aggressive regenerative braking that other automakers’ hybrids have, which is a welcome discovery. Even so, the handoff between hybrid and gas in the Niro is muddled and often stutters. In heavy traffic and while trying to accelerate quickly into a line of vehicles, the Niro sometimes felt confused as to which mode it wanted to be in, causing a few jerks. Overall, and especially at highway speeds, though the little Kia is fun to drive and responsive.
The Touring and EX trims are EPA-estimated at 46 mpg in city driving, 40 mpg on the highway, and 43 mpg combined. I didn’t miss those marks by too much in my testing, averaging 42 mpg overall in a mix of mostly highway and rural backroad driving. The 11.9-gallon tank is plenty big enough to give the Niro a 500-mile range, which is impressive for a vehicle that can move five people and their gear.
Finally, there is no all-wheel drive option for the Kia Niro. This would understandably slice into the stellar fuel economy numbers but would give the Kia a better foothold (no puns) on the crossover SUV side of the market. Gas-sipping rivals like the Toyota Prius aren’t offered in AWD either, but small crossovers like the Honda HRV and Nissan Juke are.
Information & Technology
Even the most basic models of the Niro come with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. These features alone bring navigation and voice controls to the vehicle without costing buyers an extra $3,000 for an EX model with navigation or nearly $9,000 added cost for a Niro in Touring trim. Those who do shell out the extra cash won’t be disappointed, because the advanced safety technology, Harmon Kardon sound system and larger infotainment touchscreen are worthy upgrades that deliver an upscale experience in the Niro’s compact package.
Our tester came with the full suite of available driver aids, including front and rear park assist, blind-spot monitors, lane-change assist, rear cross-traffic alerts, autonomous emergency braking with pedestrian detection, forward-collision alerts, lane-keep assist and smart cruise. In most cases, the systems worked as they were intended – in the background making us safer as we carried on our daily drives. At other times, the park-assist yelled at me while in a tight drive-thru ordering coffee and had a meltdown when pulling into my driveway. (It really hated that there were bushes nearby.) The sensitivity of the systems can be adjusted in some cases, but it can be alarming to experience them for the first time.
With two kids, a dog, a stroller, two bikes, and a menagerie of bags and totes, my family doesn’t travel lightly. (And that’s just a day trip). The Honda Pilot that we bought specifically because of this largesse handles cargo duty easily, but the Niro would be better suited as a second vehicle for a family of our size. Two car seats? Fine. Stroller? Yes, but you’re not carrying anything else behind the rear seats if you do. Young family with one kid and a dog? The Niro is very close to right-sized for you.
Front-seat occupants have the benefit of deep, well-cushioned buckets with open visibility all around. At six feet tall and 200 pounds, I take more than my fair share of real estate when I drive, but had no issues finding a comfortable driving position. In Touring trim, the leather seats are heated and ventilated in the front row. EX models can add ventilation as an option, which makes summer driving a very pleasant experience.
My daughters, age five and (almost) two, had plenty of room for their forward-facing seats, though the older of the two constantly noted that the high sill on the rear window made it hard to see out. I noticed the same up front, where I had trouble finding a comfortable spot for my left arm while driving – the armrest is too low, but the window sill is too high to be comfortable for any period of time.
The Kia Niro owns its awkward place in the crossover market well. With stellar fuel economy, generous standard equipment and enough space for small families, the little Kia has quite a bit going for it out of the gate. In many ways, the small and hybrid crossover market is still very much defining itself, and with early heavy-hitters like the Niro we’ll all benefit from the results.