The Niro is Kia's Prius competitor, a tall hatchback (marketed as a crossover SUV) that's available in hybrid and plug-in hybrid configurations, as well as a full EV. It debuted for the 2017 model year and gets a mid-cycle refresh for 2020. Although it has no direct competitors, the Niro is likely to be cross-shopped with its platform mate, the Hyundai Ioniq, as well as the Toyota Prius, Honda Clarity, and pricier hybrid SUVs like the RAV4 hybrid.
Ultimately, the Niro doesn't stand out above its competition. Some major gripes came with the driving experience. Brake feel is, typical of some hybrids, bizarre and inconsistent. Not a deal-breaker but definitely something we noticed, especially after driving cars with more conventional brakes. Braking performance was similarly unimpressive. The transmission was also a bit clunky at low speeds, which did not inspire confidence.
Body control isn't great, but it's better than the bouncy Kia Sportage and acceptable for the segment. Acceleration is similarly adequate. We did notice a fair amount of road noise in the cabin, but there's a ton of space in the second row. Cargo volume isn't quite up to its competitors, but didn't bother us too much.
We did appreciate the hybrid gadgetry inside, with numerous eco-meters and lots of drive information for those who like to geek out. Efficiency and range are both strong points, with the Niro's fuel economy sitting just behind the Prius and its range exceeding the hybrid Toyota. With competitive pricing, it might not stand out, but it's a solid alternative to the established players.
The Niro hybrid and Niro PHEV both start with a 1.6-liter naturally aspirated four-cylinder mated with a six-speed dual-clutch automatic to spin the front wheels. In both models, the gas engine develops 104 hp and 109 lb-ft of torque, though the electric motors differ between the two. The standard hybrid pairs its engine with a 43-hp electric motor and a 1.6 kW-hr battery for a total system output of 139 hp and 195 lb-ft. Plug-in models work with a 60-hp electric motor and an 8.9 kW-hr battery (which affords it up to 26 miles of electric range) and achieves the same output as the standard hybrid.
Our long-term Niro Touring hybrid took 9.6 seconds to reach 60 mph but testing a lighter Niro LX, we were able to scoot to 60 in 8.7 seconds. EPA-rated fuel economy on the Niro depends on the trim. The base LX trim is good for an impressive 52/49 mpg city/highway. The LXS and EX Premium manage 51/46 mpg while the Touring and Touring Special Edition—models that roll on 18-inch wheels—are rated at 46/40 mpg.
The Niro hasn't been evaluated by the IIHS for 2020, but the 2019 model was a 2019 Top Safety Pick+ with its optional auto emergency braking system and HID headlights. Those headlights are no longer offered, though. For 2020, halogen projectors are standard on all trims but the Touring Special Edition, which illuminates the road ahead with LEDs. Auto emergency braking is standard on LXS trims and above, and that system earned the highest front crash prevention rating of Superior. The Niro also aced IIHS crashworthiness tests, earning top marks in all six evaluations.
When the Niro was evaluated by the NHTSA in 2019, it earned a four-star overall safety rating with one significant asterisk. For the passenger side occupant in a frontal crash test, the NHTSA recorded a high acceleration injury value that indicates a higher likelihood of chest injury than most vehicles. The 2020 model hasn't yet been rated.
No driver-assist active safety content is included as standard on the base model but auto emergency braking, auto high beams, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, lane keep assist, and driver attention alert are included on LXS models and above. Touring and EX Premium trims include upgraded emergency braking and stop-and-go adaptive cruise control with lane centering.
Every Niro seats five, with 41.7 inches of legroom up front and 37.4 inches out back. Cargo capacity depends slightly on whether you opt for the plug-in hybrid model with its larger battery. The standard hybrid features a deeper cargo floor and holds 22.4 cubic feet behind the rear seats and 63.2 cubic feet with those seats folded down. Plug-in models don't lose too much space, with 19.4 cubes in the trunk area and 54.5 cubes with everything folded flat.
Two infotainment systems are available, but don't think you're missing out with the smaller screen. All trims save the Touring Special Edition and EX Premium have an 8.0-inch touchscreen setup that includes Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and six-speaker audio is standard. If you do opt for one of those higher trims, you'll get a 10.3-inch version of the same system paired with an eight-speaker Harman Kardon audio system including a subwoofer.
The base Niro hybrid includes 16-inch alloy wheels with full wheel covers, LED daytime running lights, roof rails, a 4.2-inch instrument cluster display, cloth seating, an 8.0-inch touchscreen infotainment system with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and a six-speaker sound system.
Move up to the LXS trim for 18-inch alloy wheels with partial wheel covers, rear center armrest with cupholder, hidden cargo area storage tray, high gloss door trim, chrome interior door handles, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, proximity key with push-button start, auto high beams, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, auto emergency braking, lane keep assist, and driver attention alert.
With the Touring, the Niro is especially well-equipped. Try the Touring model to get front fog lights, LED taillights, power-folding heated side mirrors with turn signal indicators, a power sunroof, cloth and leather upholstery, 7.0-inch instrument cluster display, LED interior lighting, stitched armrest covers, 10-way power driver's seat with two-way lumbar support, rear air conditioning vent, steering wheel paddle shifters, upgraded auto emergency braking, lane centering, and stop-and-go adaptive cruise control.
The special edition is the Niro to buy if LED headlights are important. Other Touring Special Edition features include available Solar Orange exterior color, color-keyed leather upholstery, and a 10.3-inch infotainment system with eight-speaker Harman Kardon audio.
Compared to the Touring models, the EX Premium sticks with 16-inch partially covered alloy wheels and standard non-LED headlights, but does get leatherette seating, heated and ventilated front seats, heated steering wheel, and rear parking sensors. Thanks to the move to 16-inch wheels, however, the EX Premium earns a higher EPA fuel economy rating than the Touring models, while still offering lots of features.