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Second generation of compact crossover gains some much-needed style and attitude

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This is the second generation of the Kia Niro, a car that’s nowhere near as revolutionary as the Kia EV6 but arguably more important for the brand, being its second-best seller after the Kia Sportage.

With the first-generation Niro, Kia beat most of its rivals to the wildly popular segment of compact crossovers; and did so with reasonably priced hybrid options and an EV with a long range.

Consider carefully which trim level you go for with the new Niro. The base '2' is quite well-equipped on paper, but its interior misses out on a lot of the soft-touch materials of the more expensive versions. It also gets a smaller infotainment screen which runs an older, slightly less user-friendly software version.

And that highlights something quite unusual about the Niro: There's a Kia Niro hybrid, a Kia Niro PHEV plug-in hybrid and a Kia Niro EV. Accommodating both combustion engines and big battery packs on the same platform can lead to an unhappy compromise, but the original Kia Niro (2016-2022) managed to be both a convincing hybrid and an impressive EV when it came out.

Today, though, Kia has more competition to worried about. The Toyota C-HR, Honda HR-V and Renault Arkana all want a slice of the hybrid crossover pie. The Kia Niro EV can sleep slightly easier for the time being, but there are hordes of new rivals on the horizon.

What's new?

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The new Niro aims to build on the current one’s success. It sits on an all-new platform – the second-generation K3 platform also found beneath the Hyundai i30 – but follows much the same recipe as before.

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The hybrids get a mildly tweaked 1.6-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine and a six-speed dual-clutch automatic gearbox.

Electric assistance comes from a 1.32kWh battery and a 43bhp electric motor in the case of the regular hybrid or an 11.1kWh battery and an 83bhp electric motor in the plug-in hybrid.

The fully electric Niro, which now takes the name Niro EV instead of Kia e-Niro, uses a 64.8kWh battery – the same as before – for a roughly 290-mile range.

We will come back to that in a separate full road test, as the electric version has so far made up half of all Niro sales. Here, we're focusing on the full hybrid, which typically has taken 40%. Plug-in hybrids only account for a handful of Niros in the UK.

While the Niro’s technical make-up remains much the same, the big changes are in the design. The old Niro was more butch MPV than crossover, but the new one has a more confident SUV stance and follows the EV6 and Sportage in adopting an aggressive, alien-like face. The Kia tiger-nose grille remains in a way but forfeits its original purpose as an air intake, becoming more of a decorative monobrow.

What's the new Kia Niro like inside?

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The whole car has grown, too, becoming 65mm longer and 20mm wider. Whether that’s a good thing on crowded roads is one thing, but it certainly benefits the car’s stance and interior space.

The back seat is now a realistic proposition for adults, and unlike in the Honda HR-V, that’s not to the detriment of boot space.

At 451 litres, it's a good deal bigger than what you get in the HR-V or the C-HR but slightly smaller than in the Arkana. The hybrid battery naturally robs space compared with pure-petrol rivals.

Despite the growth spurt, Kia has managed to avoid making the Niro any heavier. Thanks to the more flexible platform, the EV has even lost 70kg.

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The big leap on from the outgoing Niro is in the interior ambience. It emphasises the EV6 family connection with fused twin screens, wildly swooping lines and that curious two-spoke steering wheel.

What’s remarkable is that the aesthetic actually works better on the Niro. Where the EV6 and Sportage have a bit too much shiny black plastic and scratchy surfaces for their price point, those cheaper materials sit more comfortable in the more affordable Niro. In fact, the designers have seized the opportunity to introduce some creative touches.

Instead of the usual elephant-skin texturing, they’ve gone for a stone-like surface on the plastic door and dash panels, and there are flashes of colour to keep it all light. The trim panels are plastic but in the higher trim levels, they look like tarnished brass. The seats and headlining use recycled materials, and leather is not an option.

Amid all the style, function hasn’t been forgotten, with plenty of easy buttons and switches. Kia’s switchable dual-purpose touchbar for the ventilation and the infotainment shortcuts is a little fiddly, but we’ve seen far worse solutions.

The seats are comfy and supportive, and the lofty driving position will be appreciated by SUV buyers, but taller drivers will wish for some more reach adjustment in the steering. The Niro has Kia’s standard infotainment system, which requires a cable for smartphone mirroring but is otherwise easy to use.

What is the new Kia Niro like to drive?

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To drive, the Niro is… fine. The old one was lacklustre at best, and on the evidence of its commercial success, the new one probably needn’t do much more than that. However, given the dynamic sparkle evident in the EV6, we had hoped a little more progress.

The powertrain is largely carried over but Kia still claims the new Niro is more than a second faster to 62mph, at 10.4 seconds. Our road test at the time found that Kia's figure was extremely conservative, and while we didn't attach the timing gear to the new one, we wouldn't be surprised if it still drops under the 10-second mark. It also feels less reluctant than before.

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From a standstill to about 40mph, the electric motor makes the Niro feel pleasantly torquey. At higher speeds, the engine has to work harder. It means the hybrid Niro is not exactly fast, but it's adequate and Kia has done a good job keeping the engine noise out of the cabin. The only time the engine feels slightly coarse is when it unexpectedly has to fire up, especially from cold. Overall, this is possibly the most refined hybrid in its class.

It also achieves impressive economy. On the motorway it will average well over 60mpg with ease and even if you cane it on some back roads, the Niro refuses to dip under 40mpg. In mixed usage, high 50s ought to be realistic. Kia and Hyundai used to lag behind Toyota when it came to the efficiency of their powertrains, but they appear to have closed that gap now.

As before, you get two driving modes: Eco and Sport. The old Niro suffered from overly languid throttle calibration in Eco mode, but that has been addressed now.

Apart from having no reverse gear (that is taken care of by the electric motor), the dual-clutch gearbox is utterly conventional. In this case, there’s nothing wrong with that. Having six gears to cycle through means it can't replicate the perfect smoothness in the Honda HR-V and the Toyota C-HR, but it does feel more direct and natural, both compared to its Japanese rivals, and Renault's E-Tech solution. If you desire a dynamic powertrain with instant responses, a mild-hybrid or pure-petrol alternative is still a better bet, because it can be slow to downshift when you demand more power.

Given all Niros use the same platform and look largely identical, you would expect them to feel broadly similar to drive. However, that is not the case at all. Where the new Niro EV is genuinely engaging thanks to feelsome steering and a keen front end, the Hybrid just handles securely but uninspiringly. There's more body roll, and the steering is quite light and mostly mute.

It's the same story for comfort: even on the smallest wheels, the hybrid Niro's suspension can crash through potholes where the EV would soften off the edges. Compared to other hybrid crossovers, the Niro's ride is absolutely fine, however, and much improved over the old car. Surprisingly, the car we drove in the UK also performed better than the pre-production car we drove in Germany a few months back.

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Acoustic refinement isn’t the Niro’s strong point. Slightly more road roar, suspension noise and wind whistle filter through into the cabin than in rivals, but, like the ride, it’s nothing you wouldn’t quickly get used to.

Should I buy one?

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Pricing and equipment for the new Niro is broadly in line with its rivals considering the equipment you get as standard. On the hybrid, there are three trim levels, simply named 2, 3 and 4; 2 costs £27,745, rising to £30,495 and £33,245 for 3 and 4 respectively.

The full-hybrid powertrain has proven to be very efficient and more pleasant in daily use than its direct rivals. The Niro also scores with a thoughtfully designed interior that offers excellent space, looks that stand out from the crowd, strong standard equipment, good infotainment and Kia’s market-leading seven-year warranty.

It's slightly frustrating that Kia wasn't able to make the hybrid handle as well as the EV and inject a touch more refinement. However, it improves on the old one in the ways that matter and secures Kia’s place at the top of a segment that’s only going to get more important.

Kia Niro range at a glance

The new Niro, like the outgoing model, is only available with electrified powertrains. The hybrid and plug-in hybrid use the same 1.6-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine and six-speed dual-clutch automatic gearbox. The EV drops the smaller-battery option that was available on the old e-Niro. All Niros share the same simple trim level structure of 2, 3 and 4.

Kia Niro HEV*139bhp
Kia Niro PHEV180bhp
Kia Niro EV201bhp

*Version tested

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Illya Verpraet

Illya Verpraet Road Tester Autocar
Title: Road Tester

As part of Autocar’s road test team, Illya drives everything from superminis to supercars, and writes reviews, comparison tests, as well as the odd feature and news story. 

Much of his time is spent wrangling the data logger and wielding the tape measure to gather the data for Autocar’s eight-page road tests, which are the most rigorous in the business thanks to independent performance, fuel consumption and noise figures.

Kia Niro First drives