Test Drives

Kia Niro 2017 Review: Captain Planet

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The Kia Niro makes inexpensive, worry-free hybrid ownership a reality

Text & Photos: Derryn Wong

SINGAPORE – As far as messages carried via the medium of cartoons go, Captain Planet’s cry of ‘The power is yours’ actually sounds very much like an automotive tagline. But what our green-haired, blue-faced friend was trying to say, is that saving the world is better as a collective of small efforts from everyone rather than big efforts by the minority.

Until now though, Singaporean car buyers who wanted to save the planet (or pay less for petrol) made liberal use of their ‘Heart ring’, since hybrids have always been more expensive and unabashedly hybrid-y. If you bought one, everyone would know. Sadly in the Planeteers’ line-up there is no ‘Wallet’ ring, which is probably the thing which will help save the world most today.

But Kia has just made it more difficult for people like that to find excuses for themselves with its new crossover, the Niro. If you ignored its subtle badging, then bought, owned and drove a Niro around, you probably wouldn’t guess it was a hybrid.
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Appearance-wise it’s the equivalent of showing up at a party in a lumberjack shirt and boots: Very fashionable, since crossovers are a major craze now. A tall, but not towering, seating position, roof rails, sunroof, contrast fenders… it looks very much like its similar-sized sister, the Sportage SUV.

In fact the entire idea behind the Niro seems to be that it’s an efficient, small crossover that, whoops, somehow Kia dropped a battery pack, motor and power electronics nearby and it just became a hybrid.

For starters, there are just four places you can see actually see the word ‘hybrid’: A small, square badge on the boot, one badge on the instrument panel and one on the centre console, while the final one is embossed on the engine cover. It’s actually a rather interesting approach, that by toning down the ‘high tech hybrid’ messaging, it might actually help the Niro gain acceptance by Luddites.

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The Niro shares much of its components with the Hyundai Ioniq Hybrid, which makes its sister car a useful point of reference. The car’s cabin looks nothing like the Ioniq’s, which is a small step down actually. The Hyundai flaunts its grey and blue tech-y colour scheme, and seems a bit slicker, if not more well built.

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In the Niro, Kia’s gone for convention here, with the familiar Kia black-on-red, and while there’s lots of fingerprint-attracting piano black, there’s a bit more plastic to see and feel than in the Sportage GT Line. While the infotainment is the basic, Bluetooth-only colour touchscreen, the driver’s instruments get an active display panel and two analog instruments, one for speed the other for the hybrid system state.

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READ MORE: Where Hyundai’s Ioniq outdoes the Toyota Prius

Despite the ‘hybrid-not-hybrid’ thing going, the Niro’s drivetrain is almost faultless. Kia, and Hyundai, have been doing hybrids, fuel cells and the like for more than a decade now, and it shows. It’s the typical, solid engineering effort we’ve come to expect from Korea – high-strength steel, designed fundamentally for hybrid powertrains, and a serious, proper challenge to Toyota’s hybrid empire.  

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On paper it’s got all it needs to be a proper hybrid: 1.6-litre Atkinson cycle engine, 44bhp electric motor and a lithium-ion battery pack that Kia says is lighter than ‘competing’ ones, in other words, nickel-metal hydride ones used by Toyota.

The car starts up with a music, almost Samsung-like tone to tell you the system is ready to go, but again, it’s not a feeling of hyper-futuristic next-wave motoring. Aside from the silence at low speeds, it feels thoroughly conventional, likely a result of Hyundai-Kia’s choice to go for more direct power delivery via the dual-clutch gearbox, so there’s less of the feeling of reluctance to move you get from CVT-packing Japanese hybrids.

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There’s no EV buttons or gamified, Tron-type displays to complicate your life, and again it seems Kia did this on purpose.  While the car is always in Eco drive mode by default, you can shift the stick to diddle the +/- yourself and it’ll go into Sport mode, where it’s almost punchy, delivering a bit more drive than your average, garden-variety sedan thanks to the electric motor boost.

In the transition to crossover-dom, the Niro loses a bit of the refinement and solidness the Ioniq displays, since it seems to transmit a tad more engine vibration, road noise and bumps into the cabin, but the car’s still a neat, well-behaved handler in almost all conditions.

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With a higher roofline, passengers won’t be starved for headroom, but neither will they sardine each other to death – the Niro’s shorter than a Sportage but actually has a longer wheelbase, and with the battery under the passenger seat, it delivers a lot of room on the inside plus a full 421-litre capacity boot.

Hyundai-Kia’s hybrids now seem to occupy a different space on the chart – that of being closer to normal cars than Japanese hybrids do, and their fuel efficiency reflects that. While the Niro pays a penalty for its crossover-ness (3.8L/100km vs 3.4L/100km for the Ioniq) in real life it’ll deliver mid-to-low 4.0L/100km.

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Just like the Ioniq, it still can’t beat the efficiency king, the Toyota Prius, but it can better the more expensive Japanese car in terms of amenities, since it has everything from a sunroof to blind spot indicators, a reverse camera and the all-important ventilated seats. Like its Hyundai cousin, the Kia also packs a 10-year battery warranty, in addition to Kia’s usualy 10-year engine warranty and five-year general warranty. In other words, you’ll probably have to replace the shock absorbers before you need to shell out a dime on the lithium ion unit.  

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READ MORE: Still the King Of Hybrids? Where the Toyota Prius is still unbeatable

All in, it’s pretty much a complete package. While the price might have gone up $5,000 since the Motorshow promo is over, we could see COE price vagaries make the Niro dip below $110,000 with COE once more. But as it is, it’s a whole lot of car for the price tag, and it’s that all important price which allows the Niro the boast of giving any car buyer pause to consider hybrid ownership, even more (precisely 4.4 percent, their price difference) than the Hyundai Ioniq.

In fact, forget we ever mentioned the hybrid bit, and forget about Captain Planet and his power trip. The Kia Niro is a new, small crossover from Kia that’s big on lot of things (fuel efficiency, space, features and equipment) and small on price.

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Kia Niro
Engine 1,580cc, 16V, inline 4
Power     105bhp at 5700rpm
Torque    147Nm at 4000rpm
Electric Motor 44bhp, 170Nm
Battery Lithium ion, 1.56kWh
System Power 141bhp
System Torque 265Nm
Gearbox 6-speed dual-clutch
Top Speed 185km/h
0-100km/h 11.5 seconds          
Fuel efficiency 3.8L/100km
CO2 88g/km
Price $114,900 with COE
Availability Now

about the author

Leow Ju-Len
Leow Ju-Len is a lot older than he behaves. He's been writing about cars for 23 years. Someday he might do it coherently. Ju-Len believes in world peace and V8s, but not necessarily in that order.