2018 Kia Niro Buying Advice
This is the best gas/electric hybrid car for you if you relish the idea of driving a Toyota Prius but think its design is a too “out there.”
Hoping to ride the coattails of the crossover boom, Kia bills the Niro as a compact crossover SUV. But the absence of available all-wheel drive prevents it from qualifying as a true crossover. For all practical purposes, it’s a front-wheel drive compact-class four-door hatchback — a little taller than but about the same size otherwise as Volkswagen Golf or Kia’s own Forte5 hatches.
Niro debuted for the 2017 model year as a conventional gas/electric hybrid that recharges its onboard battery via energy recaptured during braking and coasting. Scheduled for release in early calendar 2018 is a plug-in version that can gain an initial charge via a residential or commercial power grid. Either way, every Niro pairs a gasoline four-cylinder engine with a battery-powered electric motor.
Inexpensive gas continues to suppress demand for gas/electric vehicles of all kinds. Toyota remains the dominant player in this segment, with the Prius, RAV4, and Camry hybrids occupying three of the top five spots on the hybrid sales chart. Niro is in sixth place as of November 2017. Although it hadn’t had a full calendar year of sales, month-over-month sales have grown steadily. It will likely plateau soon, but Kia officials should be satisfied with its performance thus far.
Should you buy a 2018 model or wait for the ’19?
Little reason to wait for the ’19. It’ll be a rerun of the ’18, but likely cost more due to model-year price inflation. Meanwhile, Kia expands the 2018 Niro lineup with two new models. One is the limited-production Niro Touring Graphite Edition Package for the non-plug-in hybrid. It adds unique paint and exterior trim, along with an upgraded audio system and imbedded GPS navigation to the mid-range EX trim level. The other is the aforementioned plug-in hybrid. It has the same styling and gas/electric drivetrain as the standard Niro. It is rated for up to 26 miles of electric only driving before the gas engine kicks in, for a total estimated driving range of 560 miles.
Styling: It’s unchanged, which isn’t a surprise, considering this is just Niro’s second year on the market. The look of the front end falls in line with most of the Kia family, the standout design element the “tiger nose” grille that’s been a staple of this South Korean brand for nearly a decade. The headlights sweep up over the front wheel wells in a similar manner as Kia’s Sportage compact crossover. From the front roof pillar back, Niro is hatchback-functional — bland and inoffensive.
Niro’s interior design is similarly functional, and the better for it. The dashboard layout is very clean, with a conventional instrument cluster in front of the driver, which we think many buyers will appreciate over the Prius’ digital unit that’s mounted atop the center of the dashboard. Controls are laid out simply and logically.
All grades include Kia’s UVO eServices infotainment system with touchscreen and support for Apple CarPlay and Google Android Auto. All but the Touring and EX Premium Plug-in have a 7-inch dashboard display, while the others have an 8-inch unit with built-in navigation. UVO’s operation is reasonably straightforward, though one test vehicle suffered from occasionally long delays when responding to user input, including connecting to Bluetooth devices.
Seat comfort is good all around, with decent headroom and legroom. Touring and EX Premium grades include leather upholstery with two-position memory for the driver’s seat and outside mirrors. Cargo capacity would be below average for a compact crossover but compares quite nicely with other compact hatchbacks, at 19.4 cubic feet behind the rear seat and 54.5 with the seatbacks folded. All trims except the FE include a handy hidden storage tray in the cargo bay. A power rear liftgate is not available.
Mechanical: All Niro models continue with a 1.6-liter gasoline four-cylinder engine and an electric motor. Combined output is 139 horsepower and 195 pound-feet of torque The conventional hybrid relies on its electric motor mostly as a power boost for the gas engine; it’s electric-only range is negligible. Sensors determine the best blend of gas and electric power to balance acceleration and fuel economy. We have not yet tested the plug-in model. It’s designed to gain an initial charge from a residential or commercial plug, enough to travel 26 miles on electricity alone, battery charge permitting. After that, it operates in the same manner as the conventional hybrid
Kia claims 0-60-acceleration of 8.6 seconds for the conventional hybrid. We’re guessing that’s with the powertrain in “Sport” mode. This driver-selected setting quickens throttle response and is what we would recommend for highway passing and merging situations. Activating it is a bit unusual. You must slide the transmission shift lever to the side, rather than pressing a button on the dashboard or center console. The default powertrain calibration is “Eco,” which noticeably blunts acceleration but is fine for most everyday driving.
Unlike most hybrids, Niro does not use a continuously variable automatic transmission. Instead, Niro employs a 6-speed dual-clutch automatic. This would normally give us pause because a similar 7-speed unit employed in other Hyundai and Kia vehicles suffers from delayed shifts, along with low-speed bogging and shuddering. Thankfully, we’ve observed no such behavior in the Niro.
The hybrid drivetrain isn’t quite as polished as that in the Prius, or even in the hybrid versions of Kia’s Optima midsize sedan and its cousin, the Sonata, from corporate-partner Hyundai. The transition between gas and electric isn’t as smooth as we’ve come to expect from a modern hybrid. The regenerative braking system, which captures energy from the brakes to help charge the battery, is very sensitive, requiring a fair amount of practice to consistently bring the vehicle to a halt smoothly.
Handling and ride quality are strong points. The steering has a pleasingly firm, meaty feel to it, with excellent feedback. The vehicle’s short stature and low center of gravity give Niro good balance and surprisingly little body lean in fast turns. Touring models handle the best, as they come standard with 18-inch wheels and tires. All other Niro models, including the plug-in, have 16s. We haven’t tested a model with the 16s, but we expect it to have a smoother ride at the expense of grip. Availability of all-wheel drive would make this a slam dunk, but unfortunately the design of the vehicle won’t accommodate such a system. At least it rides smoothly with little of the unwanted secondary suspension motions that have plagued past Kia vehicles.
Wind and road noise are non-issues, but the Touring’s 18-inch tires kick up a fuss on coarse concrete pavement. Again, we expect the 16s offered on other models to not exhibit this behavior.
Features: The Niro FE is a very basic vehicle, with its only standard features of note being dual-zone automatic climate control and UVO with CarPlay and Android Auto.
Otherwise, hybrid and plug-in grades generally align in terms of standard equipment. Most buyers will start shopping at the LX trim, which includes keyless access with pushbutton start, roof rails, and rear LED lights. The EX adds fog lights, LED daytime running lights, power-folding exterior mirrors, cargo cover, cloth/leather blend upholstery, heated front seats, rear USB charging port, and blind-spot alert with rear cross-traffic detection.
Touring and EX Premium have leather upholstery, power driver’s seat (standard on the EX Plug-in) with two-position memory, ventilated front seats, heated steering wheel, imbedded navigation, front- and rear-obstacle detection, wireless smartphone charging, and upgraded harman/kardon audio system. The EX Premium stands out by offering full LED headlights.
Standard on all plug-in models, newly standard on the Touring, and optional on the hybrid LX and EX are forward-collision warning, automatic steering correction to keep you in your lane, autonomous emergency braking, and radar-based adaptive cruise control.
Pricing for the Niro plug-in hybrid were not released in time for this review, but expect them to run around $1,000 higher than those for the conventional hybrid models. Base prices for the 2018 Kia Niro FE, LX, and EX hybrids are up by $395 over their 2017 counterparts. Due to significantly more standard content, the Touring grade costs $2,295 more. Base prices here include Kia’s $940 destination fee.
Base prices are $24,180 for the FE, $24,490 for the LX, $26,990 for the EX, and $32,840 for the Touring.
The only factory option for the FE and Touring is extra-cost paint for $395.
The $1,450 LX Advanced Technology Package adds driver-assistance features, LED daytime running lights, fog lights, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shifter. The EX also offers this package for $1,950 that includes driver aids and power driver’s seat. The Touring Graphite Edition is an option package for the EX that costs $2,400. The EX Premium Package ($5,300) includes everything in the Advanced Technology Package plus a power sunroof, HID headlights, imbedded navigation, harman/kardon audio system, leather upholstery, driver’s seat memory, ventilated front seats, wireless smartphone charging, and unique trim.
Niro Plug-In pricing starts at $28,840 for the LX, $32,440 for the EX, and $35,440 for the EX Premium. Certain paint colors cost $395, and that’s the only factory extra for these models. These models are slightly more expensive than the rival Toyota Prius Prime plug-in, but Kia plans to offer cheaper lease rates to make its product more attractive.
The Niro EX hybrid with Advanced Technology Package is our pick for best value. It carries a sticker price of $28,940, which puts it between the Toyota Prius Three Touring and Prius Four in terms of cost and equipment.
Fuel-economy ratings are quite good for the Niro. Among hybrid models, the FE rates 52/49/50 mpg city/highway/combined. The LX and EX rate 51/46/49 mpg, most likely on account of their slightly heavier curb weights. The Touring’s 18-inch wheels cause its ratings to drop to 46/40/43 mpg.
The Niro Plug-In rates 105 MPGe (miles per gallon equivalent) when taking its pure-electric driving range into account. With the gas engine, this model rates 46 mpg combined.
All models use regular-grade 87-octane gasoline.
The debut of the plug-in hybrid for model-year 2018 is the big news for the Kia Niro. We don’t expect many major changes for the near term. This vehicle would be due for a mid-lifecycle freshening for model-year 2020, though if demand for hybrids remains soft, that could be pushed back. We would like to see Kia make automatic emergency braking and other driver aids standard on all trim levels for 2019, which is what Toyota did for the Prius in 2017.
The 2018 Niro is better than the…
Hyundai Ioniq, which doesn’t drive as well as the Niro and whose styling is rather off-putting. Nissan Rogue Hybrid, simply for the fact that this model is not widely available. Toyota Prius, which might be more fuel efficient, but it’s louder and less refined overall.
The 2018 Niro is not as good as the…
Chevrolet Volt, costlier but more refined and better driving than the Niro. Toyota RAV4 Hybrid, which comes standard with all-wheel drive and has more passenger and cargo room.