2018 Kia Niro Review

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2018
The Car Connection
2018
The Car Connection

The Car Connection Expert Review

John Voelcker John Voelcker Senior Editor
May 25, 2018

The 2018 Kia Niro Hybrid and Plug-In Hybrid breathe new life into the hybrid segment, with a practical wagon shape and excellent interior you’d never know was a hybrid.

The 2018 Kia Niro is a compact wagon that its maker wants you to view as a crossover utility. It comes only as a hybrid or a plug-in hybrid that’s new this year, though we expect an all-electric version to arrive for 2019 or 2020. Trim levels differ between the two powertrains: the higher-volume Niro Hybrid is offered in base FE, mid-level LX and EX, and high-end Touring trims, while the plug-in hybrid comes in LX, EX, and EX Premium.

We rate the 2018 Kia Niro at 6.4 out of 10 possible points, giving it extra points for its design, features, and energy efficiency, while docking it a few for performance. Because it hasn’t been rated for crash safety by either the IIHS or the NHTSA, we have no safety rating for the Niro. Its overall score could change if such ratings become available. (Read more about how we rate cars.)

Kia sold roughly two and a half times as many Niros last year as its Hyundai sibling did of the Ioniq five-door hatchback that shares its underpinning—more proof of the sway utility-styled vehicles hold over buyers’ imaginations in these days of continued cheap gasoline. Indeed, it’s a practical and usable small car that’s easier to get in and out of than lower, sleeker hatchbacks, at the cost of slightly lower (but still very high) gas-mileage ratings.

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The smooth, handsome wagon shape isn’t over-embellished with the kinds of styling gimmicks some makes use to make small cars look different. Higher-end Niro models wrap around large 18-inch wheels, though the car doesn’t look bad with the standard (and more fuel-efficient) 16-inch wheels. Inside, the Niro has an intuitive, pleasant interior—always a Kia strong suit—that’s among the easiest to understand of any car.

The Niro will hold four adults comfortably with a bit of trading off for rear-seat legroom, and even one 6-foot-6-inch reviewer was able to get comfortable in the front seat. While it’s relatively quiet in most circumstances, the low-rolling-resistance tires can get noisy on certain types of pavement.

Performance adequate, not swift

The performance of the Niro’s small 1.6-liter 4-cylinder engine and single electric motor is adequate, but especially at higher speeds, you may find the car runs out of breath when asked to accelerate fast.

Around town and in more moderate use, however, the engine-and-motor combination works fine—and we found the Niro Plug-In Hybrid model delivered its rated 26 miles of electric range, at least in temperate West Coast weather. That plug-in Niro is rated at 46 mpg combined, while the conventional hybrid also comes in at 43 mpg combined unless you go for the low-end versions with less standard equipment, rated at 49 or 50 mpg combined.

Despite its rugged looks, the Niro is available only with front-wheel drive.

Overall, the 2018 Kia Niro is an excellent effort to reinvent a genre of small, five-door hybrids in a more appealing vehicle than the swarms of hatchbacks that defined the technology in the past. It’s priced well, comes with good standard features and optional equipment, and may be easier to use than its Hyundai Ioniq sibling. We think Kia’s done a good job with a new entry in a category that’s lost popularity since the first Toyota Prius launched more than 15 years ago.

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2018 Kia Niro

Styling

We like the exterior design and interior styling of the 2018 Kia Niro; it’s handsome, straightforward, and not at all identifiable as a hybrid.

The 2018 Kia Niro is a small wagon that’s quite unlike the Hyundai Ioniq fastback five-door hatch that shares its underpinnings. Kia wanted a car buyers would see as more of a utility vehicle, and that’s what it is—even though you can’t get the all-wheel drive or other features that would actually make it a light truck.

We rate the 2018 Niro’s styling at 6 out of 10 points, giving it one point above the average for the handsome and uncomplicated but still almost sleek exterior shape. We also appreciate the straightforward interior, with easy-to-understand shapes and materials nicer than you might expect for a car that starts for less than $25,000. (Read more about how we rate cars.)

The exterior shape, with swept-back headlights in the corners of the low, rounded hood, neatly disguises its relatively long nose. A low but upright form looks like a slightly sport wagon, and contrasts with the Soul tall wagon and the Sportage compact crossover on the same dealership floor. You could view it as a five-door hatchback as well, but the long roof and relatively vertical tailgate make it a wagon to us—albeit a wagon with a commendable drag coefficient of just 0.29, according to Kia.

These days, the Niro’s absence of accent lines, swooping window shapes, and deep stampings to highlight sheet metal curves is welcome. It’s straightforward, and we like that. The only flourishes are black wheel-arch moldings, sill cladding, and roof rails, all meant to signify “utility vehicle” rather than wagon.

Inside, Kia has produced another first-rate interior, with clear, large instruments and controls, and good-quality materials. A smattering of glossy black trim appears on higher-end models, but all versions have soft surfaces where it counts. The Niro Plug-In Hybrid has its own set of blue accents, including fetching blue contrasting stitching on the tan cloth or leather interiors.

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2018 Kia Niro

Performance

The 2018 Kia Niro drives nicely enough but runs out of breath at speed; it’s the tradeoff for the small engine that delivers high fuel efficiency.

The 2018 Kia Niro gets 4 out of 10 possible points on our performance scale, with one point knocked off the average of 5 for its subpar acceleration at speed. It’s far from as slow, but it runs out of breath quickly at highway speeds, and passing will take some advance planning. (Read more about how we rate cars.)

Both the Hybrid and Plug-In Hybrid versions of the Niro are powered by a 1.6-liter inline-4 engine tuned to use the highly efficient Atkinson cycle. It puts out a modest 104 horsepower, and an electric motor is sandwiched between the engine and Kia’s own 6-speed direct-shift automatic gearbox. The plug-in model has the more powerful motor, at 45 kilowatts (60 hp) rather than the 32-kw (43-hp) motor uses in the regular hybrid. Both versions are rated at 139 hp altogether.

The engine stays at low speeds in high gears as long as possible, with the electric motor offering additional torque when needed and recapturing otherwise wasted energy to charge the battery on overrun and braking. The plug-in can accelerate to highway speed while staying in electric mode, but upgrades or hard acceleration will kick on the engine despite a detent in the accelerator to help the driver keep the car in its electric mode.

The blending of friction and regenerative braking is mostly seamless, though both Niro powertrains occasionally hesitated or lurched during multiple transitions among braking, regeneration, and the transmission shifting. It’s one drawback to Hyundai-Kia’s choice of a single-motor hybrid system rather than the dual-motor setups used by Ford, GM, Honda, and of course Toyota.

Split personality

Behind the wheel, the Niro Hybrid has something of a split personality. It’s sluggish and slow in the standard mode, known as Eco, but peppier (and louder) in the Sport mode produced by pulling the shift lever to the left. That mode keeps the car in lower gears and doesn’t switch off the engine, as well as turning the hybrid power meter into a tachometer. Drivers can shift manually, if they wish, but confusingly there doesn’t appear to be any engine braking from downshifting. We predict virtually all buyers will simply leave the Niro in its default mode.

The car’s fuel-economy ratings, of course, were produced from tests made in Eco mode, and drivers with heavy right feet who do keep it in Sport will see their gas mileage suffer substantially. The Plug-In model adds a switch for “HV” mode that lets a driver conserve battery charge for use in places it’s more appropriate, including quiet neighborhoods or European-style zero-emission zones.

Handling and roadholding is good, far better than that of a taller and heavier all-wheel-drive sport utility vehicle of the same size. There’s far less body roll on corners, and the direct-shift gearbox underscores the “normal” (meaning non-hybrid) feeling of the Niro behind the wheel.

Only the front wheels are driven, though Kia has said its U.S. arm would love to have an all-wheel-drive version to boost sales in wintry regions. The hybrid’s 1.6-kilowatt-hour battery pack sits under the rear seat, and the Plug-In’s larger 8.9-kwh battery pairs that with an additional portion in the area under the cargo floor that replaces any form of spare tire. The plug-in’s charge port is in the left front fender, behind an opening panel that could be a gas-filler door in the wrong place.

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2018 Kia Niro

Comfort & Quality

The 2018 Kia Niro is comfortable, spacious, and practical, with good noise suppression and smart interior design.

Whether it’s a crossover (as Kia claims) or a wagon (as we’d suggest), the 2018 Kia Niro is spacious, comfortable for four people, and pleasantly quiet under most circumstances. We rate it at 6 points out of a possible 10, giving it an extra point above the average for its excellent suppression of most road noise—to the point that some passengers may never realize it’s a hybrid. (Read more about how we rate cars.)

The Niro’s cabin is wide enough to handle five people, though four adults will fit better. Seats set about two inches higher than in most compact small cars make it easier to get in and out, and give better visibility in mixed traffic. But ride quality is good and the relatively low body for a utility vehicle reduces body roll on corners.

The front seats are both comfortable and capable of handling drivers up to 6-foot-6. Two adults will fit in the rear, although their headroom comes from a rear seat back set at more of a recline than in most crossovers. The flat-floored load bay holds 19.4 cubic feet of cargo with the rear seat up, and a generous 54.5 cubic feet when folded down, only about 10 percent less than Kia’s larger and taller Sportage or Soul. While the rear seat’s back folds down and leaves a slight angle in the floor, we discovered that simply putting weight on it effectively produced a flat load floor after all. And without the rear-wheel-drive hardware of a crossover, the load floor is commendably low.

Noise suppression is generally very good in the Niro, with two exceptions. One is when the accelerator is floored, the other is on certain road surfaces that cause the low-rolling-resistance tires to moan or growl. We’d attribute the Niro’s quiet travel to its low drag coefficient, though if you floor the accelerator, the engine noise will rise toward a howl—albeit one somewhere up front, slightly removed from the passenger compartment.

Interior plastics and fabrics give the impression of a nicely outfitted vehicle with matte silver and soft-touch surfaces. The Niro doesn’t try to impress; it has no extravagant design flourishes or eye-catching shapes. It simply all works, from the large rotary knobs on the central console for climate control to the excellent and intuitive Kia icon interface on the central touchscreen.

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2018 Kia Niro

Safety

The 2018 Kia Niro hasn’t been crash-tested by the NHTSA, but the IIHS rates it highly.

Without crash-test results and safety rankings from either the NHTSA, so we can’t give the 2018 Kia Niro our own safety rating. The IIHS, however, gave the 2018 Niro top marks when fitted with LED headlights and automatic emergency braking. (Read more about how we rate cars.)

Every 2018 Niro comes standard with a rearview camera, and the Niro Hybrid has standard blind-spot monitors on the two upper trim levels, EX and Touring. An active-safety bundle of features is available on the same two trims, including adaptive cruise control, lane-departure warnings, and automatic emergency braking. The Touring has front and rear parking sensors as well as the aforementioned gear.

The features are slightly different on the more expensive Niro Plug-In Hybrid, which comes standard with automatic emergency braking, adaptive cruise control, and active lane control rather than the alerts of the Hybrid model. Blind-spot monitors, active lane control, and rear cross-traffic alerts are standard on the EX and EX Premium, with the top-end model alone getting front and rear parking sensors.

Vision out of the Niro is good to the front but only average over the shoulder; despite its wagon-like shape, it has the thick rear roof pillars that are all too common these days. You’ll likely find yourself using the rearview camera and, if it has them, parking sensors when you reverse.

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2018 Kia Niro

Features

The 2018 Kia Niro lineup is well-equipped for the price, and the plug-in hybrid is aggressively priced against competitors.

Now that the 2018 Kia Niro has added a plug-in hybrid version to the conventional hybrid introduced last year, there are two slightly different sets of trim levels. The higher-volume Niro Hybrid comes in base FE, mid-level LX and EX, and high-end Touring trims, while the plug-in hybrid is offered as a base LX, mid-level EX, or top EX Premium.

We give the 2018 Niro lineup 7 out of 10 possible points for its feature content, both standard and optional, adding 1 point apiece for good base content in a hybrid starting under $25,000 and another for the standard 7.0- or 8.0-inch touchscreens. (Read more about how we rate cars.)

The Niro Hybrid FE deletes a few features (including roof rails, keyless ignition, LED taillights) from the much more popular LX model to earn that crucial 50-mpg combined EPA fuel-economy rating. It will be a low-volume version, as will the top-of-the-line Touring model—with every bell and whistle you can order—that comes to around $33,000. The bulk of Niro Hybrids will be LX and EX versions.

All 2018 Niros come standard with dual-zone climate control, LED headlights, 16-inch alloy wheels, a rearview camera, and at least a 7.0-inch color touchscreen for infotainment. Other standard features include two 12-volt outlets, auxiliary and SUB jacks on the console, a 4.2-inch digital display between the instruments, Android Auto and Apple CarPlay compatibility, a 60/40-split folding rear seat, and a clever driver-only setting on the climate control to conserve energy.

Deleted items aside, the FE and LX models are quite similar. The EX adds power folding heated door mirrors with integrated turn signals, blind-spot monitors, cloth and leather upholstery replacing the standard cloth, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, heated front seats, a USB charging port inside the center console, and some added glossy black trim in the interior.

The top of the Niro Hybrid lineup adds 18-inch alloy wheels (which look great but reduce fuel economy), a premium Harman Kardon audio with eight speakers, a 10-way power adjustable driver’s seat, leather upholstery, memory settings for the driver’s door mirror and seat, and front and rear parking sensors.

The Niro Plug-In Hybrid foregoes the bottom FE trim, and its LX, EX, and EX Premium trim levels roughly parallel the top three of the Hybrid lineup. It adds a handful of additional features, including active lane control rather than lane-departure warning, as well as features specific to cars that plug in. Those include a locking charge port, so the car can’t be unplugged while at a public charging station; a charge-timing function to take advantage of lower overnight electric rates; and of course a portable charging cord in a bag attached to the back of the rear seat in the cargo bay.

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2018 Kia Niro

Fuel Economy

The 2018 Kia Niro offers some of the highest fuel-economy ratings you can buy, along with a plug-in hybrid model with 20 or more miles of all-electric range.

We rate cars on the fuel efficiency found in their most popular models, and for the 2018 Kia Niro, the conventional hybrid version will sell considerably more units than the plug-in model. With combined fuel-economy ratings of 49 or 50 mpg for the most efficient versions, and 43 mpg for the more luxurious models, the Niro Hybrid gets 9 out of 10 points on our scale. If we were ranking the Niro Plug-In Hybrid alone, its ability to run a rated 26 miles on electricity alone from its battery pack would give it 10 out of 10. (Read more about how we rate cars.)

As well as that 26-mile EPA range ratings, the plug-in Niro is rated at 105 MPGe when running electrically, and 46 mpg combined when it has reverted to being a conventional hybrid once the battery is depleted. That’s slightly higher than the 43 mpg combined that the equivalent Hybrid model gets, likely because it’s possible to regain more energy via regenerative braking with the bigger battery. We actually put 3 miles of electric range back on the car from a long downhill run after depleting the battery entirely.

The Niro Plug-In Hybrid qualifies for a $4,543 federal income tax credit the year it’s purchased, assuming the buyer’s tax situation permits the full credit to be used. It also earns state purchase rebates of $2,000 in New York and $1,500 in California, among others, plus numerous regional and corporate incentives as well.

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$23,340
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6.4
Overall
Expert Rating
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Styling 6
Performance 4
Comfort & Quality 6
Safety N/A
Features 7
Fuel Economy 9
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2018 Kia Niro Pricing Insights

  • 2018 Kia Niro hybrids available
  • Bonus: $1,750 customer cash
  • Finance: 0.0% for 66 months
  • Lease: From $209 per month (Niro LX)
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