|✓ Funky new styling||☓ Buzzy, underpowered engine, especially on hills|
|✓ Still remarkably efficient (with PHEV and EV options, |
if you want to go further)
|☓ No AWD option|
|✓ Affordable starting price||☓ Firm ride|
|✓ Well-equipped from the EX model upward||☓ SX Touring model is pricey|
Overview: The Kia Niro was already one of the brand’s most efficient ICE cars. Is this new hybrid even better?
Think “hybrid SUV”, and the first cars to pop into your head are likely the Toyota RAV4 Hybrid and Honda CR-V Hybrid. After all, those are the most popular SUVs on the market right now, but the small Kia Niro has made a strong case for itself over the past five years. Not only is it an affordable and efficient proposition, but like the now-defunct Hyundai Ioniq it offers a range of conventional hybrid, plug-in hybrid and fully electric models to suit your needs and budget. Kia gave the Niro a near-complete makeover for 2023 with bold new styling and a plethora of technology, but is it markedly better than the first-generation car?
Even though it’s been a few years since I had the opportunity to drive the original Niro, I still remember it as a thoroughly competent and efficient, bang-for-your-buck daily driver. To see whether this one improves on the formula, I took the new 2023 Kia Niro for a road trip over the Rocky Mountains from Boulder to Grand Junction, Colorado — a 600-mile road trip to test its livability as well as the HEV’s biggest selling point: its fuel economy.
On paper, things look promising.
The 2023 Kia Niro is rated up to 54 mpg on the highway in its base LX trim, with higher versions like the SX Touring I drove managing 53 City / 45 Highway / 53 Combined mpg according to EPA ratings. Unlike other hybrids that yoke the gas engine and electric motor to a CVT, the Niro also gets a 6-speed dual-clutch automatic across the range.
The base Hybrid (HEV) model comes with a 139-horsepower, 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine just like before. Whether that’s enough power for you depends on your own preferences and where you live (more on that below), but compromising on power gets you the most fuel efficient vehicle Kia currently makes. Stepping up to the pricier plug-in hybrid gets you a heartier 180 horsepower, while adding in a larger 11.1-kWh battery that allows you to drive about 33 miles on electricity alone.
Pricing for the 2023 Kia Niro Hybrid starts at $27,915 including destination for the base LX model. The EX and EX Touring add on more creature comforts, while the SX and SX Touring offer sportier styling by way of extra gloss black trim, with the latter topping out the range with bells and whistles like LED projector headlights, a power liftgate, ventilated leather seats (they’re ‘vegan’ leather, for what that’s worth to you) and a heated steering wheel.
The plug-in hybrid starts off at $35,165 for the EX trim, with the fully-loaded SX Touring being the only other trim option on the PHEV. As before, Kia also launched a new version of the Niro EV, but we’ll cover that in a separate review once we get the opportunity to try it out.
Taking in the new look
One complaint I had with the old Niro — and a lot of past-decade Kias, for that matter — is the fairly anonymous styling. Clearly, the Korean automaker is working to break out of that box with its most recent models. The electric EV6 and EV9 are probably the boldest examples of the company’s new design direction, but it’s good to see they aren’t forgetting about the relatively humble Niro. Alongside the ever-funky Soul, the Niro’s new look gets people talking, whether it’s about the exterior or interior.
You’re starting to see more second-generation Niros out in the wild, and this certainly catches my eye more than your run-of-the-mill CR-V or RAV4 would. Those cars look absolutely fine, but they don’t quite hit the same level of distinctive as Kia’s gone for here (as well as with the larger Sportage). Think about it: Would you rather walk out to this every morning or a Corolla Cross?
The 2023 Kia Niro has a smart interior…with a few quirks
In the time I drove the redesigned Niro, I definitely warmed to the exterior design more than I ever did the old one. Fortunately, as I hit the road for my 600-mile trip, the interior impressed me as well. I like the dual-screen cluster and infotainment layout, with a central 4.2-inch TFT screen displaying important driving information. The 10.25-inch infotainment screen, for its part, comes standard on all but the base LX, but you still get an 8-inch screen with that model. The dual-spoke steering wheel (à la EV6) is also a nice touch, and the Niro offers an intuitive layout for most of your commonly used controls. Most.
That’s not to say the 2023 Kia Niro’s interior is perfect — it has some distinctive drawbacks you will run into on a long trip. The first, and perhaps most annoying, is the bank of “switches” on the center stack for the media and climate controls. You probably noticed there’s only one set shown above (that photo shows the media controls), and you have to press a touch button near the middle of that bank to switch over to the climate controls, and vice-versa.
See that yellow-highlighted button between two lines? That is how you do it, much like you would in the EV6. It technically cleans things up under the infotainment screen so Kia doesn’t need to fit a million individual buttons and it does work, at least when the car’s brand-new. It’s still confusing at first, nonetheless — especially when you’re using the knobs to adjust the volume or track settings and end up changing the A/C temperature instead.
Two of the Niro’s other interior quirks bug me, as well.
Kia seems keen to hold onto the console-mounted, T-shaped shifter design for its gas models, and it just feels out of place among the brand’s other futuristic design elements. Some folks will appreciate still having a physical shifter, I’ll grant you that, but why not use a dial across the range, instead of just the Niro EV? That would fix the issue of the shifter obscuring the passenger-side buttons like the parking cameras and sensors, so you’ll actually remember you have them in the first place.
Another small and admittedly frivolous gripe I have with the 2023 Kia Niro lies within the instrument cluster screen. Kia’s font for its center information display is clear, crisp and sharp, as you can see above. Why, then, do the digital-only speedometer and tachometer have an old-school seven-segment display look? With any new car, the minor attention to detail items tend to impress me the most, but they can also be the things that annoy me the most. It’s a fully digital display that can display the same font in the speedo/tach areas as everywhere else, but this decision is one weird carryover element that dates the car, in my opinion. You may be rolling your eyes and wondering why I harp on it, but I thought it best to bring that up because it’s something you’ll look at all the time.
Overall, the new model still brings a classy interior to a mainstream package
Despite what I consider to be some outdated bits, the 2023 Kia Niro offers a contemporary experience once you’re inside. The vegan leather seats strike a nice balance between support and comfort. On top of that, you actually get decent legroom in both rows (41.5 inches up front and 39.8 inches in the rear), making it a great little long-distance cruiser for four adults. I’d hesitate to push it with a fifth person since this is still a small car, but you’re no worse off for passenger volume here than you were in the old Niro.
The new model also adds in nice touches like ambient lighting, soft-touch materials where you need them and USB-C chargers for rear passengers on the front seatbacks. EX trims and above get wireless smartphone charging, while the SX and SX Touring trims get a banging seven-speaker Harman Kardon stereo system. Really, a solid stereo is a must for a good road trip car, and the 2023 Kia Niro delivers there. Even lesser models still get a six-speaker setup, it’s just not as punchy as the higher-end option.
Fuel economy: Great! Performance? Eh, it’s definitely a trade-off…
Just driving around town, the 2023 Kia Niro Hybrid felt pretty nippy, despite its miserly 139-horsepower rating. That’s likely down to the decent torque, which actually comes out to 195 lb-ft thanks to two electric motors that assist the gas engine. Kia’s entry-level hybrid continued to prove itself as a solid commuter, but getting it out onto high-speed highways really exposed its lack of oomph.
In a nutshell, the Niro makes the point that you can have fuel economy or performance, but not both at once. Taking the Niro over mountain passes like Vail and the Eisenhower Tunnel — the highest point on the Interstate system, at 11,158 feet above sea level — will absolutely strangle the Hybrid to within an inch of its life. I kept my foot welded to the floor just to maintain the 60 mph speed limit up the grades, as I was stuck between losing speed in fourth gear and hitting the redline anytime I tried downshifting to third.
Get it in ideal conditions, and the standard Niro Hybrid will make the 0-60 mph sprint in around 10 seconds. By most accounts, this is certainly no sports car and a frustrating drive over the hills really brought that home. What’s more, the electric motors won’t really help improve your fuel economy at highway speeds, as my astounding fuel economy numbers tanked when driving at Colorado’s 75 mph speed limit on I-70.
The 2023 Kia Niro performs best around town and at what I’d consider “back road” speeds, between 40 and 50 mph.
Get it in that butter zone and you’ll stay well ahead of the EPA estimates for fuel economy. Even with the pedal-down action in both directions over the hills, though, the downhill coasting and slower-speed bits meant I still managed 47-48 mpg combined over the 600-mile run. Go for the base LX trim, and you should stick well above 50 mpg in most situations.
While it’s no sports car, the new Kia Niro does handle the twisting back roads with poise and relatively little drama. The ride proved firm over a long trip (keep that in mind if you’re looking for a cushier, floaty experience), though that does help when the going gets curvy.
Other than the Hybrid’s anemic performance, the only other major downside with the Niro is the complete lack of an all-wheel drive option anywhere in the range. So, if you want more surefooted all-whether hybrid, you will have to go elsewhere.
Verdict: The 2023 Kia Niro is a solid road trip companion, and good value if…
Even with the momentary frustrations I outlined earlier, the 2023 Kia Niro Hybrid is still a rock-solid choice if you’re looking for a practical and efficient car with some visual zest. It doesn’t scream “boring” like some of its more conventional segment rivals and it still returns excellent fuel economy, provided you aren’t running it through the mountains every weekend. In the same vein, the FWD-only layout may be another reason you’ll have to skip over the Niro for an AWD option.
If you do use Kia’s hybrid hatch for a cross-country adventure, keep in mind the cargo volume is also just average. The Niro packs 22.8 cubic feet of space with the rear seats in place, expanding to 63.7 cubic feet once you fold them. That’s competitive, but not class-leading.
At $36,435 for the fully-loaded SX Touring model, the value proposition really isn’t as strong for a budget-conscious buyer. If you’re looking for the best bang for your buck, I’d strongly recommend saving about $6,000 and going for the EX instead. You’ll still get a host of standard equipment including the larger infotainment screen, wireless charging and Kia’s Drive Wise driver assistance suite with forward collision avoidance, lane keep assist, high-beam assist and a number of other safety features. The EX starts at $30,515 before options.
An important note for Niro buyers: Instrument cluster recall
One other crucial consideration if you’re shopping the new Niro. In February, Kia recalled nearly 109,000 vehicles with the 4.2-inch center instrument cluster display, including the Niro HEV, PHEV and EV. The cluster may go blank and fail to display information to the driver including tire pressure and warning lights.
The blank screen puts it out of compliance with U.S. Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards, but Kia said it was not aware of any crashes or injuries due to the fault. Dealers can fix it by updating the instrument cluster software, so make sure that work’s been done before you take a new (or lightly used) Niro home. Kia’s recall number for that campaign is SC270.