Kia ready for 2020 with updated Niro Hybrid
Kia, one of the most consistent brands for rising sales in the European region, is on course to sell perhaps as many as 75,000 Niros this year. Available in hybrid, plug-in hybrid and electric forms, the C segment crossover also positions the brand well for the sub-100g/km CO2 average which will be mandated in the bloc from 2020.
About six or seven years ago, Hyundai Motor Group was finalising plans to tackle the Prius, having watched it reach ever great sales heights in the USA. The decision was taken to give Hyundai Motor Company and Kia Motors Corporation one vehicle each and see what happened if the bodies were crossovers rather than hatchbacks. Plus go for the Achilles Heel of Toyota Motor Company: enormous spending on hybrid technology but back then, very little on PHEVs or EVs. Why not offer all three choices and see how buyers respond, HMG decided.
Fast forward to late 2019 and the Toyota which started the hybrid craze more than twenty years ago keeps sliding down the sales charts in the US. For various reasons, the Prius will likely struggle to reach 70,000 deliveries in that market by year end. By contrast, HMG's approach has worked wonders for both its mainstream brands. The real genius of the Hyundai Ioniq and Kia Niro is that while Toyota took way too long to see that PHEVs and EVs could complement rather than replace petrol hybrids, HMG has found brisk demand for all three propulsion systems in its 4.3m long crossover twins. That doesn't apply in all markets though, with the Niro only available as a hybrid in the USA, for example.
Kia launched this model solely as a hybrid back in 2016, production at the Hwasung/Hwaseong plant which makes the car for all markets commencing in March of that year. Early production was well under 50,000 units a year as the ramp-up took some time. That number has since proved to be way too unambitious, especially after the PHEV (2017 Geneva show world debut) and EV (June 2018: Busan motor show) were added.
Facelifts for two of the three Niros
Kia has been clever enough not to rest on its laurels. Facelifts for the HUV and PHEV premiered at the Geneva motor show in March. Why not for the EV too? At that point it was less than a year old so any adjustments to its appearance would have been too soon. Kia may well update it in 2020 but as the second generation Niro is probably due in 2022, there may not be a facelift for the current EV/e-Niro.
The main part of the changes with the update are to the HUV's external appearance, with a new bumpers, headlights and grille. The DRL are now below the headlights and have a double-arrow shape, while the headlights adopt Kia's signature 'ice cube' theme. At the back end, there is now a silver-coloured skid plate plus new reflectors and repositioned fog lamps.
The HUV is powered by a 104kW and 147Nm 1.6-litre four-cylinder direction injection engine from HMG's Kappa series. It was engineered specifically for hybrid applications and features the Atkinson Cycle, cooled exhaust gas recirculation (EGR), and a long-stroke-narrow-bore specification to maximise efficiency. There is an exhaust heat recovery system, which speeds engine warm-up by routing coolant to a heat exchanger in the exhaust system.
A 32kW and 170Nm tractive motor, known as the transmission-mounted electric device (TMED), works in tandem with the petrol engine to produce a combined 103kW (141PS) and 265Nm (195 lb-ft) of torque. The standard transmission is a six-speed dual-clutch gearbox and the 1.56-kWh Lithium Ion Polymer battery is located underneath the rear seat.
Living with a Niro HUV
There is no such thing as an unattractive or undesirable Kia, so criticism centres on some small things. First though, the great stuff: amazing headroom, a good size boot for a hybrid (373 l) - although the CR-V Hybrid test car which followed the Niro is way more spacious, just saying - no irritatingly glitzy-pulsing-flashing graphics (take note Honda), an understated dashboard and amazing energy recovery under braking.
This is one of those petrol-electrics where you can slow the thing to a halt fairly quickly just by holding the left paddle. Need to speed things up? One prod on the right one and the kinetic harvesting stops. It isn't often that driving economically can be this satisfying.
The minor annoyances are the usual tiresome 'friendly' Kia electronic ding-dongs (none, please) and ideally, I would want lane keeping assist to be off as the default. The Niro's system is like a dog pulling on a lead. Not good. You just have to get into the habit of hitting the off button every time you start the car or else soon enough the steering wheel is shifting annoyingly in your hands and without reason to. I will not be alone in hearing often from friends and colleagues who dislike certain 'assistance' features. Some of this tech causes many people to say they won't buy a car from brand X again if it comes with nagging guardian angels that cannot be experienced once and then deactivated.
One other thing which many Kias share is an admirably low tailgate opening height. There is a flip side to that, which is on cars without electric opening and closing, dirty fingers in winter months from the hidden handle. And on the Niro, a puddle forms in the recess where you insert said fingers if the Niro is parked forwards on a downhill slope, such as my driveway. I did say minor points.
No-one is going to fall in love with a Niro HUV as it wasn't developed for the kind of people who admire Kia for the Stinger. You can grow fond of it though, and when the economy is a realistic 55mpg (officially, 54.3 for Combined) and the CO2 average is 99g/km, it's a car that will garner respect.
Pricing ranges from GBP24,590-29,855, which might seem steep to some for a Kia, yet the brand is steadily headed upwards to VW levels of image. As for the PHEV, there are two variants (GBP31,945 or GBP32,530 for Standard or Premium Paint) with the EV costing either GBP36,495 or GBP37,080 in 'First Edition' form.
Future electrified Kias
A mild hybrid powertrain for the Ceed goes into production at Žilina in mid-November, to be followed at month-end by PHEV versions of the XCeed and Ceed estate at the same factory. As far as global models go, next year's new MQ4 Sorento will also come in hybrid and plug-in hybrid forms, then a bespoke EV will join the range in 2021. The Imagine By Kia concept from this year's Geneva show gave away some of the looks of that vehicle.
The 4,430mm long HabaNiro, a concept which was revealed at the New York auto show in April, was about the same size as the Niro. A bright red slash across the rear pillars was meant to link the name to a ripe chilli pepper.
Kia has hinted that there might be a production car based on this model: "Some will assume the HabaNiro concept will never be built, but we don't advise betting the farm on it", was the official line quoted in the press statement about the concept. The concept is likely to have been a rough guide to how the second generation will look.
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