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First Drive: Kia Niro Hybrid First Edition

Does being a crossover car and a hybrid make the Niro a hybrid hybrid?

Kia is putting an iron in plenty of fires with the Niro. Not only is it the Korean firm’s first dedicated hybrid model, it’s also its first crossover model, sitting somewhere between the Cee’d Sportswagon and Sportage SUV.

If the use of the word ‘crossover’ sets your teeth on edge, it’s worth noting that it’s the most searched for motoring term on Google. The crossover – a compact not-quite-an-SUV – clearly isn’t going disappear any time soon, and remains a profitable growth area across Europe. The Niro isn’t quite as beefed-up as the crossover label might suggest though, looking something like a traditional estate car that’s been jacked up a tad.

However, it’s the electrification of the Niro that should be the talking point. Rather than taking an existing model and adding a hybrid package to it, the Niro has been developed from scratch as a hybrid. In fact customers won’t be able to buy one powered by a conventional petrol or diesel engine, although a plug-in hybrid will be following in due course.

The First Edition launch special sees Kia throwing every toy at the Niro. That includes 18-inch wheels that might look good but they cause all sorts of problems with both the ride quality and economy.

The ride on the large rims is unsettled, with every surface imperfection making itself known in the cabin. There’s ultimately no shortage of grip, and body roll is well contained, but it’s best described as capable rather than involving. A quick run in a ‘2’ spec model with smaller 16-inch wheels shows that there’s a refined chassis hiding underneath the bling, the cheaper model being far smoother and more comfortable.

The smaller wheels also aid economy, with 74.3mpg promised (mid-50’s is a more realistic real-world figure) alongside CO2 emissions of a tax-free 88g/km. The First Edition’s economy drops to 64.2 (and rarely strayed above 45mpg on test) with CO2 emissions a disappointing 101g/km, just one gramme over the tax-free threshold.

On the move it’s all very refined and quiet, although won’t win any performance awards. The electric motor allows for limited silent running, but even with the petrol engine accompanying things, it remains quiet and civilised. A ‘Sport’ mode allows for a snappier response from the throttle, but the gearbox struggles to keep up and, while there is plenty of grip on offer, it’s not provided in an engaging way so drivers would be better off kicking back and relaxing.

Interestingly, Kia won’t be promoting the Niro as an eco-warrior green option, but as a method of providing a practical and entertaining car that happily also sips at fuel and emits fewer damaging discharges from the tailpipe. For now, that means there’s a petrol engine producing 104bhp that works with a 43bhp electric motor, all going to the front wheels through a six-speed twin-clutch automatic gearbox rather than the more popular CVT box – this allows keener drivers to select gears manually.

Aside from outright performance and economy issues, the Niro is a pleasant car. The interior is spacious, comfortable and very well equipped. The dashboard flows into the infotainment screen, and there are easy to use heating and stereo controls. Every touch point is clad in soft plastics, with the harder, cheaper stuff being kept well hidden.

The value proposition has been beefed up, as you might expect with Kia, with a long list of safety kit (including lane keeping assist, hill-start assist, autonomous emergency braking, blind spot detection, rear cross traffic alert, and so on) that contributes to a five-star EuroNCAP rating, and an even longer equipment that includes, for the first time on a Kia, Android Auto that allows smartphone users to connect with their car.

As ever, Kia’s unique seven-year warranty comes as standard. This covers the hybrid powertrain too, providing buyers with the best hybrid warranty available in the UK. That warranty is also transferable, should the car be sold before the seven years is up.

Kia’s first hybrid in the UK is a strong start, with the larger Optima saloon to follow shortly. There then follows a plan to launch EVs, hybrids, plug-ins and even fuel cell cars by 2020. They won’t be disappointed if this first effort is anything to go by.

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