Preview: 2023 Kia Niro Trio Make Evolutionary Advancements
The redesigned model features new styling and updated interior tech, and the hybrid, plug-in hybrid, and EV powertrains gain efficiency
Kia unveiled the second generation of its genre-splitting 2023 Niro this week at the New York International Auto Show. As with the original model, the 2023 Kia Niro slots in between a wagon and a small SUV, and it will continue to offer buyers three efficient modes of transport: traditional hybrid, plug-in hybrid, and pure-electric models.
The 2023 Niro is ever-so-slightly larger than the outgoing model, and with this size increase it gains passenger and cargo volume, according to Kia. Yet the automaker says the vehicle has actually lost weight in the process, thanks to the new, lighter platform the Niro is built on. It also has a new infotainment system, as well as a plethora of standard active safety and driver assistance features.
Thanks to its high stance, conservative styling, and a traditional-acting automatic transmission, we found that the previous Niro hybrid successfully combined fuel economy with versatility in our testing. When compared with conventional wagons and small SUVs, the 43 mpg overall that the Niro achieved in our testing is impressive. But that figure was 9 mpg shy of the sleeker Toyota Prius and Hyundai Ioniq, and 11 mpg aft of the Honda Insight, our current hybrid fuel-economy champ among cars that don’t have to be plugged in. This was mostly due to the Niro’s extra weight and more upright, less aerodynamic body shape.
Kia looks to have improved upon the Niro’s efficiency deficits with the new model—bringing improved fuel mileage for the hybrid, a longer electric range for the plug-in hybrid, and an increased driving range for the EV version—thanks to reduced weight and a more aerodynamic body. It accomplished this feat despite the fact that the three powertrains are mostly carryovers.
Determining whether Kia was able to improve on the Niro hybrid’s other shortcomings—in particular, the long braking distances, choppy ride, bumpy shifts, and lack of front-seat comfort—will have to wait until we buy our own vehicles to put through Consumer Reports’ auto test program.
We found the electric version of the previous generation Niro much more satisfying to drive than the hybrid, with quick, silent acceleration, sharper handling, and a more comfortable ride.
It’s unfortunate that, as before, none of the Niro variants will be available with all-wheel drive, a serious shortcoming for buyers who live in snowy climates.
The Niro is marginally larger than the outgoing model. The wheelbase is longer by almost an inch and overall length is up by 2.5 inches, which Kia claims results in improved cabin space and cargo room. The Niro’s same basic tall wagon/small SUV-esque silhouette remains, with a few spruced-up details. Up front, the headlights are now much lower, about even with the grille, instead of running up the fenders as on the last model. The sides of the vehicle are still fairly smooth, but Kia gave the new Niro big chunks of aggressive, black body cladding at the base of the doors.
It’s toward the rear where the Niro looks like an entirely different vehicle, though. It starts with an element on the rear three-quarter panel that Kia calls the “Aero Blade.” The body is lifted slightly at the C-pillar, allowing air to slip between it and the Niro’s body near the liftgate. Kia says this design aids airflow. And when painted in one of several available contrasting colors, it will stand out from the rest of the vehicle.
But possibly the most dramatic feature is the new taillights: Shaped like a boomerang, the LED treatment makes the Niro look like a wholly different vehicle than the one it replaces—at least when viewed from the rear. In fact, they’re reminiscent of the taillights found on Volvo’s stylish SUVs.
The interior design of the Niro borrows cues from the all-electric Kia EV6. The Niro can be outfitted with dual 10.25-inch screens for the instrument cluster and infotainment touch screen, which appear to flow as one giant display horizontally across the dashboard.
The Niro even looks to share the same split-use climate and media control system—which we’re not wholly fond of—found in the EV6, as well as the 2023 Kia Sportage. With this setup, the media system’s volume and tuning knobs double as the temperature controls for the driver and passenger, respectively. It forces the front occupants to have to switch back and forth between functions. The new Niro also has similarly low-mounted center dash vents as the EV6, which tend to do a better job sending air to your elbows than your upper body.
On the bright side, the Niro is available with a head-up display that projects items such as vehicle speed, directions, and active safety warnings onto the windshield within the driver’s direct line of sight. Wireless Android Auto and Apple CarPlay capability are standard, and a wireless phone charger is optional.
Kia made it a point of emphasis that the Niro EV’s interior is composed of animal-free textiles, including the seating surfaces and other touchpoints throughout the cabin. The headliner, for example, is composed of recycled wallpaper. Fortunately, it doesn’t have the flower bouquet pattern from Grandma’s house.
What Drives It
As with the outgoing Niro, three versions will be available: hybrid, plug-in hybrid, and fully-electric. All three come only with front-wheel drive, meaning no all-wheel-drive availability for people who live in snowy parts of the country. Also as before, the two hybrids come with a six-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission, as opposed to the continuously variable transmission (CVT) that many hybrids are equipped with. The horsepower figures for all three Niro models remain unchanged from the previous generation.
The regular Niro hybrid uses a 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine coupled with an electric motor for a combined 139 hp. Although the hybrid’s power output remains the same, Kia says improvements to the powertrain’s operation yield greater efficiency—the automaker estimates the Niro hybrid, depending on the trim, will be capable of up to a 53 mpg combined EPA rating. The previous mainstream Niro EX trim managed 43 mpg overall in our testing.
The Niro plug-in hybrid pairs the 1.6-liter four-cylinder with a more powerful electric motor that gives a total system output of 180 hp. Due to a larger battery than the regular hybrid, the plug-in version can drive on electric power for longer periods—now up to an estimated 33 miles, a 7-mile improvement over the old version. When using Level 2 charging (240-volts), the Niro PHEV can replenish its 11.1 kWh lithium-ion polymer battery in under three hours, Kia says.
In addition to Sport and Eco drive modes, both Niro hybrids will have a new Green Zone Drive Mode that automatically switches the powertrain into EV drive mode when going through residential areas, and near schools and hospitals.
The Niro EV is powered by a 201 hp electric motor with a 64.8 kWh battery. Kia says it’s targeting a 253-mile driving range vs. the 239-mile range of the outgoing model. The ability to use DC fast-charging stations comes standard, which allows the Niro EV to replenish the battery from a 10 percent state-of-charge to 80 percent in less than 45 minutes. An optional heat pump and battery warmer help preserve range in cold temperatures.
Active Safety and Driver Assistance Systems
Forward collision warning, automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection, blind spot warning, rear cross traffic warning, lane centering assistance, and lane keeping assistance are standard. All Niros also come with Kia’s Safe Exit Warning, which can sense if a vehicle or bicycle is approaching from behind or alongside—a helpful feature when parked on a city street and an occupant is about to open a door into traffic. The Niro also comes with Rear Occupant Alert, which uses rear-door logic to warn the driver, via audible alerts and visual warnings, to check the rear seat for children or pets when the ignition is turned off.