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2023 Kia Niro: A compact SUV with a lot to offer [First Drive]

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Kia Motor America introduced the 2023 Niro at the New York Auto Show, and this interesting compact SUV gets a serious upgrade in the tech and looks departments.

While the aggressive cladding and available two-tone paint treatment can be a bit polarizing, this second-generation Niro has a lot to offer – including standard safety and different powertrain options.

The power of 3

The 2023 Niro, like the previous generation, offers three powertrain options: hybrid (HEV), plug-in hybrid (PHEV) and full electric (EV). It’s related to the former Hyundai Ioniq, which operated under the same powertrain trio. But whereas Hyundai decided to turn the Ioniq into an all-electric brand, Kia stuck with the Niro tri-powered strategy – and we’re glad they did.

The base powertrain will be the HEV, which includes a 1.6-liter 4-cylidner engine paired to a 32 kW electric motor. It will deliver 139 horsepower and returns an EPA estimated 53 MPG fuel economy. Driving range is an estimated 588 miles.

The PHEV starts with the same 1.6-liter engine but adds a 62 kW electric motor and an 11.1-kWh lithium-ion polymer battery. This ups the system output to 180 horsepower, and with the addition of the battery, all-electric range is 33 miles and the estimated fuel economy is 108 MPGe. The battery can charge in less than 3 hours using a Level 2 at-home charger.

The EV is going to be the powerhouse of the group, and it is equipped with a 64.8 kWh battery and a 150 kW motor. It delivers 201 horsepower and has up to 253 miles of range. It comes standard with DC fast-charge capability and can go from a 10% charge to 80% within in 45 minutes on a fast charger. Using a Level 2 at-home charger, it can charge fully in less than 7 hours.

Driving dynamics

As a compact SUV, the 2023 Niro is quite maneuverable and falls more on the fun-to-drive side of the spectrum – at least the EV and PHEV do. We spent some time on twisty bits as well as the highway, and I appreciated the lower center of gravity and quick acceleration both the EV and PHEV deliver.

The HEV, however, definitely felt a bit wimpy – especially after taking a turn in the EV. It has nice off-the-line acceleration, but after hitting about 30 MPH, the hybrid falls a bit flat. Plus, the engine noise creeping into the cabin is quite noticeable, but perhaps it wouldn’t have bothered me if I hadn’t driven the EV first.

However, the turning radius for all three variants is phenomenal, which makes this ideal for tight urban situations.

3 fave features

Though some will call the design polarizing, I actually like the uniqueness of it. The previous generation looked more like a wagon, but this new one looks and feels more like an SUV. I like the bold cladding, two-tone paint options and the edgy look of the taillights. On the inside, I’m a huge fan of the of the large curved display glass on the up-level trims  as well as the dash design.

I also really appreciated the thoughtful switch design of the HVAC and audio controls. They’re a touch screen, and you can toggle between climate and nav/radio menus with the press of a “button.” I especially love the fact you get dials for temperature, volume and tuning because of this design. No slider screens or weird buttons.

Another great feature is the sustainability of the materials used inside the cabin. All the textiles are vegan, which means no leather, but the touch points and surfaces are still tactilely pleasing. The headliner is made of recycled wallpaper, the seating surfaces utilize eucalyptus leaves, and the paint is BTX-free.

One of my favorite features, however, is the inclusion of the “iPedal,” intelligent regenerative braking, on the EV model. This allows for one-pedal driving, which is the most aggressive level and recoups the most kinetic energy. It also allows you to control throttle and braking simply by lifting applying pressure to the accelerator pedal.

A word about the aero blades

On social media, I got a lot of questions about the black or silver “aero blades” seen on the vehicles I drove during the media preview. They are functional aerodynamic vents and create a two-tone look. Some compared it to the Audi R8 and others likened to the smart forfour. Whichever camp you fall in, you’ll probably be happy to know that though the blades themselves aren’t optional, the paint color is. On HEV and PHEV models you can opt for black blades, and on the EV you can opt for silver. The key word here is “opt.” The two-tone color is an upcharge, and matching body paint is standard.

I should also point out these body panels aren’t plastic inserts – they’re actually painted body panels.

Things I don’t like

I think Kia has generally done a great job with the 2023 Niro, but there are still a few things that bother me. The biggest thing I don’t like is the location of the rear turn indicators. They are very low, and if someone is tailgating or has a larger vehicle, these tiny lights will be easily missed.

I’m also peeved that Kia (and Hyundai and Genesis) hasn’t figured out the wireless Apple CarPlay/Android Auto situation. It offers this feature as standard fare – with the base 8-inch screen. But as soon as you level up on the screen size, you essential get a tech downgrade and have to wire in to use the phone mirroring software.

Something else that’s weird: With all the standard and available safety tech (including lane change assist!), there’s no 360-degree around-view camera.

Finally, I wish Niro had all-wheel drive availability. I understand Kia would like you to upgrade to EV6 if you’re looking for AWD. Plus there’s the expense associated with adding an additional drivetrain. But still.

2023 Kia Niro

Which Niro would I choose?

I’ll start by saying the lack of power and interior noise of the HEV make that a big no for me. And while I love the quick power, interior quietness and silver aero blades offered on the EV, this falls in at No. 2 for me.

So, yep, I’d choose the PHEV because, for me, it hits the sweet spot of enough electric range to do my city errands, but gives me all the ease and convenience a gas powertrain offers – especially with my frequent trips to and from Indianapolis. The benefits of an EV for daily drives but the extended range and convenience of gas when I need it.

Pricing

The pricing comes in two forms. First, the Kia hybrid model has an increased base price of $27,785 – up $1,800 from the 2022 model.

For the plug-in hybrid, the EX comes in at $35,035 and the Niro plug-in hybrid SX touring comes in at $40,785.

While we don’t have the pricing for the EV, if we apply a similar increase, you’re looking at starting prices of around $43k for the EV.

Since the 2022 EV6 starts at $42,695, this likely means the larger and newer EV will also get a price boost for 2023. I mean, we can’t have the Niro costing more than its slightly larger and more tech-forward brother.

The bottom line on the 2023 Kia Niro

I really love the three-prong powertrain strategy Niro offers. Plus, the new design and tech inclusions are next level for a vehicle on the entry-level side of the spectrum. The puzzler is going to be pricing and how Kia will differentiate the 2023 Niro from the 2023 EV6.

The 2023 Niro HEV is hitting dealers now, and the PHEV and EV should follow in about 30 to 60 days.

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Jill Ciminillo

Jill Ciminillo is the Managing Editor for Pickup Truck + SUV Talk as well as a Chicago-based automotive writer, YouTube personality and podcast host, with her articles and videos appearing in outlets throughout the U.S. Additionally, she co-hosts a weekly radio show on car stuff for a local Chicago station. Previously, Jill has been the automotive editor for both newspaper and broadcast media conglomerates. She is also a past president for the Midwest Automotive Media Association and has the distinction of being the first female president for that organization. Jill is also currently a juror for the North American Car, Utility and Truck of the Year (NACTOY).

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