The changes to the 2020 Kia Niro hybrid are not exactly extensive. Normally, a mid-cycle refresh prompts a car company to issue a 50-slide PowerPoint deck and a press release just slightly shorter than Clarissa to explain the various and wonderful new treats in store for the coming model year. In hyping the revised Niro, Kia expended just 181 words; the lyrics to “Bohemian Rhapsody” run more than twice as long. At least it was easy to identify the most significant new feature: the steering-wheel-mounted paddles that control brake regeneration and shifting for the six-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission. Brevity is the soul of wit. Also, sometimes there’s just not that much to talk about.
As we noted when the updated Niro debuted at last year’s Los Angeles Auto Show, the 2020 Niro represents Kia being careful not to ruin a good thing.
A handsome hatch that stands just tall enough to plausibly claim crossover status, the Niro was artfully finessed with a new grille, double-chevron fog lights, and a revised rear fascia. A reorganization for the Niro’s trim levels put our EX Premium tester, formerly the midrange model, at the top of the lineup. Priced at $33,910, Kia spares EX buyers the need to refer to the options sheet. Add-ons are limited to accessories like floor mats and a cargo net because Kia included all the high-zoot luxuries—climate-controlled front seats, a heated steering wheel, adaptive cruise control, and wireless phone charging are all standard.
The cabin blends premium features with a few odd programming choices. The comfy seats, trimmed in synthetic leather with contrasting stitching, suffer from short bolsters. The digital speedometer sits in the right corner of the instrument cluster, hiding behind the steering wheel rim. For some reason, the readout can’t be moved to the seven-inch digital screen in the center of the cluster, with that space reserved for more important instruments—such as a compass.
Glossy black accents help rescue the cabin from dull-plastic monotony at the price of making dust and fingerprints constant foes. The 10.3-inch infotainment screen is usefully large, but Kia limits Android Auto to two-thirds of that screen real estate, with the remaining third reserved for a duplicative tile we couldn’t banish.
Like Marvel’s Ironman, the Niro’s heart can be its greatest strength or its biggest vulnerability, depending on the circumstance. A 1.6-liter four-cylinder makes 104 horsepower and 109 pound-feet of torque, toiling in league with an electric motor that contributes 43 horsepower and 125 pound-feet. The combined output comes to 139 horses and 195 pound-feet. We clocked the drowsy run to 60 mph in 9.5 seconds, matching what we achieved in the former top-tier Touring trim. Speed is not the Niro’s forte.
The Kia’s fuel efficiency, however, is stellar. Thanks to languid throttle response and frequent reliance on the electric side of the powertrain, the Niro’s hybrid system generates the numbers that are responsible for generating sales: 46 mpg city, 51 mpg highway (we averaged 46 mpg on our 75-mph highway test), and 49 mpg combined.
Our tester’s chatty powertrain wouldn’t let us forget how it earned its keep, though. A distractingly loud range of alien synthesizer effects accompanied pure electric motoring at low speeds, like having a Hans Zimmer soundtrack laid over our urban crawls. The faster we went, the better the Niro got, recording a subdued 68 decibels at a 70-mph cruise, slightly quieter than its non-hybrid Hyundai Kona cousin. We did hear an occasional whine from the driveline at highway speeds, just shrill enough to be regrettable and impossible to dismiss once we’d noticed it.
But let’s not forget about that marquee new feature. The Niro’s steering-wheel paddles serve dual purposes, depending on how you’re driving. In Sport mode, the paddles manage shifting, with the left side marked with a minus sign for downshifts, right marked with a plus sign for upshifts. Aside from the leisurely delay between tapping a paddle and the transmission moving a cog—a Porsche PDK, this is not—the action is standard practice. In default Eco mode, however, the paddles control four levels of brake energy recuperation and work the opposite way, with the left paddle increasing energy recuperation and the right decreasing it. Having been trained for years that the right paddle means more—speed, gears, parsecs, regen, whatever—we always pulled the wrong paddle first.
The first two recuperation modes feel like training-wheel settings to help hybrid novices learn the segment’s esoterica. Level 3 starts to bring purposeful deceleration, albeit not enough for smooth one-pedal driving. Managing the uneven deceleration wrought by recuperation and transmission downshifts requires traffic spacing and timing that wouldn’t please other commuters. The Eco driving experience, defined by pervasive blandness and a soggy exhaust note, is all about efficiency over fun.
Flipping to Sport mode—announced with a graphic of twin flames arcing across the dash screen—reveals the extent to which Kia bottled up the engine to target fuel economy. The Niro still isn’t fast, but at least there’s a dual-clutch transmission to play with. You don’t get that in the CVT-only Prius.
Speaking of which, “not a Prius” is pretty much the Niro’s business model. But, considering Toyota’s United States sales figures, not even the Prius is a Prius anymore. Sales of Japan’s hybrid icon have declined by two-thirds since 2012, from 236,555 units to 69,718 last year. The Niro sells a mere fraction of that, moving 24,467 units in hybrid, plug-in PHEV, and full EV varieties in 2019. That’s a 13-percent decline compared to 2018, but that’s better than its platform twin, the Hyundai Ioniq. It probably doesn’t help that the best Niro, the 201-hp EV, isn’t even sold in every state. It also doesn’t help that the Honda Accord hybrid starts at $27,325, is bigger, has 212 horsepower, gets to 60 mph in 7.1 seconds, and gets stamped with a EPA combined fuel-economy rating of 48 mpg.
Consistently low fuel prices and intensifying competition from newer hybrids and EVs means the Niro probably won’t be the breakout hybrid hit we thought possible three years ago. Despite that, buyers who demand super-stingy fuel economy—falling in line just behind the Ioniq and the Prius—in a package that can credibly impersonate a crossover will find what they need right here.
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