Kia claims that the Niro is fun to drive, but while it's pleasant enough, ‘fun’ might be stretching it a little. Considering the height of the Niro, plus the weight of its batteries and electric motor, there’s surprisingly little body lean when you corner quickly. But its steering isn’t particularly engaging and doesn’t feel totally connected to the front wheels; this doesn’t inspire confidence in corners. We haven’t had the chance to drive the plug-in Niro yet, but the extra weight of its bigger battery is unlikely to help its stability on the road. The conventionally powered Seat Ateca provides a much more composed driving experience.
More impressive is the way the Niro's petrol engine and electric motor work together seamlessly through the standard six-speed automatic gearbox. The car automatically switches between power sources at the most suitable moment, and the transition between the two is so smooth that it's almost imperceptible. It occasionally hesitates briefly when pulling away, though, and it takes a firm push on the accelerator to build speed quickly, such as when joining a motorway from a slip road.
As with most hybrid cars, the Niro has a regenerative braking system to recover energy that would be lost during braking and harness it to top the battery up. This system is beneficial on urban routes, where it helps when slowing down gently towards traffic lights, but isn’t enough alone to bring you to a full stop. Push the brake more firmly and there’s a distinct step before the conventional brakes begin to cut in – a quirk that takes some getting used to.
The ride is comfortable, especially at higher speeds, with the suspension doing a fine job of absorbing road imperfections such as speed bumps or expansion joints. Smaller ridges such as potholes do send a bit of a shudder through the interior, though.
Refinement is another strong point. Thanks in part to its electric motor, the Niro is quiet at low speeds; only when pushed hard does the petrol engine become noisy. The rest of the time the engine noise fades into the background, sending virtually no vibration through the controls.
You do notice more wind and noise at higher speeds than in the Seat Ateca, but this is in part down to the quiet engine emphasising other noises in the cabin. It’s nothing that will get particularly grating, though.