Niro renewed for 2023 with upscale technology

John Gilbert

Kia Niro has made an amazing transformation, going from efficient “soap carving” to flashy compact SUV. Photos by John Gilbert.

The best thing about the rush of U.S. car-buyers to turn our society into SUV-dominated is the emergence of compact SUVs, which prove you don’t have to buy gigantic, fuel-guzzling trucks to get the advantages of SUVs.

Among the compacts – which now call themselves “CUVs” for “Compact Utility Vehicles” – are the newest projections from South Korean partners Hyundai and Kia.

Good friends of ours who now live in Missouri drove up to visit us last summer in their Kia Niro, an entry-level CUV that looks like an SUV but lacks the primary asset of all-wheel drive. They don’t care, and they appreciate getting high 30s and into the 40s for miles per gallon,

They would be in trouble if they saw the 2023 model Niro SX Touring I recently test-drove. It is entirely new in design, platform, looks and technology, and it is evidence that if people want an inexpensive and economic CUV, they don’t have to look with envy at the costlier and heftier SUVs to get all the comforts of home. Or at least all the comforts on the road.

You notice those features as soon as you climb aboard, recognize the upscale look to the information screen and the whole dashboard.

In the same fashion as full-sized pickup manufacturers realized their customers wanted more of the top-of-the-line SUVs and would be willing to pay small fortunes for them, why wouldn’t that reality also be real in the small SUV line?

The new Niro will, I predict, start a whole new trend in CUVs, because while it comes loaded with creature features and clever touches, its price remains a bargain in the industry.

The Niro SX Touring I tested in “Cityscape Green” had a sticker of $36,435, which is considerably less than the normal price of a midsize SUV and has features that costlier SUVs haven’t imagined yet.

For example, I’ve written recently about several EVs and how the extreme cold winters of Duluth can cause battery power to diminish significantly if parked outside overnight.

That means that hybrids, which combine electric motors with gas engines and can recharge the battery packs by driving on the gas engine, make tremendous sense in northern climates.

I am a big fan of Hyundai’s 1.6-liter 4-cyinder turbocharged engine that I find the Hyundai/Kia hybrids using that powerplant to be the most impressive for power and fuel efficiency of any.

But Kia is not sitting on its proven laurels. The new Niro offers three distinct engine choices.

Top of the line is the EV, with either of two battery sizes that develop 201 horsepower and can be recharged by DC fast-charging (Level 3) to attain 80 percent of full power in 45 minutes.

Next is the PHEV model with the 1.6 gas engine and a 62 kilowatt electric motor that has a 33-mile pure-electric driving range and averages 107 miles per gallon.

The base Niro has the 1.6 with smaller 32 kilowatt electric motor in a hybrid that averages 53 miles per gallon.

I noticed two drawbacks immediately. First, there is no all-wheel-drive choice; and second, the 1.6 is not turbocharged.

However, the second drawback is no drawback at all. The test car had the base powertrain, and the small electric motor supplements the normally-aspirated 1.6 enough to make it feel as potent as the turbocharged 1.6.

The SX Touring version of the Niro has numerous extra features, and that base engine has 139 horsepower and 195 foot-pounds of torque, which is enough to move the Niro smartly when you need to accelerate briskly.

Its EPA fuel estimates re 53 miles per gallon city, 54 highway, and that equates to a total range of 588 miles before you need to refill the gas tank.

With a new wheelbase of 107.1 inches and length of 174 inches, there is excellent headroom and legroom in front, adequate in the rear, and still leaves you some room for storage behind the rear seat.

Along with the full complement of corporate safety features, the test vehicle was cold-weather-ready, with capable traction from its front-wheel drive with good all-season tires mounted; available heated front and rear seats and heated steering wheel; and an available heater to enhance heater performance in cold weather.

With hybrid, plug-in hybrid and pure EV, Kia also offers a heat pump to preheat the battery and the heat/air system to reduce or eliminate range degradation when parked in the cold and makes the battery more ready to perform efficiently.

As for safety, automatic emergency braking, blind-spot detection, rear cross-traffic avoidance, lane keeping and lane following assist, driver attention alert, high beam assist and safe-exit assist.

Additionally, the high-tech Kia EV6 has evasive steering assist and other items that are bequeathed to the Niro.

The Niro might be the poster-child for Kia’s recent surge to the top of the JD Power dependability and initial quality ratings and its top-shelf Consumer Reports status.

The SX package adds 18-inch black alloy wheels, aluminum pedals, and LED projector headlights, which come in creative pods that also look remarkably cool.

The appearance alone stands out, with the creative front-end revision combined with a unique and wide diagonal stripe that angles down along the rear pillars all the way to the bottom of the vehicle. It makes the Niro stand out, for sure.

So do the taillights, which are shaped sort of like a boomerang standing on end, and trace the rear window. There is no question at a glance that you are looking at a Kia.

What you don’t realize is that it’s the new version of the Kia entry-level CUV with summertime mileage virtually assured at being more than 50 miles per gallon. Without anything resembling “range anxiety.”

To facilitate that, to my surprise, I found several times while driving up and down the hills of Duluth, a little light would come on the dashboard that said “EV Ready.”

What that means is that the electric motor will take you 33 miles without aid of the 1.6 gas engine, which isn’t a lot, but the Hyundai/Kia corporate hybrid system is the most efficient at pumping up the battery pack with regenerative power from the gas engine, so if you use pure-electric enough to deplete the battery pack, it recharges quickly, and alerts you when it’s ready to go pure-electric some more.