With the focus in London on lower-emitting cars, authorities are ratcheting up pressure on motorists to consider plug-in electric cars as an alternative to diesel or petrol.
It sounds great: EVs have no tailpipe emissions, fuel costs can be significantly lower, they’re generally quieter and fun to drive.
And yet... vast swathes of London have no driveways and on-street parking is a free-for-all, making EV charging problematic. In fact a third of English households are believed to have no dedicated off-street parking provision. Sure, you can trail a wire over the pavement but local councils frown on this as a trip hazard, and it can be highly anti-social.
Public charging points are an option but there are too few of them, there’s often a long wait and they are generally more costly than home charging. EVs often cost more to buy and insure too while, to combat range anxiety, journey-planning is vital on longer trips.
So for now, many families are opting instead for a half-way house; a self-charging hybrid which runs on a combination of electric and petrol power, to lower fuel use and emissions. Tried and tested, they’re as simple to operate as an ‘ordinary’ car, require no additional charging and, in the right conditions (especially stop-start city driving) use less fuel, creating fewer emissions.
Car magazine says one of the best hybrids on sale in the UK is the Kia Niro, so I put one to the test to see how it fits into life in London for those trying to do their bit for the environment.
Originally launched in 2016, it had a major ‘facelift’ a few months ago and is proving popular in London with families seeking a practical, lower-emitting alternative and with taxi drivers, who like its space, refinement and efficiency.
Costing from £25,405, it’s styled by Kia as a ‘crossover’ although many would see it as a five-door hatchback. Its obvious attractions are a roomy cabin, a high degree of sophistication, lots of ‘extra’ equipment (especially of course on higher-spec models), efficient use of fuel and its general ease of driving.
The claimed ‘combined’ MPG figure for the Niro 1.6 GDi HEV ‘4’, 6-speed DCT that I have been driving is a respectable 53.3, with emissions of 120 g/km. In practice I’ve achieved 48.8mpg, with lots of stop-start driving in London traffic. However this included an extremely heavily-laden trip (with a fully-packed boot, a crammed roof box on top, four adults and a dog) to Cornwall and back so - once the MPG-ometer is reset - I expect this to improve.
So what’s the Niro offer? It’s a distinctive, smart looking car but without the evident high-riding stance of some crossovers. Careful use of ‘chrome outlining the windows, below the front grille, on the door handles and on the roof rails helps project a premium look. In the latest mode, Kia have done away with the traditional ‘mesh’ grille and replaced it with a ‘crazy paving’ panel. I like it, even if it is hard to see where the air gets in.
Inside, it’s obvious that the Niro is built to cosset driver and passengers, with (on the ‘4’ model) plenty of charging points (including a wireless phone charging pad up front), decent door storage (although slightly less so in the rear), very comfy seats and, even for rear-seat six-footers, loads of space. It’s an attractive cabin.
There’s a generous 10.25-inch infotainment screen, a very good driving position with decent back support (the seat is electrically operated for the driver, as well as heated and cooled for driver and front passenger), lots of headroom and - crucially for London traffic - great vision out; the central ‘B’ pillar is sited just rearwards of the driver, allowing a good view down the road at junctions.
From a standstill the Niro often pulls away on pure electric power, before you hear the four-cylinder 1,580cc petrol engine cut in. On the move, it can be hard to tell when the car ‘decides’ to switch from one form of propulsion to another. On paper the 0-60 mph time is just 11.1 seconds. In practice it feels significantly nippier than this and it leaps nicely off the mark, working its way through the 6-speed automatic gearbox smoothly. It cruises very nicely on motorways, even when very heavily loaded.
Occasionally - while cruising at town speeds for instance or while reversing up steep slopes - it can be a tricky modulating accelerator input for maximum smoothness without the occasional snatch or lurch, but this improves with familiarity.
The boot isn’t enormous, at 382 litres. Without a roof box for our week-long rental cottage holiday it would have been too small. Beneath the boot floor are many, small, shaped compartments in a big ‘plastic’ tray. Beneath that is even more space into which you can cram hiking gear, etc. but I’d rather they’d lowered the floor and created one, big, more usable space instead, even if that means lifting heavy objects over the boot ‘lip’. In day-to-day London motoring, however, even for big weekly ‘family’ shops, the boot is more than adequate.
The Niro has a certain air of refinement and sophistication, especially in the city. On motorways, some road noise marrs the overall polished impression, but it’s certainly not a deal-breaker. Major plus points include light steering and a tight turning circle, a slightly higher-than-average driving position and a generally impressive ride quality, even over speed humps. In traffic, it feels serene, another big London plus.
There’s also a plug-in version of the Niro hybrid from £30,765 (which has a smaller boot to make way for extra batteries) and a pure electric e-Niro from £30,345, which has a larger boot. But then, of course, you must find somewhere to plug it in.
Personally, living in London with no off-street parking, I’d choose the efficient, fuss-free and enjoyable hybrid every day. For now, hybrids are helping solve the emissions problem, even if, from 2035, they too, will be ‘outlawed’ under Government plans. They don’t come a lot better than the practical, jack-of-all-trades, compact-sized Niro, even for full-on family duties.
Kia Niro 1.6 GDi HEV ‘4’ 6-speed DCT
Top speed: 101 mph
0-60mph: 11.1 seconds
Combined MPG: 53.3
CO2 120 g/km