Kia Niro Hybrid: Why you might have been driving your hybrid car wrongly all along

·6-min read
Kia Academy's Steve Lang with the Niro in London (David Williams)
Kia Academy's Steve Lang with the Niro in London (David Williams)

It’s confession time. Like many Londoners I’ve clocked up thousands of miles performing family duties in a hybrid petrol car, also using it for longer trips to Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, Suffolk, Devon, Norfolk, Cornwall, Somerset and beyond.

The aim: to cut emissions and petrol bills, thanks to the hybrid technology.

The car in question is Kia’s Niro Hybrid, which costs from £31,065 new and which uses a combination of power from its 1.6-litre four-cylinder petrol engine, and a 1.56kWh lithium-ion battery to spin its electric motor, creating a combined 139bhp.

It’s a great, practical, efficient family car that works well in the city.

Like most motorists however I’ve lazily let the under-bonnet trickery take total control of when it switches between electric and petrol. I also let it decide when to charge the battery. That’s its job, isn’t it? It is, after all, a ‘self-charger’, unlike plug-in electric hybrids which - as the name suggests - must be plugged in, as well as having to be fuelled at the petrol pumps.

Now - after a lesson in central London with Steve Lang from the Kia Academy - I discover that I’ve been driving it completely ‘wrong’. All along.

Kia Niro cutting through traffic at Parliament Square (David Williams)
Kia Niro cutting through traffic at Parliament Square (David Williams)

Unlikely

Before our meeting he’d promised to improve my MPG with a few simple tips on driving style. In all honesty I thought this unlikely; I always try to drive with a light right foot and keep a close eye on the fuel needle, especially with unleaded prices somewhere north of £1.45 per litre. I even considered driving to our meeting with a leaden right foot that would register on the car’s MPG-ometer - just to give the poor chap something to work with. I shouldn’t have worried.

We met in Pimlico with the day’s MPG (after 3.7 miles from home) standing at 32.3 - pretty good, I thought, considering the congestion caused by the Low Traffic Neighbourhoods in my part of south London.

My first shock came when Steve asked if I used the ‘flappy paddles’ - two levers mounted behind the steering wheel with which to change gear. ‘Only for additional braking hills and bends’ I replied, ‘and if I need a little more power for overtaking or joining a motorway.’

Which turned out to be the wrong answer. Unknown to me (I must have skipped that page in the vast owner’s manual) the left paddle should be used routinely at the beginning of each trip to select and ‘set’ one of three different engine-braking modes (denoted with tiny green LEDs in the dash), with ‘3’ giving the most engine braking. This setting slows the car more abruptly when the accelerator is released, while significantly increasing boost to the batteries from the engine under braking - also giving the engine more time to ‘shut down’, while coasting to a stop.

Clever

Hmm, clever that. Next, he clicked the ‘Driver Only’ button on the dashboard, turning off the passenger-side heating/cooling, placing less strain on the system (useful when you’re driving on your own). Then he told me to focus on the dash EV light, showing that the car was running on battery power alone, and the energy graphic, both of which I normally ignore, letting the Niro ‘decide’ instead.

Steve Lang demonstrating the energy flow graphic (David Williams)
Steve Lang demonstrating the energy flow graphic (David Williams)

Sure, I’d been aware of the illuminated EV sign, but tended to regard it as a ‘comment’ on my driving style, rather than something I should aim to keep illuminated.

Steve also reminded me of advice widely ignored by most London drivers - to look further ahead, enabling me to better read the traffic, thereby reducing acceleration and braking, while also pulling away more gently, anticipating changing traffic lights and lifting off earlier to coast to a stop. And - in the Hybrid - generally minimising brake use, allowing the engine (now in regenerative Mode 3) to do most of the slowing down instead.

With the added engine braking it was harder to make super-smooth progress in traffic, because every time the accelerator was released, it felt as though the brakes were suddenly being applied. With practice, however, things smoothed out and it did let me (almost) ignore the brake pedal (the Niro won’t stop completely without the brakes).

Gap

The big challenge was ignoring following drivers’ impatience as, to smooth out my own acceleration and braking, I created a longer gap from the vehicle ahead. But, as Steve observed, why accelerate towards a red light or a traffic jam when you’re going to have to stop or slow down in any case?

The energy flow graphic (David Williams)
The energy flow graphic (David Williams)

Soon, rather than just observing that EV light flickering on and off, I was managing to keep it illuminated much of the time, and the energy graphic showed that the battery was topping up faster than ever. Normally, in town, the batteries are charged to about a third. Now the gauge was regularly hitting 50 per cent thanks to the regenerative braking. So a double bonus; more charge, less fuel used.

After clocking 28 miles, that day’s MPG leaped from 32.3 to an unprecedented 67.7, saving fuel bills - and emissions. Result!

Proof positive - 67.7 mpg on the dashboard after my hybrid lesson in London (David Williams)
Proof positive - 67.7 mpg on the dashboard after my hybrid lesson in London (David Williams)

According to Steve most hybrids work on a similar principle, but it takes practice to get the best out of them. He advises checking the vehicle’s handbook, to ensure a thorough understanding of how to use the controls.

Attention

Paying attention should pay dividends both for your pocket, and for London’s air. When I performed a similar exercise in the Lexus UX in London, accompanied by a technician who plugged a diagnostic computer into the engine management system, it revealed that 74 per cent of the time the Lexus ran on ‘pure’ battery power, with the petrol engine automatically switched off.

If, by fine-tuning the way you drive, that figure could be made to rise above 74 per cent, the additional gains would be impressive.

Mr Lang is a keen advocate of switching hybrid vehicles’ information screens to the ‘energy flow’ mode, so that, as a matter of habit, drivers get used to monitoring, and reacting to, the way that the car alternates between petrol and electric power.

“It is a case of getting used to how the system works, and making it work for you as much of the time as possible,” he says. “It can make a huge difference to your fuel bills and emissions.”

Unfortunately for those who have chosen to go down the hybrid route, time is already running out. Once, they were exempt from London’s congestion charge, but owners have had to pay the daily charge, if they drive within the zone, since 2019. Now plug-in hybrids have lost the exemption too.

Even pure electric vehicles will lose the exemption in 2025, and from 2030, the sale of new hybrids - in line with the sale of new petrol and diesel cars - will also be banned in the UK, despite their evident advantages.

So it’s time to make the most of that clever technology, while you still can.

The Facts

Kia Niro 1.6 GDi HEV ‘4’ 6-speed DCT

Price: £31,065

Top speed: 101 mph

0-60mph: 11.1 seconds

Combined MPG: 53.3

CO2: 120 g/km

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting