Kia's first petrol-electric hybrid is set to be a big hit
Hero of a Niro: Kia's first petrol-electric hybrid is set to be a big hit The Kia Niro delivers excellent ride and handling qualities. ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

The South Koreans have hopped on the hybrid bandwagon - 20 years after the Japanese and five years after the Europeans.

Seoul's slowness notwithstanding, petrol-electric models from South Korea are likely to have a significant road presence within a relatively short time.

The new Kia Niro is a fair indication of that. The first Korean hybrid here (followed quickly by the Hyundai Ioniq) is a tempting proposition. While it is not as outlandish- looking as the Niro concept car unveiled in 2013, it is still a good- looking sport utility vehicle with a strong street presence.

Size-wise, it is somewhere between the Audi Q3 and Q2, with a wheelbase that is longer than both. Visually, it holds its own pretty well against the two eye-catching German crossovers.

Beneath its elegant sheet metal is a drivetrain that might make a Toyota Prius engineer sit up. There is a 1.6-litre direct-injection petrol engine paired with a permanent magnet motor-cum-generator. Together, they produce 141bhp, with peak torque of 265Nm available from just 1,000rpm.

A 1.56kWh lithium-ion polymer battery pack - which comes with a 10-year warranty - sits neatly below the rear seats.

Technically, it is impressive. The Niro's power and torque figures are much higher than the Prius' 120bhp and 142Nm. But does it work as well as the tried-and-tested Prius?

From a driveability point of view, the latest Prius is superior. It is slightly smoother, noticeably punchier and a tad more refined. This may be attributed to its lower kerb weight and its continuously variable transmission (versus the Niro's six-speed, dual-clutch gearbox).

On the whole, the Prius is more fun at the wheel, even if the Niro delivers excellent ride and handling qualities for a crossover.

The Kia matches the Prius in efficiency. Over a three-day test-drive of about 200km, the car averaged about 20.5km a litre, making it 60 to 70 per cent more economical than an equivalent petrol model. The figure is comparable with the 21.7km a litre clocked by the Prius in a similar test-drive last year.

On paper, the Prius and Niro are supposed to deliver 27km and 26.3km a litre respectively. As for CO2 emission, the declared figures are 87g/km and 88g/km for the Prius and Niro respectively.

It is in the cabin where the Kia outshines the Toyota. The Niro - priced nearly $19,000 less than the Prius - has features you would normally find in a Lexus.

These include memory and easy access driver's seat (which automatically moves back when the ignition is turned off), wireless mobile phone charging, ventilated front seats (a big plus on hot days), 4.2-inch LCD infotainment monitor with connectivity, dual-zone climate control with rear vents, keyless system and cruise control.

In the safety department, it has seven airbags, blindspot detection, a reverse camera and a suite of driving stability aids.

All these are in a cabin that is as well finished as a premium German car. Indeed, the car is such an attractive package that the agent has raised its price by $5,000 within two weeks of its launch.