To improve fuel efficiency of their petrol-powered compact cross-overs, KIA and SEAT turn to very different solutions. The Koreans integrate lithium ion batteries, the Spanish prefer cylinder deactivation and a turbo. Which proves the better option in practice?
Compact cross-overs and SUVs are thriving across Europe. Every large carmaker has at least one model on offer. Looking at recent sales figures, petrol is definitely taking the upper hand in this segment – only the large SUVs seem to stick to diesel. But a higher body means more drag, and ‘more’ body means more mass – something petrol engines usually struggle with and make you pay for at the fuel station.
There are however solutions at hand to bridle a petrol engine’s thirst. One of them is adding a battery pack and an electric motor, which mostly assist the combustion engine during acceleration. That is the solution KIA went for in the case of its Niro, which in fact uses the Hyundai Ioniq Hybrid’s powertrain. SEAT – well, actually VW – opted for a system called Active Cylinder Technology (ACT), which deactivates half of the four cylinders under limited load conditions.
Niro: soft e-boost to a harsh ICE
The KIA Niro boasts a system output of 141 hp and 265 Nm of torque at an interestingly low 1,000 rpm, suggesting eager acceleration and relaunching at low speeds. In fact, the reality turned out to be a little disappointing. The 1.6 GDi unit picks up speed in a very linear, uninspiring way, while the DCT seems to mimic a classic automatic with torque converter, reacting a bit slow to driver input. As the Niro is a hybrid, it holds a non-negligible advantage, though: its ability to recover kinetic energy whilst coasting or braking, and to drive purely on electricity over short distances.
The Niro wants to be driven by people without busy schedules or the need to get from A to B in a swift manner. When you put the pedal to the metal, the Niro’s ICE starts to yell disagreeably, without however creating more impetus. This is a far cry from BMW’s 225xe Active Tourer (and the technically identical MINI Countryman PHEV). Evidently, fuel efficiency was the main priority, but our test car burnt 6.0 litres per 100 km – not bad, but not entirely convincing either.
Ateca: cylinder unemployment
By comparison, the Ateca’s 1.4 TSI is both more discrete and feisty, especially in Sport mode. The DSG (VW lingo for DCT) is still amongst the best automated transmissions on the market, bringing out the best of this turbocharged unit, which produces 150 hp and 250 Nm of torque at 1,500 rpm. On paper, the Niro holds the advantage, until you look at the weight numbers. The Spanish SUV weighs 125 kilos less than its Korean challenger, which translates in remarkably crisp accelerations and a pleasant agility.
But what about fuel efficiency? The 1.4 TSI is quite thrifty by itself, but it holds a trump up its sleeve that saves up to 0.4 litres per 100 km: at cruising speeds up to 120 kph, cylinder two and three no longer receive fuel and the valves are shut, thereby closing the combustion chamber – something which is unnoticeable, by the way. Our test vehicle averaged 6.7 litres per 100 km under similar driving conditions to the Niro’s. Conclusion: less weight, turbo-charging and ACT lead to an interesting performance-to-efficiency ratio.
The package: almost VW versus value-for-money
We had the opportunity to step out of our Ateca and right into a VW Tiguan. The similarities are obvious, but there is a reason why SEATs are cheaper than their German cousins. The materials are not in the same league, and the soundproofing is less advanced, but in this respect, the Ateca still outdoes the KIA Niro. In its defence, the latter comes with a plethora of comfort and convenience equipment, including (optional) electrically adjustable heated and ventilated leather seats.
Regarding the latter, the Ateca is less comfortable on longer drives than the Niro. To take the stress out of congested motorway driving, you can opt in both cases for an adaptive cruise control with traffic jam assist. Enhancing safety is the Ateca’s standard Autonomous Emergency Braking system – something you have to pay extra for on the Niro, and which costs the Korean SUV a EuroNCAP star. Rather frustratingly, our SEAT constantly but inopportunely warned for imminent crashes. Also, the adaptive cruise control system had difficulties in tunnels, braking unnecessarily for inexistent obstacles.
The bottom line
The Niro is perhaps the lesser appealing car to drive and to look at, and its trim both looks and feels a bit flimsier, but it is more comfortable – except in terms of soundproofing, it consumes less and comes with a 7-year warranty. Add to that an attractive pricing policy, a generous equipment and low CO2 levels and you get a strong offer on the fleet market.
If you ask the heart, the Ateca wins hands down. It is also the roomiest and it offers more personalisation possibilities than the Niro. Ecologists will find it easy to get below the 6-litre mark in Eco (and 2-cylinder) mode, but TCO-wise, it is overridden by the Niro nonetheless. From Q3, KIA will offer its compact cross-over as a plug-in hybrid, too. It is unlikely that SEAT will do the same.
In a nutshell: Ateca or Niro?
|Ateca 1.4 ACT DSG||Niro Hybrid|
|Power||150 hp||141 hp|
|Torque||250 @ 1,500 rpm||265 @ 1,000 rpm|
|NEDC fuel efficiency||5.4 l/100 km||3.8 l/100 km|
|Tested fuel efficiency||6.7 l/100 km||6.0 l/100 km|
|NEDC CO2||124 g/km||89 g/km|
|0-100 kph||8.6 sec||11,5 sec|
|Weight||1,375 kg||1,500 kg|
|Standard tyre size||215/55 R 17 V||205/60 R 16 H|
|Boot capacity||510 - 1,604 litres||427-1,425 litres|