Amid the sea of SUVs in today’s market there are a few rebels. With unusual designs, features, accessible pricing and different personalities, they defy convention.
Call them quirkboxes. Two new entries for the 2023 Quirky Qar Qlub are the plug-in hybrid Kia Niro and manual-transmission Volkswagen Golf GTI.
While aimed at different audiences, both hatches are fundamentally utilitarian while coming loaded with state-of-the-art technology, big screens and — most important for this comparo — off-beat features for those who want more from their transportation than a competent appliance.
With lamb chop sideburns right out of a ’70s crime movie, the Niro plug-in offers the duality of gas-or-battery power coupled with unique interior features. The Golf GTI, meanwhile, is that rare driver’s car that offers a manual transmission while modeling the coolest fog lights in Autoville.
I took the quirky qouple for a drive that warmed my soul on an otherwise hideously cold overcast April day.
Niro debuted six years ago in a 2017 Super Bowl ad as a granola-eating, Earth-saving hybrid with (plug in your cloying Hollywood celebrity here) Melissa McCarthy at the wheel saving the Earth for whales, trees, ice caps and rhinos (what, no polar bears?). Oh, please. The ads haven’t gotten any better for 2023 (see the Niro’s mawkish “The Sapling” spot saving more trees) — but Niro has.
Dude, the exterior’s D-pillar black lamb chops run from the roofline to the rear wheels! The sideburns alone separated it from the other SUVs in an Auburn Hills shopping center parking lot — but there is more. Quirky flower blossom wheels. Sci-fi front fascia right out of a Blade Runner matinee. Add Cadillac Lyriq-like rear taillights and the new Niro looks nothing like the cookie-cutter Niro of old.
Volkswagen designs are notoriously evolutionary, and no one will mistake the GTI for anything but a Golf. But the eighth generation is a major upgrade in interior tech (more on that later), and the exterior echoes that advance. Using modern LED technology, the upper light bar is considerably narrower — and more sinister — than past models. The tapered hood is punctuated by five-leaf-clover fog lights that I turned on as I hustled through traffic on this spray-soaked day. Out back, a signature quirk is the VW logo that doubles as a hatchback opener.
Both Golf and Niro are front-wheel drivers but Golf GTI showed off its performance focus in the rain with righteous grip from the Goodyear Sport all-season tires and sophisticated suspension electronics that allowed me to put its 273 pound-feet of torque to pavement with little wheelspin.
Niro’s handling is less-well engineered, and my throttle jabs generally led to wild spinning of the front tires on wet pavement. There was little reward in hustling the Kia into corners anyway as the chassis felt dull compared to the razor-sharp V-dub.
That sharpness is magnified by the six-speed manual’s crisp shifter.
I rowed the VW box through the gloom, maximizing the 2.0-liter tubo-4’s sizable 241-horsepower. In full control, I never missed a shift, never jerked the clutch. The drivetrain was a perfectly tuned instrument of speed. #SaveTheManual.
Niro’s 180 horses and 195 pound-feet of torque are plenty peppy — if well shy of the GTI’s 5.4-second 0-60 mph adventures. But like the Golf with its manual, Niro wants the driver to have some fun. In ECO mode, I used the steering column-paddles to bump up regenerative braking so I could one-pedal drive the Kia like a Tesla.
Switch to SPORT mode in Oakland County’s twisties and the paddles — voila! — became manual shifters, allowing me to row the 1.6-liter gas engine for all it was worth. Plug Niro in at night and you’ll wake up with 33 miles of electric-only range if you push the “EV” button next to the console’s rotary shifter. Lean into the accelerator, though — say, merging onto I-75 — and the gas engine would kick in to help the small 11.1 kWh battery turn the front wheels.
Settle in to a 75-mph commute on I-75, and you’ll find the most significant upgrades for these quirk qars in the dash displays.
Niro gets the same hoodless mono-screen across the dash found in its Sportage and Ioniq siblings. Behind the glass are twin digital displays with the infotainment display clocking in at 10.3 inches. Artfully designed and quick to the touch, the latter is easy to navigate — as were steering wheel-mounted controls. Niro sports excellent adaptive cruise control (like Sportage) so that I could drive virtually hands-free on the interstate.
True to its quirky mission, the climate and volume controls share the same button on the dash. Which means that — if you forget to choose the correct mode — you may be turning up cabin heat instead of turning up the Stones. Odd? Yes, that’s what we like in Qlub Quirk.
The GTI’s interior, too, is now dominated by a mono-pane housing twin digital screens. Digital goodies include a lap timer for when the weather clears and you want to take the hot hatch out to Gingerman Raceway for a track day. The simple infotainment system is aesthetically pleasing but completely knob-free — which takes time to figure out. One of the things VW has figured out is how to deliver an adaptive cruise system that works with a manual.
Though not quite as competent as Kia’s system, the GTI’s ACC was smooth even as I shifted between fifth and sixth gears on the interstate. That sophistication extended to the VW’s wireless Android Auto and Apple CarPlay — while the Kia still requires a wire to allow you to mirror your phone.
To prevent my battery from draining while the phone navigated me to Oakland University, VW thoughtfully places a charger at the fore of the console that held even my gigantic Galaxy S20.
I’m a hot hatch guy and the VW brings the heat as one of the best driver’s cars in the market today. The manual may be a rare feature, but it’s prized by enthusiasts. In addition to its prodigious power, GTI also brings a nearly identical application of modern tech for five grand less than Niro. For its extra price, Niro offers more space for rear passengers and their cargo.
Whether your veins run green or hot-blooded red, Kia and VW have a little something different just for you.
2023 Kia Niro Plug-in
Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel-drive five-passenger SUV
Price: $40,785, including $1,295 destination fee ($41,635 manual with SX Touring as tested)
Powerplant: 1.6-liter inline-4 cylinder mated to 11.1 kWh battery and electric motor
Power: 180 horsepower, 195 pound-feet of torque
Transmission: six-speed dual-clutch automatic
Performance: 0-60 mph, 7.3 seconds (Car and Driver)
Weight: 3,466 pounds
Fuel economy: EPA, 48 mpg city/44 highway/46 combined; 26 miles of battery-only range (mnftr.)
Highs: Fun with paddles; roomy interior
Lows: No wireless Apple CarPlay/Android Auto; gets pricey
Overall: 3 stars
2023 Volkswagen Golf GTI manual
Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel-drive five-passenger hot hatch
Price: $35,330, including $1,095 destination fee ($36,840 SE manual as tested)
Powerplant: 2.0-liter turbo-4 cylinder
Power: 241 horsepower, 273 pound-feet of torque
Transmission: six-speed manual
Performance: 0-60 mph, 5.4 seconds (automatic, Motor Trend)
Weight: 3,113 pounds
Fuel economy: EPA, 24 mpg city/34 highway/28 combined
Highs: Fun to drive; upscale interior
Lows: No console knobs; more rear-seat legroom, please
Overall: 4 stars