Kia Niro

In the middle 1960s, a popular New York City radio station was left without announcers -- the disc jockeys were on strike. I'm usually not much for popular music, but in those days there was tremendous creative ferment in the field, so I enjoyed a lot of music I'd not heard before. With no DJs, it often took a while to track down just whom I'd been listening to, but for the best performers it was worthwhile. One singer I much enjoyed was Laura Nyro. She was at once mainstream and off on her own tangent.

Other than the homophonic coincidence, the only link between Ms. Nyro and Kia's Niro concept car is my initial reaction: I was immediately intrigued. That interest was ephemeral; I own no recordings of the singer and have no personal desire to own a chunky off-road SUV/coupe, but I admire both, one forty-five years after the fact, the other only a few months later.

Peter Schreyer, our 2012 Man of the Year, has been responsible for the total transformation of Kia's look from utterly ho-hum and really boring to interesting and -- often -- graceful and even elegant. It's no wonder he has been given creative control of the entire Hyundai/Kia group. The Niro may not ever be produced, but it has all the attributes of a vehicle that could be very successful in the marketplace. The passengers sit high off the ground, the wheels and tires are fashionably oversized, the overall size suits it to the urban commuting that is the true role of almost all vehicles purchased each year, and the chopped-top look is quite popular at the moment, even if it usually comes with ridiculous rear visibility and a claustrophobic interior.

It's almost irrelevant to think of the Niro in terms of practicality. This is a vehicle whose purpose is to attract attention. Dream car, show car, concept car, teaser . . . there are many names for cars created with the utmost seriousness for exactly that purpose. Some designs do that very poorly -- I could cite chapter and verse but won't at the moment -- and others do so extremely well, so much so that we remember them a lifetime after their first showing. The 1953 General Motors Motorama Corvette is one such example, Edsel Ford's personal 1939 Lincoln Continental another, but the absolute champion in this area was not GM or Ford but Carrozzeria Bertone. Not only does the world remember the B.A.T. series from long ago, but it recalls concepts that became fantastic realities, like the Lancia Stratos that went from one-off Zero to 500 (or perhaps 492) purchasable examples. The Niro is not quite in that category, but it is a wonderful attention-catcher, a car that makes one wonder whether it might have a future.

I hope it does. I'd really like to see emerging companies and countries achieve acclaim, too.

REAR 3/4 VIEW

1 The white cap for the roof, as on Mini hardtops, provides some relief to the sameness of most modern cars and is functionally desirable for reducing interior heating in sunlight.

2 This little joggle adds interest and gives some thrust forward, and the increased side area balances the C-pillar region.

3 In this view, one sees how much the front corners are chamfered, making maneuvering much simpler and aiding aerodynamics as well.

4 It's hard to see any justification for this huge side indent, even if it does strengthen the side sheetmetal. But it is dramatic, which may well be the point.

5 Here's an almost-never-seen detail, a handle at the bottom of the door, Mercedes-Benz 300SL -- style. But then, this door does pivot up and forward, so this lets you pull it back down.

6 The dark-wheel look was good in the 1950s on Jaguars with black wire wheels, in the 1960s on the Toyota 2000GT, and again these days on wire-wheel Morgans. So, why not?

7 A refreshing change from the ubiquitous flat band, this round section works well with the clearly defined bulges above, front and rear.

8 Looking like leading-edge gun ports on World War II piston fighter planes, these exhaust outlets are quite charming, especially for not being chromed for attention.

9 Tow hooks really don't have to be brutal steel forgings. These become both bumper overriders and a decorative element. One of Schreyer's earlier Kia concepts made similar use of yellow accents.

10 The height of the trunk sill is ridiculously impractical. But this is a show car, not a real product.

FRONT 3/4 VIEW

11 Yellow stripe in the tire tread is cool for show but makes zero sense on an off-road-capable vehicle. Imagine cleaning this with Q-tips for a concours in 2064 . . . 

12 The short little hood is as rounded as a Renoir nude -- and equally surprisingly attractive.

13 The way the painted white "cap" on the roof is not separated from the base color with a trim piece is especially nice. Note the dip in the center of the DLO. The roof is plain, but there's a lot of nice play in its surround.

14 The triangular headlight surround is something I tried fifty years ago for the TVR Griffith. It never happened because of uncovered-sealed-beam regulations. It's nice to see it used to good effect here.

15 The voluptuously round door section is attractive, perhaps meant to be balanced by the huge indent below.

16 Pentagonal wheel nut is a nice touch. Not too many thieves have the right wrench.

17 Here the stylized tow hooks appear to function as skid plates as well. Since they'd likely never be used, their impractical section doesn't matter.

18 The characteristic Kia "tiger nose" grille is reduced to a mere significative shield here, but it is powerful identification.

INTERIOR VIEW

19 These transverse pleats give the seat assembly a science-fiction ambience, but it is clear that they don't actually expand like a bellows. They're decoration.

20 These motorcycle-like cans for the main instruments are agreeable and suggest serious functionality.

21 The rigidly rectangular data screen, on the other hand, suggests nothing. It is seriously functional.

22 These organ-key toggles are attractive and functional, even for gloved hands . . . if you know what each one is for without looking.

23 More sci-fi. What these pipes are for, other than Alien-type decoration, escapes me. Cool, though.

24 At first glance, this single-piece integrated seating panel looks comfortable. A second look makes one think it would be a miserable place to be after a couple of hours. Reality? Who knows.

Douglas Buskers
The KIA Niro looks like a current version of the Isuzu vehiCROSS, especially from a frontal 3/4 view.

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