SAN ANTONIO, Texas — While the all-new 2017 Kia Niro isn’t exactly the sexiest car in the world, it’s a refreshing break from designs of the past. The latest offering from Kia is about the size of a Fiat 500X but bears a subtler design than the Italian as well as other hybrids in its class, which should increase its appeal among individuals with more conservative tastes.
The company’s tiger-nose grille works well ,and the front gets a playful pair of narrow cat eyes for headlights. The side profile is simple, streamlined, and features an extended roofline. Its rear is wide, resembling a sporty hatchback with unobtrusive LED taillights.
“The Niro is a different kind of hybrid,” James Bell, head of Kia PR tells us at the vehicle’s launch, adding, “This is not a Prius.”
No, it is definitely not a bestseller like the Toyota — yet — but it offers the same technology in a more comfortable package with a true car feel and better rear visibility compared to Toyota’s looks challenged marvel.
“You don’t feel like you are in a science experiment,” Bell continues.
The feisty compact crossover is powered by a 1.6-liter I-4 that produces 104 hp and 109 lb-ft of torque. The electric motor adds an additional 43 horses for a combined output of 139 hp and 195 lb-ft. Power is delivered to the front wheels via a second-generation six-speed dual-clutch transmission, which feels smoother than hybrids with continuously variable transmissions.
There’s a noticeable change in the electric power steering and handling of the Niro while it’s driven in Sport Mode, versus the more sedate and better fuel economy provided while driving in Eco Mode. Sport mode tightens up the mildly vague steering and stiffens the suspension, allowing the driver to push the low-riding crossover harder through twisty roads. It’s definitely more fun to drive, but burns fuel much more quickly than Eco mode.
The Niro’s platform was specially built for the gas-electric hybrid powertrain. Fifty-three percent is comprised of advanced high-strength steel, while aluminum was used for the hood, tailgate, brake calipers, and other bits to help lower the vehicle’s total weight.
Buyers have five trim flavors to choose from: FE, LX, EX, Touring, and a special Launch Edition. Base FE models feature 16-inch wheels, cloth seats, and don’t include roof racks or push-button start.
Because owing a hybrid is all about the mileage, here’s what we know about the Niro’s: The FE model is EPA rated at 52/49/50 mpg city/highway/combined, while the LX is rated at 51/46/49 mpg. The range-topping Touring model comes with 18-inch wheels, leather seats, a small sunroof, and a roof rack. It is rated at 46/40/43 mpg city/highway/combined; we saw between 37 and 46.2 mpg during a recent city/highway fandango through Texas hill country. Our lower fuel economy score was due to riding with a heavy foot, mostly in Sport mode, through the picturesque, Mesquite tree-lined roads.
Extra options naturally add more weight to the vehicle and depending how you drive, that will also affect your overall mileage average. Still, should gas prices creep back up again, this model is sure to become one of the most popular hybrids on the block.
Recently, a Niro EX set a Guinness World Record by traveling 3715.4 from Los Angeles to New York on only 4.1 tanks—48.5 gallons—of gas. The miserly crossover averaged a whopping 76.6 mpg on that trip. Good luck trying to beat that record.
Inside, the Niro has plenty of leg, head, and shoulder room for American-sized occupants and their gear thanks to its 106.3-inch wheelbase and 97.1 cu-ft of total interior volume. Luggage capacity is 19.4 cu-ft with the rear seats up and 54.5 cu-ft with the seats down.
The instrument cluster is simple, direct, and easy to use. There’s an 8-inch touch screen for all the technical data, graphics, and navigation system with knobs for the stereo and controls on the steering wheel as well. A wireless cell-phone charger is located beneath the USB port and is definitely a necessary modern touch.
Engineers ditched the traditional 12-volt battery to reduce weight, instead using the high-voltage 1.56-kWh lithium-ion polymer battery located beneath the rear seats. It’s smaller and lighter than other hybrid batteries and also provides a flat load floor when the seats are folded down for more cargo space. The spare tire was also jettisoned to save weight and a “tire mobility kit” (air pump) is included in its absence, though a temporary spare can be fitted as an option.
Kia worked hard to eliminate wind noise from the cabin, using expanding foam inside the A- and B-pillars and acoustic windshield glass to combat the issue. We detected slight wind noises coming from the front undercarriage, but nothing the eight-speaker Harman Kardon stereo system couldn’t remedy.
The regenerative brakes are soft and take a little while to warm up to but they get the job done. There’s even an old school push on/off parking brake that is preferable to the more modern push button ones you find on many new cars.
If you like bells and whistles, the Niro is packed full of driver assist doodads like Blind Spot Detection, Rear Cross Traffic Alert, and Lane Change Assist. Smart Cruise Control is offered and feels primitive compared to systems by Mercedes-Benz and Subaru. Lane Departure Warning and Autonomous Emergency Braking are also available.
A plug-in hybrid variant similar to the Prius Prime will be offered in the fall of 2017. Pricing starts at $22,890 for a base Niro FE and can go up to around $32,000 for a loaded Touring model.
Niro will arrive at dealerships during the first week of the New Year. Toyota should be afraid, very afraid.
2017 Kia Niro Hybrid Specifications
|On Sale:||January 2017|
|Engine:||1.6L DOHC 16-valve I-4/104-hp, 109 lb-ft; 240V electric motor/43-hp; 139 hp, 195 lb-ft combined|
|Layout:||4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, FWD SUV|
|EPA Mileage:||46-52/40-49 mpg city/highway|
|L x W x H:||171.5 x 71.1 x 60.8 in|