There are plenty of hybrid vehicles on the road today: sedans, crossovers, large SUVs — even luxury sedans. However, there are only a handful of dedicated hybrids — vehicles built specifically to operate via gas-electric powertrains, not simply hybrid versions of cars already in production. The latest of these purpose-built hybrids is the innovative Kia Niro. As a crossover, the Niro smartly goes after the heart of the U.S. car market; but as a hybrid, Kia sees the Niro going after the leader: the Toyota Prius.
A completely new model for the Kia lineup, Niro is a stylish crossover with a spacious interior and impressive fuel economy. “We’re excited about the Niro,” said Orth Hedrick, vice president product planning at Kia Motors America. “It’s fantastic — exceptional fuel economy, great looks, the usefulness and security of a compact utility and it’s fun to drive. The Niro really does set a new standard in the market.”
When the Kia Niro goes on sale early in 2017, it will be sold in FE, LX, EX and Touring trims. An exclusive limited-availability Launch Edition is also in the works. All Niros feature a hybrid powertrain, front-wheel drive and a dual-clutch gearbox. Pricing has not been released, but a source within Kia told us that prices should start around $23,000 for the FE and range up to around $32,000 for a fully-loaded Niro Touring.
Kia Niro FE
Even the base-level Niro comes well equipped with dual-zone climate control, a 6-way adjustable driver’s seat, a split-folding rear seat, a rearview camera, Bluetooth connectivity, a 7-inch LCD touchscreen display, as well as Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. Privacy glass, a rear spoiler and 16-inch alloy wheels are also standard.
Kia Niro LX
The LX upgrades the FE with roof rails, a smart key with pushbutton start and a hidden storage tray in the cargo area. Also available on the LX are fog lights, LED running lights and a leather-wrapped steering wheel.
Kia Niro EX
Moving up to the EX adds standard cloth and leather seat trim, heated front seats, fog lights, LED running lights, power-folding outside mirrors, a cargo cover, satin-chrome inside door handles and a Blind Spot Detection System. The EX can also be equipped with Kia’s Autonomous Emergency Braking System, Lane Departure Warning System and adaptive cruise control.
Kia Niro Touring
The top-level Touring adds leather trim, a 10-way power driver’s seat, ventilated front seats, a heated steering wheel, a power sunroof, an 8-inch touchscreen display, a Harman Kardon premium audio system, front and rear park assist, gloss-black radiator grille trim and 18-inch alloy wheels. HID headlights, a 110-volt inverter and a wireless phone charger are available options, as are the advanced safety features listed as optional on the EX trim.
Under the Hood
All Niros feature the same hybrid powerplant: a 1.6-liter direct-injection 4-cylinder engine — designed specifically for hybrid use — teamed with a permanent magnet electric motor. The gas engine makes 104 horsepower, with 43 coming from the electric motor. Combined power is rated at 139 horsepower and 195 lb-ft of torque.
Most hybrids on the market employ a continuously-variable transmission, but we’re happy to see that Kia takes a different route with the Niro. Power gets routed through a 6-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission, which makes driving more engaging while still providing fuel efficiency.
Pushing the Niro’s Sport mode button results in more than simply higher revs before shifts. Throttle response improves, transmission shift points adjust and the steering changes to provide quicker response. The change is noticeable — especially the steering when roads get twisty and speeds rise.
The primary raison d’etre of most hybrids is fuel economy, and the Niro doesn’t disappoint. The EPA rating for the Niro FE is 52 mpg city / 49 highway / 50 combined, making it one of the most fuel-efficient non-plug-in vehicles available. The LX and EX are rated at 51 city / 46 highway / 49 combined, while the Touring (which weighs the most) still performs well with 46 city / 40 highway / 43 combined. A more fuel-efficient plug-in version of the Niro will be available at some point, but Kia has not announced when.
Power for the electric motor comes from a 1.56-kWh Lithium Ion Polymer battery. The battery resides underneath the rear seats, which lowers the Niro’s center of gravity and avoids taking up cargo space.
During our press junket, the only Niro variant available to drive was the top-level Touring. The leather seats have a premium look, and we appreciate the clean dashboard design. Seats are comfortable with substantial side bolsters and multiple adjustments. Although the Niro does have a higher seating position typical for a crossover, it’s easy to slide in and out of the seats when entering or exiting.
Buttons and Knobs
Climate controls are separate from audio and other vehicle functions, with actual buttons that permit easy adjustment — a welcome design since we’re not big fans of having to scroll through endless menus on a touchscreen. Knobs for volume and radio tuning are also nice to see.
Easy to Navigate
Kia has one of the more intuitive touchscreen displays on the market. The Niro’s home screen shows audio as well as navigation at the same time. Our only complaint: to get to the hybrid screen showing power flow and fuel economy, the only link is on the home screen — you must always return to the home screen first to access this information.
A luxury feature trickling down to higher-volume models, the wireless charging area is a welcome surprise on the Niro.
Usable Back Seat
The Niro’s rear seat offers a surprising amount of legroom for a small crossover. Although seating would be a bit cramped for three adults — especially with the slight hump in the middle — two adults would be comfortable in the rear seat.
Niro offers a wide cargo door for easy loading and unloading, with plenty of space for several suitcases or other large items. (Extra points for a hidden storage tray under the cargo floor.) Even with the batteries positioned beneath the rear seats, the seatbacks still fold to provide a large, even surface for additional versatility.
On the Road
Hybrids have come a long way from being all about fuel economy with no thought to drivability. The Niro delivers on the fuel economy, but is also a fine driver. Handling on twisty roads is impressive, and Sport mode made a noticeable difference. The small crossover feels quick and agile — driving enthusiasts will be surprised by Niro’s responsive demeanor.
We are impressed by how easily Niro drives in electric-only mode. Many hybrids require an extremely light throttle to avoid the gas engine kicking in; however, on our press drive we could accelerate past 40 mph on batteries alone without giving it much thought. In typical city traffic the engine would likely be off most of the time — at least until the batteries need replenishing.
With the dual-clutch transmission and plenty of torque on hand, the Niro moves off the line quite quickly. It won’t set you back in your seat, but power is more than adequate in most driving situations.
Like most hybrids, the Niro has regenerative braking — energy generated during braking gets captured to recharge the hybrid batteries. The initial braking uses the regeneration to slow the vehicle; pressing further applies full brakes. We found it a bit difficult to adjust to the brake behavior during our short press drive — often more pressure than expected was required to stop.
During our Niro drive, on uneven road surfaces a significant amount of road noise entered the cabin, making the ride quite loud. Smoother roads reduced the noise, but the sound was still noticeable.
Rather than trying to get the best fuel economy possible, we drove the Niro like a regular car and the economy results were impressive. Even with rather spirited driving through rural country we were still able to achieve 37 mpg — not quite the EPA rating, but given our aggressive driving the number is quite impressive. With steady highway speeds and in town we saw 47 mpg on the readout.
Right for You?
There are several hybrid crossovers on the market, but none of the current offerings achieve the fuel economy of the Niro. For drivers shopping for a small crossover, Niro offers plenty of space, attractive styling, a high level of features and excellent drivability. For folks who want a very fuel-efficient hybrid, the Niro also fills the bill. If you’re looking for both, Niro should be at the top of your shopping list.
Pros: Attractive design; impressive fuel economy; fun to drive.
Cons: Road noise; no all-wheel drive; odd brake feel.
Bottom Line: Fuel efficiency and great driving in a stylish package.