– San Antonio, Texas
When you’re developing a new, affordable hybrid car, there’s really only one vehicle you must benchmark, says Orth Hedrick, Kia Motors America vice president of product planning.
“We had to study the 800-pound gorilla in the room, which of course is the new Prius,” he says. “This vehicle, and what it represents in the market, really drove a lot of the decisions we made with the Niro.”
What he means by that is Kia wanted to address the key complaint that customers had about the Toyota hybrid: it produced fantastic numbers in EPA tests but its styling and the way it drives left many owners cold.
“We heard a lot from our consumers in our test that they loved the mileage but couldn’t stand the way [the Prius] looked, couldn’t stand the way they drove,” Hedrick says.
The Niro rides on a new platform specifically designed for hybrids.
Kia’s counterpoint is the Niro, a tall hatchback twinned with the Hyundai Ioniq. The brand’s “tiger nose” grille dominates the front end, with big chrome accents and foglights in the lower fascia of this Touring model. A tall and airy greenhouse leads toward a sloping C pillar and a liftgate with a concave indentation and large taillights. Air curtains in the front fascia work with active grille shutters, an underbody tray, a rear spoiler, and a diffuser to keep aero drag low. Fender cladding and a tall ride height – there’s 0.4 inch more ground clearance than in a Kia Soul – are clearly intended to help the Niro appeal to crossover-loving shoppers, even though the company itself never utters the C word.
The Niro rides on a new platform specifically designed for hybrids. It began life as a C-car chassis, but after engineers made tweaks to accommodate a battery, motor, and supporting electronics, Kia officials say less than 20 percent of that original platform remains unchanged. Fifty-three percent of the Niro is made from high-strength steels, while using aluminum for the hood, liftgate, brake calipers, steering knuckles, and other suspension components helps further counteract the mass of the 1.56-kilowatt-hour, lithium-ion-polymer battery.
Motivation comes from a 1.6-liter inline-four gas engine rated at 104 horsepower and 109 pound-feet of torque, plus an electric motor good for 43 hp. The combined output of both is 139 hp and 195 lb-ft. The motor and engine are arranged in series, with a dry clutch to disconnect the engine in EV driving; the motor and engine connect to a six-speed dual-clutch transmission. Other Kia dual-clutches have seven forward speeds, but Kia says the motor’s low-end torque allowed for removing one gear and thus saving a bit of weight. By the way, Hyundai uses the same powertrain in its Hyundai Ioniq Hybrid.
Acceleration is best described as deliberate: no slower than similar economy cars, and certainly brisker than some comparable hybrids.
The car’s fuel economy ratings depend on exactly which version of the Niro you buy because each trim level was certified separately based on weight. The Niro LX and EX, which Kia expects will make up the vast majority of sales, weigh 3,161 pounds and will return 51 miles per gallon city, 46 mpg highway, and 49 mpg combined. The Niro Touring, the only version I drove, returns only 46/40/43 mpg because it’s heavier (3,274 pounds) and its 18-inch wheels have wider tires than the 16-inchers on other trim levels. Finally, there’s a special Niro FE trim level that achieves 52/49/50 mpg – mainly for the sake of advertising the 50-mpg figure. It’s only 3,106 pounds because, compared to the Niro LX, it lacks features like pushbutton start, roof rails, a rear armrest, and a trunk cargo cover.
Out on the road, the Kia Niro comports itself with the same pleasant demeanor as, say, a Forte or Soul. There isn’t a drive-mode selector switch like in many hybrids, but instead you pick between the default Eco and the Sport modes by flicking the shifter to the left. In the former, throttle tip-in is incredibly lazy for the first inch or so of pedal travel. It makes slow, smooth starts simple, but also makes the Niro feel like a dog. Sport, on the other hand, is just a bit too jumpy and had me lurching away from stop signs.
The gas engine is very quiet unless you’re at full throttle for maximum acceleration, and shuts off and restarts with little noise or vibration. Nor are shifts from the dual-clutch transmission particularly noticeable. You can change gears for yourself with the shifter, but there’s no tachometer and there’s not really any point to doing so. Despite the big peak torque figure, acceleration is best described as deliberate: no slower than similar economy cars, and certainly brisker than some comparable hybrids.
Sports car it ain’t, but between that and the realistic steering feel, the Niro is far less floaty and dainty than some hybrids.
You sit very upright and have a great view of the corners of the hood, which reminds me a lot of the vantage point you get in the Soul; Kia says the steering wheel sits about 0.8 inch higher than in its regular small cars. That was a deliberate decision in deference to buyer preferences for a tall seating position, says Hedrick: “You sit high and proud … It feels really nice to sit up high in the vehicle.” And because the roofline is quite high and the rear window tall, visibility out back and over your shoulder is a thousand times better than a Prius’ bifurcated outward view. Lots of sound deadening, including under the carpeting and in all the door seals, keeps wind noise to a minimum even at an 80-mile-per-hour cruise, and there’s little roar from the Michelin Primacy MXM4 tires except for on the roughest of roads.
What really sets the Kia Niro apart from the pack is how it drives. Like other Kias, the Niro is on the sportier side of the segment, with firm damping and weighty electric power steering that makes it feel less like a tree-hugging toy and more like a real car. The suspension, with MacPherson struts up front and multi-link trailing arms in back, does an admirable job of quelling body motions and keeping up with quick inputs on winding roads in Texas Hill Country. Sports car it ain’t, but between that and the realistic steering feel, the Niro is far less floaty and dainty than some hybrids. The only driving demerit is the spongy, artificial feel of the brake pedal, which is a factor on pretty much every hybrid.
Visibility out back and over your shoulder is a thousand times better than a Prius’ bifurcated outward view.
As a utilitarian vehicle, the Niro is great. The cargo area is tall and wide, and because the battery pack is sandwiched beneath the floor, the rear seats fold completely flat. The back seats have plenty of leg- and headroom, the latter being abundant enough that I still had a few inches between my hair and the headliner. And roof rails come standard on all but the FE trim level in case you need to cart around more stuff on top of the car.
In terms of equipment, the options list includes navigation, seven- or eight-inch infotainment systems with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, LED running and taillights, cooled front seats, wireless phone charging, a power sunroof, a 110-volt power outlet, and active-safety features like adaptive cruise control, pre-collision braking, blind-spot, and lane-departure warning. Neither a powered passenger seat nor heated rear seats are available, though.
Within the Kia range, the Niro really does stand on its own. It’s a step up in terms of price and sophistication from the Soul hatchback, and it also doesn’t overlap with the brand’s crossovers because, well, the Niro isn’t really a crossover. It doesn’t offer all-wheel drive, for instance; engineers evaluated that but couldn’t easily fit a propshaft and rear differential in the Niro’s platform, and doing so would add weight that would have cut into that 50-mpg combined rating. The Toyota RAV4 Hybrid, however, manages all-wheel drive by using an electric motor to power the rear wheels.
It is a great car and a good hybrid, and I’d much rather drive one than a Prius.
Instead, the Niro is meant to join the herd of other small, reasonably affordable cars that promise great gas mileage by dint of their hybrid powertrains. On the face of it, it’s a success. Compared to the Toyota Prius, Kia’s hybrid is better to look at, easier to see out of, much more practical, and less soporific to drive. Yet the Prius does return marginally higher EPA ratings – 54/50/52 mpg or 58/53/56 mpg for the Eco model – and has years of name recognition on its side. It’s going to be even trickier given that Hyundai is going to sell an identical powertrain in its Ioniq Hybrid.
For those reasons, the Kia Niro will have an uphill battle to win the hearts and dollars of sensible buyers who want to save money at the gas pump. It is a great car and a good hybrid, and I’d much rather drive one than a Prius, but getting people to take a gamble on a newcomer hybrid in the era of $2.40 gas won’t be easy.
Photos: Jake Holmes / Motor1.com
Gallery: 2017 Kia Niro: First Drive
2017 KIA NIRO TOURING