Kia’s U.S. leaders grew weary of seeing Toyota Prius hybrids literally everywhere they looked, especially in their home state of California. After all, the Prius is the iconic gas/electric hybrid that no other automaker has successfully challenged, at least in terms of sales volume. Yet, when Kia asked Prius owners what they liked about their cars, most said they love the fuel economy but not so much the styling or drivability. And except for owners of the larger Prius V, Toyota customers said they could use more interior room and utility.
So Kia set out to design and develop a gas/electric hybrid that would deliver near-Prius efficiency in a more attractive, fun-to-drive package with small-crossover capability. Hence, here comes this ’17 Niro compact CUV, named after the company’s 2014 hybrid concept car.
Kia calls it “a no-compromise vehicle that combines driving enjoyment with eye-catching design, functional utility, and hybrid efficiency” and touts its athletic appearance, a spacious cabin, exceptional fuel efficiency, and a full array of driver convenience and assistance features. Its innovative hybrid system uses a six-speed dual-clutch automatic with a Sport Mode, instead of an at-times-annoying continuously variable transmission, and among its standard features are a high-strength steel structure, seven airbags, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and a 7-inch touchscreen. Navigation, Smart Cruise and Harman Kardon premium audio are available, in addition to such driver-assists as Autonomous Emergency Braking, Blind Spot Detection, Rear Cross Traffic Alert, Lane Change Assist, and Lane Departure Warning.
On the styling front, its proportions are relatively low and wide, with a long wheelbase, short overhangs, strong shoulders, prominent wheel arches, rocker-panel cladding, and roof rails, while a new take on Kia’s “tiger nose” grille rides between aggressive headlights. Around back are multi-element horizontal LED tail lamps and a rear skidplate. Inside, the clean, uncluttered instrument panel has ergonomic controls, and the battery’s packaging under the rear seats provides good cabin space over a flat load floor.
The Niro’s hybrid powertrain marries a new 104hp 1.6L four to a 43hp electric motor between engine and transmission for a total system output of 139 ponies and 195 lb-ft of torque. (Total output can’t be the sum of engine and motor power, since both can’t develop peak power at once.) Kia says this engine is the first to combine efficiency-enhancing Atkinson cycle operation with direct fuel injection, cooled exhaust gas recirculation (EGR), and a long-stroke, small-bore configuration to boost efficiency to up to an EPA-rated 50 mpg combined in the base FE model. Other models offer 51 city/46 highway/49 combined mpg.
The Niro’s smooth, quick-shifting dual-clutch transmission contributes to both efficiency and un-hybridlike dynamics, partly because the electric motor’s instantaneous torque boosts launch feel. In our daylong drive, we found it fairly eager off the line with wide-open-throttle performance ranging from a bit sluggish at low rpms to pleasantly torquey from mid-range, especially when manually shifting the gearbox in Sport Mode. Ride was good, braking strong, steering surprisingly sharp, and handling happily agile for a small CUV.
Offered (like the Prius) as a hybrid only, will this new Niro steal substantial numbers of Prius owners away from Toyota? Stay tuned.
2017 Kia Niro
Vehicle type: Gas-Electric Hybrid Crossover Utility Vehicle
Base price: $22,890
Price as tested: $29,650
Engine: 1.6L 4-cyl. coupled with AC synchronous motor
Transmission: 6-speed dual-clutch automatic
Horsepower: 139 @ 5,700 rpm (total system)
Torque: 195 @ 4,000 rpm
Curb weight: 3,106 lbs
Towing capacity: N/A
EPA mileage rating: 52/49/50 mpg (FE); 51/46/49 mpg (other models)
Observed Economy: 39.1 mpg combined