2017 Kia Niro Hybrid EX
1.6-liter Atkinson-cycle-style I4, GDI, DOHC (104 hp @ 5,700 rpm; 109 lb-ft @ 4,000 rpm)
AC Synchronous Permanent Magnet Motor (43 hp; 125 lb-ft)
Hybrid system net output: 139 hp, 195 lb-ft
Six-speed dry dual-clutch automatic, front-wheel drive
51 city / 46 highway / 49 combined (EPA Rating, MPG, EX trim)
43.4 (Observed, MPG)
Base Price (EX): $26,595
As Tested: $28,895
Prices include $895 destination charge.
Is it or isn’t it? A crossover, I mean. That’s been the discussion over the 2017 Kia Niro ever since it bowed. No one seems to care whether the all-new hybrid functions as it should. Instead, the argument revolves around dimensions, and everyone knows that no one wins when someone whips out a ruler.
A couple of weeks ago, Corey took one glance at a photo I shared with the TTAC staff comparing the Niro to my mother’s 2014 Corolla. The photo showed the rather insignificant difference in overall height between the two compact vehicles, and fueled the argument that the Kia Niro is not a crossover.
I’m struggling to disagree.
But does it matter? While some pedants will dismiss the new hybrid from Kia since it apes the “hardcore” compact crossovers while eschewing all-wheel drive and real ground clearance, I’m of the mind that Kia has built a serious Prius fighter for those who don’t want the funky, “look-at-me-I’m-driving-a-hybrid!” styling.
If we must, let’s refer to the important dimensions. The Niro is 2.7 inches taller than the Prius (60.8 versus 58.1 inches), with an identical 106.3 inch wheelbase. Ground clearance is 6.3 inches for the Niro, compared to 5.1 for the iconic Toyota hybrid. Doesn’t sound like much — but really, do you get much more from the traditional compact crossover? The Toyota RAV-4 has but 6.1 inches of clearance. Similar-sized crossovers, like the Rogue, CR-V, Escape, and Forester sport greater figures at 7.8 inches for the Nissan, Honda, and Ford up to a surprising 8.7 inches of clearance for the Subaru. 2.4 inches of total clearance difference isn’t all that significant.
Surprisingly, the Prius does give more cargo area than the Niro, with at least 24.6 cubic feet (depending on trim level) of luggage space in the rear compared to the Kia’s 19.4 cubes. The oddly shaped hatch for the Toyota does lead to struggles for oddly shaped cargo, while the tall crossover-like cargo area in the Kia will be more useful for drivers who haul their dogs around. I can’t speak too intelligently about this, however, as I have cats — three kitties who absolutely despise car rides — and I’m allergic to dogs, so I don’t know why people must take their dogs everywhere. Can’t they stay home for a few hours? But I’m ignorant about canines, so perhaps this hybrid’s traditional hatchback will be a boon for those wishing to save the earth while spreading dog crap all over it.
Kia continues to go back to the Tiger Nose well, and it still feels fresh on the new Niro. While the wraparound headlamps do remind of the Sportage, there is a distinct difference to both the lower valance and crescent-shaped contours on the hood, which give something of a power-bulge effect. The black plastic cladding that lines the lowest inches of the bodywork does visually raise the body, lending an appearance of ruggedness that isn’t too distracting. The roof rails add another inch or so to the height. Those rails are indeed functional, as Kia has several accessory options to fit cargo boxes, bicycles, skis, kayaks, or other stuff that youthful, active crossover drivers might want to carry.
I’m not certain cladding and roof rails will convince every shopper of the Niro’s crossover status, however. Fundamentally, it’s a slightly taller take on a five-door hatchback or small wagon. A friend who owns a new Volkswagen Golf Sportwagen noted similarities. My beloved, a country girl from rural southern Ohio for whom an ideal vehicle is a lifted full-size pickup, was thrilled at the idea of a properly efficient hybrid SUV when she heard about the Niro, only to find disappointment at the obvious passenger-car roots and relatively low ride height when the car appeared in the driveway. She warmed to it over the week, but she’s not completely sold on a Niro as a replacement for her body-on-frame SUV.
The interior of the Niro truly shines. Kia has done a spectacular job of building high quality, easy-to-use interiors recently, and the Niro is no exception. The cloth-and-leather seating in my tester’s mid-level EX trim were some of the best seats I’ve sampled in any car. While the leather itself wasn’t quite as supple as some luxury models, it’s certainly in line with what you’d expect from this price range.
What surprised me was the second-row comfort. My standard test of rear seat room is simply to sit behind myself — adjust the driver’s seat for my 6’4” frame, and then squeeze myself into the second row. The front seats have enough travel that even I can’t reach the pedals comfortably at full extension. So when I found my ideal front seat position, I hopped into the back and found my knees didn’t even brush the seat back. During my time with the Niro, we had a long freeway drive to a funeral, and my wife decided to share the back seat with both of my kids (10 and 8). Three abreast, and all three were comfortable enough to doze off quickly for the two-hour drive, leaving daddy time to drive in peace.
That drive was made even more pleasant by Kia’s stellar UVO infotainment system, which is one of the best I’ve ever used. Other automakers need to study UVO and Chrysler’s Uconnect, because they lead the market in ease of use by a significant margin. The six-speaker audio system in the EX trim is sufficient for me, but audiophiles may prefer the eight-speaker Harman/Kardon setup in the Touring and Launch Edition models. Android Auto and Apple CarPlay are standard in every Niro, including the base FE trim, so streaming audio and navigation are available to even budget buyers.
There’s been much discussion about Kia’s decision to not offer all-wheel drive in this purported crossover. Again, I’m thinking this is more of a proper hybrid like the Prius, for which the advantages of additional traction are significantly outweighed by the dual fuel economy penalties inflicted by additional weight and driveline drag. This unusually dry Ohio winter left me unable to test snow traction in the Niro, but I was able to easily scale my inlaws’ steep gravel driveway, which has bested the wife’s 4WD Trailblazer on more than one occasion.
The Niro’s dual-clutch automatic transmission is an unusual choice for a hybrid, as nearly all others employ a CVT to balance the drivetrain. I found the transmission shifted beautifully in most situations, eliminating the rubber-banding and droning sounds typically found in CVT-equipped counterparts. The brakes felt much better than in the Prius I’m driving now; the transition between regenerative braking and traditional friction braking isn’t nearly as harsh in the Niro.
The transmission did give me two hiccups in my week, however. One particularly cold evening, the transmission was hesitant to shift from first to second gear when rolling away from a light. It reminded me of an old MGB I once drove with tired synchros as there was a significant pause before the second gear engaged with a lurch and a moderate clunk. It only happened twice. The rest of the week — with temperatures over 20°F — was uneventful.
Fuel economy, as monitored through the display between the gauges, was quite good, though I couldn’t quite meet the EPA combined estimate of 49 miles per gallon. I’ve a heavy right foot, but 43.4 mpg over my week was still excellent considering the comfort afforded by the roomy hatchback.
We’ve been shopping for a replacement for my wife’s Trailblazer for some time. With fuel economy in the low teens and frequent odd repairs causing me grief, it’s clear the Chevy needs to go at some point. If the choice were solely up to me, the Kia Niro would be near the top of the list. I’d likely choose this EX trim with the Sunroof and Advanced Technology Package (sunroof, autonomous emergency braking, lane departure, smart cruise, and power driver’s seat), but in the lovely Rich Espresso finish. For $28,895 delivered, it’s a bargain considering the efficiency and comfort.
But it’s not up to me. She wants something that rides high and can haul anything, even though we have a minivan for the hauling. Until someone builds a 35 mpg full-size pickup, or I convince her that this Kia Niro will do everything she needs, we’ll continue to shop.
[Images © 2017 Chris Tonn]