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2017 Kia Niro Test Drive Review
Think of a hybrid car, and the first image that comes to mind will likely be the wedge-like shape of a Toyota Prius. It’s a good bet that Kia is okay with that association, even though its own all-new hybrid—the Niro—is just hitting dealer lots.
That’s because the Kia Niro is about more than just fuel economy. Unlike other hybrids, the Niro is designed for people who won’t trade comfort or practicality for a few more miles per gallon. While its promise of up to 50 mpg combined sure is impressive, so are the Niro’s comfortable interior, spacious rear seat, and crossover-like styling.
Unfortunately, in its attempt to give its new hybrid mass appeal, Kia made some compromises on fuel economy and practicality. The result is a car that can’t compete on an even playing field against some of its better-known rivals.
Look and Feel
When it comes to design, most hybrids follow one of two schools of thought. Some are futuristic hatchbacks—like the Toyota Prius or the Hyundai Ioniq (with which the Niro shares much of its hybrid running gear). They’re designed not only for impressive aerodynamics, but also to appeal to the kind of folks who geek out over hypermiling. Others are hybridized versions of traditional sedans, like Ford Fusions and Kia Optimas. Aside from a few badges, some extra trim, and maybe some unique wheels, they’re as anonymous as the choices at an airport rental-car lot.
But the Kia Niro doesn’t fall into either category. Even though it’s available only as a hybrid, only a tiny “hybrid” badge on the back distinguishes it from competing compact crossovers like the Honda HR-V, Mazda CX-3, Chevy Trax, or Toyota C-HR.
Inside, things are similarly conservative. Although the entry-level FE and midrange LX and EX trims aren’t as lavishly appointed, the Touring model I drove (MSRP $32,445) was nicely equipped with leather seats. Everything felt well-assembled—latches fit and buttons clicked as precisely as they would on any Lexus or BMW. At least in Touring trim, the Niro proved quiet on the highway, and very little road or engine noise seeped into the cabin.
All the important buttons and controls were well-placed and big enough to find by touch, and the displays were easy to read. The hybrid-specific screens were clear, and a massive display in the gauge cluster showed how many miles remained before the next fill-up.
The Niro mates a 104-hp, 1.6-liter gasoline engine with a 43-hp electric motor and 1.56kWh lithium-ion polymer battery. Together, they send power through a 6-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission.
Like most hybrids, the Niro shuts off the gas engine when the battery is charged and the electric motor can provide enough power—like when the car is coasting on a country road or stopped at a light. Also like most hybrids, the Niro has regenerative brakes. That means they take energy that would be wasted as heat and instead convert it to electricity to recharge the hybrid battery.
It seems like Kia put extra effort into keeping the Niro’s dual powerplants from feeling like dueling powerplants. Thanks to the electric motor’s torque, initial acceleration is brisk—but the car doesn’t shudder or slow when the gasoline engine kicks in.
The Niro’s 6-speed transmission is quieter than the Prius’ electronically controlled CVT, and its brake feel is more predictable and smooth than the regenerative brakes on other hybrids. In fact, the sound of the gasoline engine cutting in and out is the only evidence that the Niro has batteries included.
Overall, the Niro’s handling is inoffensive. The suspension is at once cushy and communicative—but the steering feel is a little vague for my taste.
Form and Function
Despite the Niro’s SUV-like profile, its cargo capacity is actually bested by the the Prius’ humble hatchback. According to Kia, the Niro can fit 54.5 cubic feet of cargo with the rear seats folded down. But the Prius can hold 65.5 cubic feet of stuff. At least the rear seat had plenty of room for passengers’ legs.
The Niro I drove also had a warning label in the trunk telling me not to load it with more than 130 pounds of cargo. I’ve never seen a warning like that before, so I reached out to Kia to ask why it was emblazoned on the load floor and embroidered in the cargo mat.
Neil Dunlop, PR manager for Kia’s green car lineup, told us that Kia sets a weight limit on luggage boards—the removable, carpeted boards that sit flat across the load floor—at 176 pounds, “regardless of the board material and structure.”
Dunlop continued, “A 20% reduction is applied to the development target as a safety margin, in order to ensure the boards don’t fail and there are no quality complaints from customers. The result is a 130-pound weight limit.”
In other words, it’s internal worries about the floorboards that sit above the tire mobility kit—not the rear suspension or any other factor—that limit how much weight can go in the rear.
And then there’s the issue of fuel economy.
I drove the Niro in city, highway, and suburban traffic for an entire week. I never saw the car’s fuel-economy display register above 40 mpg, and I averaged in the mid-30s.
I realize that I’m only one data point, and the Niro hasn’t been on the market long enough for the EPA to feature a real-world, crowdsourced fuel-economy estimate. Still, considering the window sticker on the Touring model promises 40 mpg highway/46 city/43 combined, the 35 mpg I achieved was quite a disappointment.
The Niro is impressively equipped with technology. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto come standard—even on the entry-level FE trim—so you can run apps on your dashboard using your phone’s operating system and the Niro’s standard 7-inch touchscreen.
Kia’s own telematics setup, called Uvo, is standard on all trims of the Niro. Uvo can tell you if your car needs scheduled maintenance and schedule an appointment with your Kia dealer to get it done. It can also remember where you parked and set limits on where, when, and how fast your Niro can be driven.
The LX adds pushbutton start with a smart key, and the EX adds heated front seats and outside mirrors.
In Touring trim, the Niro gets an 8-inch touchscreen with navigation, plus a premium 8-speaker sound system with subwoofer. But even if you don’t spring for the standalone nav system, Apple CarPlay or Android Auto will get you where you need to go.
Even though the Niro has lots of tech for entertainment, the most popular active safety features still don’t come standard.
For instance, blind-spot detection with rear cross-traffic alert is standard on the EX and Touring, but not available on the FE or LX. Automatic emergency braking, forward-collision warning, lane-departure warning, and smart cruise control are optional on the LX, EX, and Touring, but not available at all on the FE.
Compare that to almost the entire 2017 Toyota lineup, which comes standard with automatic emergency braking, and you’ll see how the Niro lags behind.
And no matter how much you pay, you can’t get the Niro with all-wheel drive (AWD). That might not matter in Southern California, but New Englanders who are in the market for a small crossover will walk right past the Kia and buy a Subaru Crosstrek instead.
As for crash tests, the Niro has not yet been rated by the IIHS or NHTSA.
Although the Niro is an attractive car, it exists across two crowded segments: hybrids and compact crossovers. Since hybrids tend to cost more than their conventional counterparts, and since compact crossovers tend to get worse fuel economy than hatchbacks, the Niro is immediately at a disadvantage in both categories.
The Niro starts at just under $23,000, which is about $3,500 more than a base Honda HR-V. A fully loaded Niro Touring sells for $32,840. But an HR-V with all the options costs $6,420 less than that—and it comes with AWD.
Even figuring the HR-V’s fuel economy conservatively at 27 mpg and gas prices at $2.30 a gallon, it would take someone who drives 20,000 miles a year 16 years for the Niro’s extra 7 mpg to make up for the difference in price between the two cars.
In other words, the Niro should be on your shopping list if you’re looking for a comfortable and efficient compact crossover. But if you want a good value and AWD, you should check out the Honda HR-V. And if fuel economy matters more than anything else, buy a Prius.
A member of the New England Motor Press Association who has owned everything from a Town Car to a Prius, Keith has contributed automotive coverage to outlets including Wired, Car & Driver, and USA Today.
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