First drive: 2017 Kia Niro [Review]

Normalcy is the Kia Niro\'s greatest attribute.

The Toyota Prius has pretty much dominated the hybrid market in the United States since its introduction as a frumpy little sedan back in 2000. Before then, most people thought hybrids were just plants. Or maybe dogs. But once the public started getting privy to whateverthehell hybrid cars are—interest that increased exponentially once the Prius' fuel economy ratings flirted (albeit dubiously) with 50-plus mpg—the Prius quickly became synonymous with eco-consciousness, and its aero-weird styling was worn by its drivers as a veritable green badge of courage. Since then, no comers have been able to unseat the Prius as the king of all hybrids. Few have even tried.

The most valiant assault on the Prius to date has just been launched jointly by Hyundai and Kia, which co-developed a unique dedicated platform for compact hybrid and electric vehicles to be offered by both brands, the first of which are the Hyundai Ioniq and this car, the Kia Niro. While both cars are, in our opinion, vastly better looking than the now-iconic Prius, only the Ioniq adopts on the doorstop profile that delivers such excellent aerodynamic properties. The Niro takes on a more palatable, crossover-like countenance—raised ride height, tall wagon profile, body cladding, almost the whole nine yards.

We say "almost” because, despite what looks like a rugged body—there's even a fake rear skid plate on some models—the Niro is not a full-on crossover. All-wheel drive would have to be offered for us to consider it one of those, and all-wheel drive is unavailable on any Niro trim level and isn't expected to be offered any time soon. Other than that, however, the Niro does offer much of what crossover customers are looking for: ease of entry and exit, folding seats, a large, flat cargo floor and tall ceiling, and a perch that places the driver about 1.5 inches higher than would a typical compact sedan. Oh yeah, and that all-important SUV image projection.

But of course, it's a hybrid. Under the skin is a new Atkinson cycle four-cylinder engine producing 104 hp and 109 lb-ft of torque, aided and abetted by an AC motor/generator with 43 hp and 125 lb-ft of torque located in the transmission housing for a total combined output of 139 hp and 195 lb-ft of torque. The transmission is a dual-clutch six-speed unit with a manual shift mode—no droney CVT here, which sets it apart from most non-luxury hybrids that have come before it (though to Hyundai/Kia's credit, it has always preferred geared transmissions to CVTs for its hybrids). Meanwhile, energy storage for the electrified elements is handled by a 1.6-kWh lithium ion battery pack located under the cargo floor.

For the most part, the Niro drives like it looks, only slower. Kia hosted us in southern Texas for a preview drive of the Niro, and on the long, sweeping roads of Texas' famously beautiful Hill Country, the Niro felt a bit peppier than its estimated 10.5-second 0-60 mph acceleration time might suggest, but only a bit. Kia deserves praise for making the powertrain behave like a conventional gasoline-powered car, thanks in large part to the choice of a transmission with actual gears versus a flexible metal band, a la CVTs. Equally impressive is the seamless power handoff when switching from gas to electric or a combination of the two; not all hybrids are good at masking these transitions (including some of Hyundai/Kia's early hybrids). Also appreciable is the high-speed quietness. Some hybrids—a-hem, Prius—can be utterly cacophonous at speed; not so the Niro.

We were also rather surprised with the tidy handling exhibited by the top-shelf Touring models—the only trim level Kia brought—suspended as they are independently at all four corners and rolling on wide, low-profile (for a hybrid, anyway) 225/45R-18 tires versus the 205/60R-16s of lesser models. Steering is direct and reasonably quick to respond to inputs, and what body lean follows is remarkably well controlled. We expected the regenerative brakes to draw down a bit more speed upon lifting our foot from the go-pedal, something we kind of like with electrified cars, but if the tradeoff is a brake pedal that feels totally, 100 percent like that of a normal car, as it is in this case, we'll take it.

For what it's worth, the Niro features a sport mode that raises shift points, adds weight to the steering (though no more feel) and keeps the engine spinning more often. All of this comes at the expense of fuel efficiency, however, and considering that high fuel economy is the primary benefit of hybrid automobiles, we're not sure how many customers will use it. Then again, when there's so little power available, every bit of added spark—literally—is appreciable.

By taking crossover form, the Niro takes a fairly considerable hit in terms of fuel economy compared to the more aero-hewn Ioniq. The most efficient Niro is the $23,785 Niro FE, with 52 mpg city and 49 mpg highway—about eight mpg less than the most efficient Ioniq—followed by the $24,095 LX and $26,595 EX models at 51/46 mpg, while the two Touring models ($28,895-$30,545) drop considerably to 46/40 mpg, which Kia blames on the more aggressive rubber and the weight of its additional standard equipment, which also includes a navigation system that considers upcoming topographical features such as hill climbs or steep descents when determine the most efficient way to use the electric motor to assist the gasoline powerplant. Other notable features include a nifty Auto Defog system that prevents condensation on the glass by monitoring cabin air conditions to manage the cycling of the A/C compressor.

Speaking of equipment, all models come with a rearview camera, dual-zone climate control, cruise control, and a 7.0-inch infotainment system equipped with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. The LX offers little more by way of creature comforts, but the Niro EX's spec sheet seems more livable, adding heated front seats, A/C vents for rear passengers, some trim upgrades, and makes a sunroof available. Touring models feature Harman/Kardon audio tuning with eight speakers, plus power front seats and leather-and-cloth upholstery for the $28,895 "Launch Edition” and full leather plus a standard sunroof, ventilated seats and a heated steering wheel, among other things, for the top-dog $30,545 model.

We like the dashboard layout and gauges as we interfaced with them in the Touring models, and delighted in the relative normalcy of its ergonomic and presentation of controls. The only conspicuous hybrid kitch were the blue-trimmed vents. We certainly would have liked the chance to compare the Touring model to lesser Niro models, especially considering that the LX and EX are expected to represent the bulk of Niro sales. We hope to get into one of the other Niros as soon as possible, certainly before the rest of the Niro variants arrive, those being the plug-in hybrid that is due during the second half of this year, and fully electric Niro that's expected sometime in 2018. Stay tuned.

Photos courtesy of Kia.

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