SAN ANTONIO, Texas—Twenty years ago, the Toyota Prius hybrid was introduced to the world. While at first seen mostly as a novelty, many understood it was the future. It eventually racked up almost four million sales worldwide.
Fast-forward to today, the height of the alternative powertrain era, and Kia is throwing itself into the hybrid fray with the all-new 2017 Kia Niro. The Niro’s release is groundbreaking for the South Korean brand—it’ll be the first fully dedicated hybrid vehicle in its roster, built on its own unique platform.
The Prius may have paved the way for the Niro, but they won’t be direct competitors. First off, the Niro is a compact crossover slotted between the Rondo and Sportage. (It’s closer to the latter, with similar passenger space and three-quarters the cargo room.) Second, the Niro’s design does not at all resemble typical “green” vehicles’ like the Prius’.
But one thing is certain: the common ground between the two hybrids is exceptional fuel economy, which Kia calls a ‘bonus,’ and not the main focus.
The Niro is an original design, built from the ground up with versatility, fuel efficiency, and aerodynamics front of mind. It doesn’t share a platform, and has its own unique look, which gave Kia the confidence to, unusually, position the Niro below the Sportage, even though it’s relatively close in size.
With a very low, wide, and long stance, the sleek Niro resembles more of a wagon rather than a crossover, like the Volkswagen Golf Alltrack. If you were to take off its badges, you wouldn’t even know it was a Kia, save maybe for its signature tiger-nose grille.
Its look is inspired, too, by aerodynamics, resulting in a best-in-class drag coefficient of 0.29. Aero design touches include a front wheel air curtain, muffler spoiler, and an active air flap, to name a few. To add to the safety of this package, 53 percent of the Niro is built with advanced high-strength steel to improve on its rigidity and NVH (noise, vibration and harshness), as well as to lessen weight.
Inside, the Niro has a modernized simplicity to it, like other Kia products. You can call it conventional for its use of medium-sized knobs and buttons, but it’s done in a way that’s easy to understand, with the centre fascia turned towards the driver.
Kia has done a fine job in bettering the comfort level in both the front and back rows. There’s enough room to fit four adults comfortably with plenty of headroom and legroom made possible from the tucked-away battery pack. Only black leather seating can be had in the upper trims, but it’s more pleasing to the eye than the optional grey leather available in the States.
The outside may look unconventional for a hybrid, but inside it feels a little more “green,” with eco-friendly products in the cloth, leather, and foam. But with a starting price of $24,995, you ought to expect to see a few cost-cutting measures, and if those are at the expense of the environment, most buyers’d understand.
As for cargo space, the Niro has a 60-40 split seat, along with 635 litres of trunk space that can be expanded to 1,789 litres with the back row folded flat. On top of that, a secure storage tray gets added to the trunk of EX trim models and up. The trunk opening may look wide and odd, but that type of opening maximizes space and makes it easier to load and unload items.
Kia is all about value proposition, and they don’t hold back when it comes to technology. On entry, the first thing that pops is its latest eight-inch UVO infotainment system, at least in the top-of-the-line SX trim – a seven-inch version is standard on the lower trims. It’s a reflection of that aforementioned modern, simple cabin, with quick response times and great ease-of-use. If you want to avoid spending for navigation, the Niro supports Apple Car Play and Android Auto.
If you do end up getting navigation, the big advantage is an Eco Drive Assist System – a first for Kia – that teaches the driver how to conserve the most energy and achieve optimal fuel efficiency. The system is displayed through the navigation screen and can identify when a hill, turn, or stop sign is approaching, and instruct the driver when to coast and brake based on the pre-setup coasting preferences: early, normal, or late. If you don’t like being told what do, this system can be simply be turned off.
As with any hybrid vehicle, the 4.2-inch digital display provides tons of information on how you’re driving. It will let the driver know via a dial whether you’re in charge; eco; or power modes—these are displayed as percentages as well, if you toggle through the information screen.
A host of other safety technologies open up as you go up trim levels. In the EX-Premium trim, Niro receives blind spot detection; lane departure warning; lane change assist; smart cruise control; and rear cross-traffic alert. At the top trims, autonomous emergency braking functions kick in.
There’s plenty of options in terms of safety technology and added luxury, but not when it comes to its powertrain. Every Niro crossover comes in front-wheel-drive with the combination of a 104-hp direct-injected 1.6-litre four-cylinder engine and a 32-kW electric motor for another 43 gallops and 125 lb-ft of torque; that’s all matched to a six-speed dual-clutch transmission (DCT).
All totalled, the Niro produces 139 hp and 195 lb-ft of torque in a quick and efficient manner, due to a maximum 40 percent thermal efficiency, unheard of from a mainstream brand.
Tucked under the second row is a 1.56-kWh lithium-ion polymer battery that sends power to the Niro. Additionally, a 12-volt battery acts as a backup plan, if the crossover needs a little extra help to start.
The first drive program took us through the streets of San Antonio, and even though we wnt past the Alamo – the site of the brave Texan 13-day standoff against the Mexican army for its independence – most of the route found us on regular highways and roads to provide a good evaluation of the Niro’s capabilities.
As with any hybrid in Eco mode, it’s all about gentle acceleration and coasting. That slow and steady method is an ideal way to drive, as the Niro gets up quickly to higher gears for maximum fuel efficiency. Just be forewarned, that type of driving comes with a sluggish push forward and could potentially lead to trouble; we promptly discovered this when we ran into some aggressive Texan truck driving.
To combat this, the Niro has a Sport mode that adjusts on the spot and eliminates that slow feeling of helplessness. Whatever is lost in gas is made up for by a lower gear setup and the full use of that ample torque.
According to Kia Canada, the DCT was brought in to make the Niro an unconventional hybrid with a fun-to-drive spirit. That can be felt in Sport mode, but it’s surprisingly most evident in its handling. The Niro can swerve through curves in a direct fashion without much steering input and body roll; however, that does come with some unwanted road noise.
Typical hybrid mannerisms aren’t there with well-balanced steering and normal braking pressures that are still regenerating energy, just without the whiny noises that we’ve come accustomed to.
Fuel economy ratings differ between trims due to weight increases. The SX comes with 18-inch alloy wheels that make it 600 pounds heftier, and with that, we managed to achieve a combined 5.5 L/100 km—on pace with the official ratings of 5.1 L/100 km on the highway; and 5.8 L/100 km in the city. The numbers get Prius-level-low at the base L trim, with a 4.5 on the highway and a 4.8 in the city.
Like any hybrid, the Niro doesn’t come cheap. However, compared to others out there, Kia’s started out at a reasonable $24,995 for its base. No other prices were released, but we can assume given the amount of extras in the other trims that the SX may approach or exceed the $30,000 mark.
Wherever prices land, the Niro still gets the signature Kia value proposition with a standard seven-inch LCD screen, Android Auto, rearview camera, heated front seats, and a heated steering wheel.
The 2017 Kia Niro is a big electrification step for the South Korean brand. In a time when its vital to have greener options, Kia is making the push with a fully dedicated hybrid crossover that will see a plug-in version added to its roster later this year.
The Niro can be seen as a cross between a wagon and a crossover, but one thing’s for sure: it provides exceptional fuel economy without having to look like a recycling box. It’s that design Kia hopes will win at the dealership level, with the added bonus of great fuel savings. Maybe the real bonus will, in the end, be its impressive handling as felt on test drives.
The Niro should be delivered to Canadian dealerships by the end of March.
Disclosure—This writer’s travel and accommodations were provided by the automaker for the purposes of this first-drive review.