Kia’s Niro is the anti-Prius
CASEY WILLIAMS | Auto Reviewer
Whoever said a compact fuel-sipping hybrid couldn’t also be cool? Perhaps it needs to be aerodynamic, but it doesn’t have to look like an out-of-control science project merged with some sci-fi future-set flick. An efficient little hybrid could just look like a crossover. And it could still have all of the technology and utility expected in a cutting-edge ride.
At least that’s what Kia designers and engineers apparently thought as they conjured the Niro.
From the exterior, it looks like a smaller Sportage — wide stance, elegant forms and Kia’s trademark tiger nose grille. Short overhangs and 18-in. alloy wheels add to its athletic appearance. Gray plastic cladding around the wheelwells and accenting the lower side sculpting protect the flanks while a luggage rack provides space for gear. LED taillamps and spoiler give followers a nice view.
The interior befits a smaller version of the Cadenza luxury sedan. Wide horizontal dash expanses hold the touchscreen for navigation and audio above controls for the automatic climate system. Harman Kardon premium audio, heated/ventilated leather front seats, heated leather-wrapped steering wheel and a power sunroof add luxury. Designers stepped up with contrasting blue stitching for the leather, piano black accents on the doors and console and blue surrounds for the air vents. Knobs and buttons feel precise. Engineers gave special attention to reducing wind, road and powertrain noise for tranquil traveling.
Safety was a priority, enhanced by Autonomous Emergency Braking, Blind Spot Detection, Rear Cross Traffic Alert, Lane Change Assist and Lane Departure Warning systems. Adaptive cruise control maintains a safe distance from other vehicles.
Beyond all of that, the Niro has a roomy and flexible interior. Rear seats fold down to provide a large flat floor for sports gear, plants, camping equipment or anything else you need to haul. Four passengers fit comfortably; five can squeeze in for short trips. From inside, the power monitor in the instrument cluster is the only real indication you’re inside a hybrid — a very good thing.
Providing the gasoline-burning part of the powertrain is a 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine making 104 horsepower. It employs an exhaust heat recovery system to speed warm-up and reduce pollution. The electric portion is represented by a Lithium Ion Polymer battery located beneath the rear seats and driving a 43 horsepower motor between the engine and transmission. All in, the system delivers 139 horsepower and 195 lb.-ft. of torque for reasonably spirited acceleration. Fuel economy is rated a fantastically frugal 52/49-MPG city/hwy. for base models, 46/40-MPG for Touring editions.
But driving a hybrid is rarely a fun experience. Kia eliminates the high-speed weedeater feel of continuously variable transmissions in most hybrids by installing a 6-speed dual clutch automatic transmission. Silent electric power gets you moving before the gas engine fires up, and the transmission shifts cleanly through its gears. Regenerative brakes, which replenish the batteries during deceleration, feel a little soft but do their job without drama.
The obvious competition for the Niro is the Toyota Prius, Chevy Volt and Hyundai Ioniq. You might also consider the Chevy Cruze Diesel. But none of these cars offer the refined style, interior space and 50-MPG offered by the Niro. A base price of $22,890, or $29,650 for our loaded Limited model, makes it a pretty good value, too.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition June 16, 2017.