The 2017 Kia Niro is a totally new subcompact wagon with a hybrid gas-electric powertrain. Niro shares its platform with the Hyundai Ioniq hatchback.
Kia Niro uses a 0.6-liter four-cylinder Atkinson cycle engine with direct fuel injection making 114 horsepower, mated to a Kia-built six-speed dual-clutch automatic manual transmission. Between the engine and transmission there is a 32-kilowatt (43-hp) electric motor that acts as a generator, getting its energy from braking and deceleration, and charging a 1.6-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery. The Niro can run on electric power alone, but only for a bit. The total power is 139 horsepower with 195 pound-feet of torque.
EPA Combined mileage is 43 to 50 miles per gallon, depending the model (the Prius v is rated 41 mpg Combined). The FE model rates 52 mpg City, 49 Highway, and 50 Combined. But in the Eco mode, to reach that mileage, the performance is sluggish. The top Touring model is rated at 46/40/43 mpg.
The styling, cabin, content, and economy are attractive. There’s good room inside for passengers and cargo. It drives nicely and handles well, thanks to light weight and a low center of gravity. Niro feels sportier than the Toyota Prius. In Eco mode, however, it feels lethargic, slow to respond to the power pedal.
Kia calls Niro a crossover. It doesn’t come with all-wheel drive, however, so we don’t know what makes it more of a crossover than a Prius v. The low and wide stance, five-door body, and vertical liftgate make it feel like a wagon. Styling cues are what makes it a crossover. However you label it, it’s practical and economical.
Safety equipment includes seven airbags and a rearview camera with guiding lines. Most of the latest safety features are available including blind-spot monitors with rear cross-traffic alert, lane-change assist, adaptive cruise control, lane-departure warning, and autonomous emergency braking.
The 2017 Kia Niro ($22,890) comes standard with dual-zone climate control, LED headlamps, 16-inch alloy wheels, six-way manual front seats, 60/40-split folding rear seats, rearview camera, steering-wheel audio controls, two 12-Volt power outlets and USB and auxiliary input jacks on the center console, a 4.2-inch digital display between the instruments, and a 7.0-inch touchscreen with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. Niro LX ($23,200) adds roof rails, keyless ignition, rear center armrest, and LED taillamps. (Prices are MSRP and do not include destination charge.)
Niro EX ($25,700) gets cloth-and-leather upholstery, fog lights and LED running lights, power folding heated door mirrors with integrated turn signals, blind-spot monitors, heated front seats, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, a USB charger in the center console, and glossy black interior trim.
Niro Touring ($29,650) upgrades to leather seats, ventilated in front, 18-inch alloy wheels, an 8.0-inch touchscreen, eight-speaker Harman Kardon premium audio system with HD radio, front and rear parking assist, 10-way power adjustable driver’s seat, and a heated steering wheel.
Crossover styling cues in the Niro can be seen in the big wheel arches with black flares, thick cowl, rocker-panel cladding, roof rails, and a rear skid plate that makes it resemble a Jeep Cherokee from the rear. There’s no obvious styling effort to mark it as a hybrid, no visible attempt to look aerodynamic or eco. But in fact the Niro is very aerodynamic, Kia says attention to aero brings the drag coefficient down to a low 0.29.
The low nose and wide sweeping hood conceal a long front overhang. It’s lower than the Kia Sportage crossover, while its lines are smoother and rounder than those on the Kia Soul.
The instrumentation is simple and basic, with big white-on-black gauges, with glossy black trim on higher models. It’s not trying to impress you. There are no gauges that give any clue to its being a hybrid, except for a big green leaf on the panel. The quality of the materials is good and the surfaces soft.
The front seating position is high, close under the low roofline, but not as high as in the Soul or Sportage. Kia says the seat frames came out of the near-luxury Optima sedan.
The cabin is wide and feels it. There’s comfortable room for four people, and enough elbow room for five no problem. But maybe not headroom. The rear seatbacks are already canted, not upright, so the passengers’ heads don’t scrape the ceiling.
The cargo floor is low and flat, because the battery is under the rear seat, and because there’s no four-wheel-drive components to make room for.
There’s less cargo space than in the Soul or Sportage: 19.4 cubic feet with the rear seat up, and 54.5 cubic feet with it down, not quite flat. But we found that it squashed down flat when we put weight on it. The cargo capacity is a lot less than the Prius v, with its 67.3 cubic feet.
Kia put a lot of effort into insulating the body structure and isolating engine noise, and it shows. When you floor it and the engine howls, the noise stays out of the cabin.
The Niro is far more fun to drive in Sport mode, but that’s where the fuel mileage will sink. Eco mode is more frugal, but it’s sluggish. The Eco mode is uncomfortable because it prevents the transmission from kicking down for acceleration.
The Niro snaps into Sport mode as the driver pulls the shift lever to the left, almost like a downshift. The car comes alive, and easily keeps up with fast traffic on the freeway. The Sport mode enables sharper throttle response and transmission shifts; and supposedly sharper steering too, although we couldn’t feel much difference in turn-in quickness or weight in the steering wheel.
Kia chose a dual-clutch transmission, rather than a continuously variable transmission, partly because it wanted the Rio to not feel like a hybrid (but just be one). Mostly, it didn’t want the Rio to feel like a Prius. Research has shown that hybrid owners don’t much like the characteristics of the CVT that usually comes with hybrids. The dual-clutch transmission uses gears like a manual transmission, but feels like an automatic, and can be manually shifted more sharply than a CVT. Niro doesn’t have paddle shifters, so you have to use the lever to shift the transmission in Sport mode. The transmission is quick, decisive and engaging in Sport mode. We found it curious that downshifting in Sport mode does not produce engine braking, especially the regenerative variety.
The brake pedal was a bit spongy, and the travel was long, but the blending of regenerative braking with friction braking was seamless.
One novel feature, called the coasting guide, tells the driver the most energy-efficient time to coast and brake. Predictive Energy Control looks at the route set by the navigation system, and comes up with a plan to spare the throttle and raise the fuel mileage on the trip, then instructs you step-by-step on a screen how to achieve that goal. Of course it doesn’t have eyes, it’s based on speed limits and elevation; so what it tells you to do with the gas pedal and brake in real time, assumes you’re the only car on the road. But it gives you the right idea.
The Niro sheds pounds with an aluminum hood, liftgate, and suspension bits. Its light weight and low center of gravity largely make the car handle and hold the road well.
Kia Niro is a practical subcompact car with a frugal hybrid powertrain. We think it wins most comparisons with the Toyota Prius v, from powertrain to handling to mileage. The Niro needs to be in Sport mode for the throttle to be fun.
Sam Moses contributed to this report, with reporting from New Car Test Drive editor Mitch McCullough, and staff reports from The Car Connection.