Kia Niro — A hybrid AND a crossover

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

The all-new Kia Niro competes in the small crossover segment against such players as the Chevrolet Trax, Honda HR-V, and Mazda CX-3, but it possesses one big advantage, the Niro is propelled by a fuel-stingy hybrid drivetrain. Gas mileage ranges toward the 50 mpg mark putting it squarely in the crosshairs of the Toyota Prius hatchback. It can live in both worlds quite well, so is this the beginning of a new sub-segment of small dedicated hybrid crossovers?

The base FE with its slimmer tires is the fuel mileage champ of the lineup with a 52 mpg city (2 mpg less than the Prius sedan), 49 highway and 50 combined EPA rating while the loaded Touring, which is rated at 46 city, 40 highway and 43 combined, has clearly superior handling and stopping traits and is stuffed with more equipment. Then there is a compromise to these two extremes; two mid-level trims, which can be configured with numerous desirable extras, are rated at 51 city, 46 highway and 49 combined.

The lower-priced FE starting at $23,695 is the lightest of the lineup and completes a 0-to-60 run in 8.6 seconds, while the heavier and more well-equipped top-trim Touring model, starting at $30,455, accomplishes the same run a second slower at 9.6 seconds. But that is still a full second better than the Prius Three and on a par with the crossover competition.

The Touring stops quicker and handles the twists and turns of mountain roads and winding rural blacktops with more agility, and in fact better than most of the crossover competition. The LX trim begins at $24,005 and the EX starts at $26,505. And although the Touring comes in with less mpg, it still delivers seven more highway mpg than its nearest non-hybrid competitor, the Chevrolet Trax.

Kia improved the Niro’s aerodynamic efficiency by fitting it with grille shutters that close at around 35 mph to smooth airflow over the short nose. And unlike the Prius, Niro is handsome, has a conservative stance, does not shout out its tightwad tendencies, and has markedly superior performance and handling.

Kia’s family tiger nose grille graces the front end, and angled headlights complete an aggressive look. Short overhangs and 18-inch alloy wheels add to its athletic appearance. Gray plastic cladding around the wheel-wells announce the Niro's SUV intentions, and a luggage rack provides space for gear. LED tail-lamps and spoiler give followers a nice view.

One constant is the drivetrain, which is the same in all models. It consists of a 1.6-liter four-cylinder hybrid-electric setup that utilizes the Atkinson combustion cycle making a total of 139 horsepower and 195 pound-feet of torque with power directed at the front wheels through a six-speed, dual-clutch automatic transmission. (All-wheel drive is not available). The electric portion of the hybrid is represented by a Lithium Ion Polymer battery located beneath the rear seats driving a 43-horsepower motor between the engine and transmission.

We drove the Touring model and found it to be an adequate performer in all driving situations. But unless you want to wring out every ounce of fuel economy, stay away from the Eco setting and drive in the Sport mode. The Eco setting leaves the Niro lacking in motivation.

The interior is handsome with wide horizontal dash expanses holding the touchscreen. Harman Kardon premium audio, heated/ventilated leather front seats, heated leather-wrapped steering wheel and a power sunroof add luxury. Knobs and buttons feel precise. Special attention was paid to reduce wind, road, and powertrain noise.

We found the Niro to be flexible with 60-40 split rear seats that fold down to provide a large flat area of more than 55-cubic feet for storing cargo. Four passengers fit comfortably.

While the base FE is least expensive model, it comes with a considerable amount of standard equipment including dual-zone automatic climate control, full power accessories, selectable drive modes, a 7-inch touchscreen infotainment system, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone integration, a rearview camera, Bluetooth, and a four-speaker audio system.

The LX adds such things such as keyless ignition, and underfloor storage tray for the rear cargo area. The EX includes combination cloth and leather upholstery, heated front seats, and a blind-spot monitoring system.

A full suite of safety equipment is offered on the upper trims including Autonomous Emergency Braking, Blind Spot Detection, Rear Cross Traffic Alert, Lane Change Assist, Lane Departure Warning, and adaptive cruise control.

Our top-of-the-line Touring test car carried a bottom line of $32,445 with the optional $1,900 Technology package, which includes the aforementioned safety features.

Base price: $23,695; as driven, $32,445
Engine: 1.6 liter 4-cylinder, electric motor
Horsepower: 139 @ 5,700 rpm
Torque: 195 foot-pounds @ 4,000 rpm,
Transmission: 6-speed dual clutch automatic
Drive: front wheel
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 106.3 inches
Length: 171.5 inches
Curb weight: 3,274 pounds
Turning circle: 34.8 feet
Luggage capacity:19.4 cubic feet
Cargo capacity: 54.5 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 11.9 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 46 city, 40 highway, 43 combined
0-60: 9.6 seconds (Car and Driver)
Also consider: Jeep Compass, Toyota RAV4 Hybrid, Chevrolet Trax

The Good
• 6-speed shifter better than CVT
• Batteries don't affect cargo space
• Impressive fuel economy for crossover
• Solid list of standard equipment

The Bad
• Confusing trim levels

The Ugly
• All-wheel drive not available