Auto Review: Kia Niro Hopes To Fiddle With The Hybrid Market

San Antonio, Tex. >> The Niro is Kia’s hybrid, designed on a clean sheet and Hyundai’s first planned-from-inception hybrid.

It is a new crossover that is a modern and efficient vehicle — and mostly for urban use.

Kia is making a play for a piece of this green and fuel-efficient market. According to Orth Hendrick, VP of planning, this car came about because Kia felt the need to increase their “green space” presence. Although this isn’t yet a large, or profitable segment, it is one manufacturers need to be in.

They started developing the car in 2012 and their idea was to make the car “relevant, but different.” An important aspect was to make it attractive. Cute and edgy cars are fine to get attention, but keeping customers through three or four car purchases is more challenging.


The other point Kia officials made is that there are many people for whom driving a hybrid isn’t about making a statement, they simply want to have a fuel-efficient vehicle. Officials said their research showed that many people liked Toyota’s Prius, but didn’t like its looks.

In many cases that’s because it is so distinctively a hybrid that driving one is almost a political statement on the environment. While it may not merely be about cost, there is a large group of potential hybrid buyers to would rather not make such a statement.

Kia clearly thinks its customer base is moving both upmarket as well as becoming more sophisticated in their tastes. Kia is moving in step with these evolving customers.

While many other crossovers are trying to look more aggressive and macho, the Niro presents a cohesive and nicely proportioned appearance. Mike Torksey was the car’s chief exterior designer, and is the guy who also designed Kia’s Soul. But where the Soul was funky and sort of cute, the Niro is graceful. Lines are smooth and flowing, and there is a contemporary flow that is both sophisticated and attractive.

I like that in spite of being a small crossover it has emphatic shoulders and crisp and high wheel arches. There is a bit of cladding along the side, and roof rails strengthen its sport-ute feeling. It features Kia’s strong front face, and the rear emphasizes its width, and I like the almost race-car looking rear diffuser and well-defined LED taillights.

The interior is clean, the controls clearly placed and this design shows Kia’s move to be different than it has in the past. The instrument panel seems to grow organically out of the sweep of the dashboard and is easily encompassed with a sweep of the eye, encouraging more active eyes-on-the-road.

The audio system comes from harman kardon, and its 315-watts channel through eight speakers, one of which is a sub-woofer. The system uses the company’s proprietary CLARI-Fi sound expansion system to make music closer to the dynamic range of the original recording — before being compressed to “fit” into a digital format.

The Niro also contains the latest infotainment and connectivity system called UVO. One advantage to it is, since it’s connected through your smartphone, there’s no subscription fee. Of course, it is using your phone’s data, which for many isn’t free.

This is a small vehicle, built on a compact-car sized platform. It sits on a 106.3-inch wheelbase, but good packaging makes it feel roomy. While there’s not a lot of cargo space with the rear seat up, its floor is flat and, helpfully, the rear hatch is wide. This allows easy access to all of that space.

Leg room in the front is excellent, and there’s enough space in the rear for even adults to ride comfortably. Having said that, it is more realistically comfortable for children. The rear doors give easy access to child-seat-encased youngsters.

The powertrain is a 104-hp. 1.6-liter four-cylinder Atkinson Cycle gasoline engine, and a 43-hp electric motor. Interestingly, while almost all other hybrids use a system which runs the two power sources in parallel, with the Niro that power is in series. The total power of the car is 139 hp. and 195 lb.-ft. of peak torque. That torque level is what the Niro drives much more powerfully than you would expect, especially in Sport mode.

The Niro uses a six-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission to get the power to the front wheels. While it acts as an efficient conduit of power to the wheels, but move the gearshift knob to the left and it enters Sports mode and seriously changes the feel of the powertrain — as well as its performance.

The Niro only comes with fwd. That’s because adding all-wheel drive would require rearranging the batteries, raising the floor, particularly in the cargo space, and the additional weight would impact fuel efficiency.

The EPA mileage rating for the car varies with the trim levels because there is a significant difference between them — in terms of weight as well as the power demands of the additional equipment. Plus, there is a significant weight difference, with the base model weighing in at 3060-lb. and the Touring hitting 3300-lb.

The base FE, for instance earned 52 mpg in the city and 49 mpg on the highway. For the mid-level, LX and EX trims that rating is 51 mpg city and 46 mpg highway. The top model, the Touring gets only 46 mpg in the city and 40 on the highway. Kia says the 18-in. tires cause most of that loss, unlike the 16-in. stock tires, specifically reducing rolling resistance. The idea is to let buyers choose a level of equipment versus efficiency. That will even expand, as there is a plug-in Niro coming.

The price range for the Niro starts at $22,890 for the base Niro FE and runs to a starting price for the top-of-the-line Touring of $29,650. The model I tested was a Touring with everything on it, and it was just under $33,000. If you opt for the higher-end Touring model you can also add driver assistance and convenience technologies, including blind spot detection, rear cross-traffic alert, lane-change assist, adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning and autonomous emergency braking.

The Niro is an easy car to drive, and most will soon forget it is a hybrid, except when occasionally hitting the gas station. If you put the transmission in Sport mode it holds the gear and uses the engine aggressively enough to make it fun to drive in hilly country.

We tested the Niro in the Texas Hill Country and it was almost as happy as we were. Since it is a car, albeit a bit tall, the suspension was quite happy to go around corners, staying relatively flat to the road. Pop it back in its standard gearing, and it goes back to sipping gas as slowly as possible.

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one wire dega
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