Do hybrids still have a stigma attached to them? Is this still a thing, even in 2017, when automotive electrification is more prolific than ever?
The product planners at Kia certainly seem to think so, as they’ve gone through great effort to make the 2017 Niro – the company’s first-ever dedicated hybrid – as un-hybrid as possible, as we found on our first drive back in February.
It sports basically none of the usual telltale hybrid design cues, features only a few “Eco/Hybrid” badges, and wears the body style of a small SUV or slightly bloated hatchback. Heck, it even has a (nearly) conventional transmission setup.
By making its first hybrid as sneaky as possible, will Kia be able to entice small crossover buyers looking for something a little more fuel efficient, or will cheap gas and an affinity for everything big and truck-like keep this fresh new hybrid on the shelf? That’s what I aimed to find out over the course of my week with the 2017 Kia Niro Touring, and here’s what I discovered.
Design: 7.0 Rating
Many, ourselves included, hailed the Niro as an appealing, un-boring antidote to the styling woes that have traditionally plagued hybrid models, which generally fall somewhere on the spectrum between incredibly boring (Ford C-Max) and outrageously ugly (Toyota Prius).
I’m here to report that contrary to the popular belief, the Niro falls squarely on the ugly side of the hybrid style spectrum, and not for typical reasons like overwrought design or all-wrong proportions. The headlights are pushed entirely too far to the corners, and the wide Kia grille makes the front fascia look like a perturbed frog, at least to me.
The rear end design is a little more palatable when viewed at a rear three quarters angle, but get right up behind the Niro, and it’s flat, wide, and short, giving the back a slabby look that’s contrary to the curves found elsewhere on the vehicle. Finished in “Deep Cerulean” paint and all the black and silver trim that comes with the Touring edition, not to mention bigger, better-looking wheels than the base model, the Niro hides its strange features fairly well, and when viewed from the side, it cuts a pleasing profile.
Thankfully, the Niro’s saving grace is the lack of misguided design choices in the interior, which should be familiar if you’ve driven any Kia in the last five years or so. Fit and finish is great for an affordable Korean car, and the combination of black and light gray materials with blue stitching to remind you that this is an eco-minded car makes the cabin more interesting than other cars wearing the same badge on the front.
Comfort: 8.5 Rating
The Niro’s taller hatchback design makes for ample interior space for such a small vehicle, and passengers will find that they have plenty of leg and headroom in both the front and rear seats. The front thrones are adequately supportive, and power adjustable on certain trims on the driver’s side, while the passenger has only manual controls.
Rear seat legroom is generous, at 37.4 inches, and average to tall adults should have no problem fitting back there, but try to squeeze three people across, and the going might get a bit tough.
Leather upholstery, front and rear heated and front ventilated seats on the Touring model made for a great place to spend some time on a hot summer day, especially considering my desk chair doesn’t have little fans inside it… yet.
Controls: 9.0 Rating
Kia’s interior designers have mastered functionality through form in recent years, and the Niro is no different, choosing not to subscribe to the aversion to traditional buttons and knobs that some other major automakers have started to develop. Infotainment and media controls are situated smartly in a row below the crisp, easy-to-use touchscreen, and climate controls are both clear and feature large-enough buttons so that you can easily find and memorize the location of each function.
I also really like the driver information display, which shows relevant power usage and fuel economy information without looking like some sort of tree-hugging arcade game. The choice to use a traditional shifter is an inspired one too, because I don’t have nearly enough figures to count the amount of times I failed to get into the right gear because of the confusing shifter of a Prius or the Chevrolet Bolt.
Utility: 7.5 Rating
Another highlight of the Niro’s interior is the abundance of storage cubbies, though the center console compartment is on the small side. There’s a big, handy shelf beyond the shifter that can house an optional wireless charging pad, and to date, it’s the only one large enough in any vehicle I’ve tested to accommodate my wireless charging enabled phone (an iPhone 6 Plus with a wireless charging case).
Out back, the Niro sports 19.4 cubic feet of cargo capacity behind the rear seats, which is almost 4 cubic feet less than a front-wheel-drive Honda HR-V, the golden standard for subcompact crossovers. This nearly 20 cubic feet of space manifests itself in a relatively boxy manner, so there’s plenty of room for the likes of large suitcases and other big, bulky items, and there are a few secret, Styrofoam-lined compartments under the carpet in the rear.
Fold the rear seats (almost) flat, and you’ve got 54.5 cubic feet of space, again, nearly 4 cubic feet less than the HR-V, which rides on a 4-inch shorter wheelbase than the Kia. Honda’s engineers have long been known for maximizing interior space in the smallest of vehicles, so don’t necessarily hold it against Kia, but a dedicated hatchback hybrid design should be able to boast similar (if not larger) cargo figures than SUVs smaller than it.
Technology: 9.0 Rating
Kia’s UVO infotainment system is one of my favorites, if not only for its simplicity of use and design. There’s also the added benefit of redundant buttons on the dashboard, helping switch between navigation, media, and phone controls without having to waste precious time – and endanger yourself and others – by fiddling around with a touchscreen.
Keyless entry, Bluetooth connectivity, touchscreen infotainment, a backup camera, and smartphone projection technology with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto all come standard or on the second-tier LX trim, and stepping up to the Touring model gets you all the bells and whistles, including an upgraded 8-inch touchscreen with navigation, an 8-speaker Harman/Kardon stereo, rear USB outlets, and a 10-way power-adjustable driver’s seat, along with the comfort features I mentioned earlier.
UVO also includes connected apps, but they’re a bit fussy to use, so you’re likely better off using your smartphone to look anything up than the Google search app included in the car (not while driving, of course). If I’ve got one complaint about the Niro’s tech arsenal, it’s that the processor in the infotainment system can be infuriatingly slow at times, but not nearly as bad as some other automakers have exhibited.
Safety: Not Yet Rated
Being an all-new model for 2017, the Niro has not yet been rated by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) or the independent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), which hands out Top Safety Pick awards to its top-performing models. Considering that five current Kia models receive a TSP or TSP+ award, it’s a safe bet (pun intended) that the Niro will at least perform admirably barring some major oversight on the engineers’ behalf.
What is impressive, however, is the Niro’s suite of available safety technology, which unfortunately can only be had by selecting the LX trim or above and an extra cost option, which is curiously unavailable on the Touring Launch Edition model.
Selecting the $1,900 advanced technology package on the Touring model gets you automatic emergency braking and adaptive cruise control, while lane departure warning, blind spot monitoring, and a backup camera are all standard on that trim. With automakers like Toyota and now Nissan making their full suite of safety features standard kit, Kia could have set the tone by making their greenest model one of the safest too, but unfortunately missed the chance.
Power and Performance: 7.8 Rating
Kia’s solution to the question of “how to make a hybrid powertrain that doesn’t suck” is to utilize a naturally-aspirated version of their 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine - which only makes a little over 100 horsepower and lb.-ft. on its own - to a 240V AC motor that makes about 43 hp and 125 lb.-ft. The result (after all the complicated math is factored in) is a total system output of 139 horsepower and 195 lb.-ft. of torque.
While that’s plenty of torque for such a small vehicle, you really start to feel the lack of outright horsepower at speed when attempting to make passing maneuvers or accelerating on to an on ramp. Pop the shifter over to the left for sport mode, and you’ll fare better, but the normal eco mode is about as sluggish as can be.
Interestingly, unlike most hybrids, Kia has decided to use a 6-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission instead of a CVT, which can be clunky under hard acceleration or on the down shift, and sometimes doesn’t feel like it’s getting the most out of this car’s miserly powertrain. Still, it does go a long way to making this car feel more normal than most hybrids.
Front-wheel-drive is the only drivetrain option, and that keeps the Niro from being a true crossover like Kia would have you believe. You heard it here first, folks: if it ain’t got AWD (at least as an option), it ain’t a crossover.
As far as efficiency goes, the Niro is in line with most hybrids, though be aware that fuel economy will drop significantly if you opt for bigger wheels and more features, and if you drive aggressively… yes, even a little bit.
The base Niro and other more wallet-friendly trims get an average of 51 mpg according to the EPA, but step up to the bigger wheels and more luxury features on the Touring trim, and that estimate drops to 46 mpg. If you drive a little faster than the speed limit on the highway (like most Americans do), expect that figure to drop to close to 42 mpg, which is what I saw on average over the course of the week.
Ride and Handling: 7.7 Rating
In terms of handling, the low center of gravity from all that extra battery weight and a tight and tidy platform make for a surprisingly spry driving experience in the corners, but the lack of any steering feel whatsoever keeps the Niro from being a truly sport crossover. Those bigger wheels on the Touring model make for a bit more grip towards the limit, so if you’re looking for fun over saving the funking planet, it pays to upgrade.
The ride is relatively pleasant too, with a bit of road noise in the cabin from the wheels. Unfortunately, despite its relative heft and solidity, the Niro feels more like a cheaper compact car over rougher roads, exhibiting some rattles shakes and “oof” moments on some of the particularly harsh patches of road around New York City.
The Niro packs plenty of practicality, excellent standard and available features, and overall value into a tidy, city-friendly and eco-minded package, but certain oversights keep this good hybrid from being a great one.
Apart from my qualms with the styling (which is mostly subjective anyways), the Niro’s herky-jerky transmission and severely diminished fuel economy in any trim but the base ones make it a bit of a lesser hybrid than the likes of the Prius, even if it is wholly less offensive to look at.
Still, a base MSRP of $22,890 for a crossover-shaped hybrid is hard to argue with and will likely resonate well with potential buyers, and when all is said and done, the Niro tops out at $32,445 (including an $895 destination charge) for a fully-loaded Touring model, which looks much better and packs pretty much every luxury, tech, and safety feature you could want.
It seems, then, that by making the most un-hybrid of hybrids, Kia has furthered the cause to “Make Hybrids Great… In General.” Now they’ve just got to wait for gas to get more expensive again…
Total Vehicle Score: 144/180
Overall Vehicle Rating: 8.0
For more Kia Niro Information:
Gallery: 2017 Kia Niro Photos
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Source : http://www.nydailynews.com/autos/latest-reviews/2017-kia-niro-hybrid-ratings-review-test-drive-article-1.3252581
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