2017 Kia Niro Preview

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The Car Connection Expert Review

The 2017 Kia Niro is a dedicated subcompact hybrid crossover, the only one on the market, and it offers a good way to combine high fuel efficiency with ever-more-popular crossover styling.

The 2017 Kia Niro breaks new ground as the first dedicated hybrid crossover SUV--which is to say, there's no gasoline-only Niro. It joins the world's limited roster of dedicated hybrids, which is headed by the Toyota Prius, now in its fourth generation. The latest entry besides the Niro is the Hyundai Ioniq hatchback, which shares underpinnings with the new Niro.

Given the surging popularity of car-based crossover utility vehicles, the subcompact Niro may find an audience among buyers of small SUVs who want high fuel efficiency--Kia is targeting an EPA rating of 50 mpg combined--but avoid conventional hatchbacks. While the newest Kia has a crossover shape, however, Kia has not yet mentioned offering all-wheel drive--but we suspect it's on the way. And for the smallest SUVs, often used mostly in cities, that may not be as much of a drawback as for larger family haulers.

The lines of the Kia Niro neatly split the difference between what could be considered a conventional wagon and a genuine utility vehicle. It's just thick enough through the cowl and front end to qualify as a sleek crossover, led off by the characteristic Kia grille and etched in smoothly rounded lines. Think of it as a sleeker, butcher version of the similarly sized Kia Soul tall wagon, if you like.

The crossover design cues include large wheel arches, cladding on the rocker panels, roof rails, and a rear skid plate. The company said its "strong and confident" look is atypical of dedicated hybrids, and indeed there's almost nothing in its lines to indicate the advanced powertrain underneath. Despite the crossover shape, though, Kia says careful aerodynamic work has reduced the drag coefficient to 0.29, low for any kind of utility vehicle.

Inside, the look is straightforward and conventional, with large clear instruments and black and white trim. Kia's interiors have been first-rate lately, and the Niro's should be no exception, with good-quality materials and soft surfaces.

That powertrain uses a 103-horsepower direct-injected 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine, running on the ultra-efficient Atkinson Cycle, combined with the company's own six-speed dual-clutch transmission. In between those two components, a 32-kilowatt (43-hp) electric motor contributes its own torque and can propel the car on its own under some driving conditions. Kia quotes combined power output at 146 hp and 195 lb-ft of torque.

The motor acts as a generator to recapture otherwise wasted energy from braking and engine overrun, using it to charge a 1.6-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery sited under the rear seat. Under power, the battery sends energy to the motor to power the Niro--whether by itself or in combination with the engine. Kia says a plug-in hybrid version of the Niro will come later in the model's life.

We also expect an all-wheel-drive option on future Niros, based on the Kia Soul-based Trail'ster concept shown at the 2015 Chicago Auto Show, precisely a year before the Niro's debut at the same show. That used a separate electric motor on the rear axle to supplement a hybrid system on the front wheels. The added weight would likely reduce that benchmark 50-mpg combined fuel economy, but if AWD proves to be a market necessity after all, we predict Kia will offer it.

Kia makes a point of differentiating the Niro from "typical hybrids" on several fronts, from its conventional crossover styling to the quick, decisive shifts of the DCT, which it says increase on-road enjoyment and provide an "engaging driving experience." It has also worked on brake blending between regeneration and the friction brakes, to make the transitions imperceptible to the driver.

A lightweight structure and a low center of gravity makes the Niro handle well too, it suggests, including a hood, tailgate, and some suspension components made of aluminum rather than steel. Overall, Kia is trying to set the Niro as far away as possible from the stereotype of what a Prius is like to drive. (In fairness to Toyota, the latest 2016 Prius drives far better than any previous generation of Prius, and is much closer in feel to a conventional car.)

Despite a lower roofline than the Soul tall wagon and other SUVs, the Niro offers a relatively high seating position. With long doors taking up much of the body sides past the windshield pillars, it should offer easy access to the rear seat. Putting the battery pack under the rear seat gives a low, flat cargo floor, unlike hybrid SUVs adapted from gasoline models that put the battery under a higher load floor. It should also be quiet, with Kia having put considerable effort into quieting the body structure and isolating engine noise.

It's too early yet for safety ratings from either the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) or the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety (IIHS), but Kia says it's targeting "top honors" in those scores. The Kia Niro will come with a full suite of standard and optional active-safety features, including blind-spot detection with rear cross-traffic alert, lane-change assist, adaptive cruise control, lane-departure warning, and autonomous emergency braking.

A novel feature even for hybrids is what Kia calls "Coasting Guide," which coaches the driver when to coast and when to brake. Predictive Energy Control evaluates the route chosen by the navigation system to maximize energy conservation, picking when to recharge the battery and when to use stored energy based on the speeds and elevations ahead. Other energy conservation features include an active-management system for air intake and an automatic defogger that determines when more air is required.

Like other Kias, the latest version of the UVO infotainment and telematic system will be available, including Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. Detailed specifications and pricing will be available for the 2017 Kia Niro closer to its on-sale date later this year.

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