- 50-mpg combined fuel economy
- "Normal" crossover styling
- Small SUVs a sweet spot these days
- Comfortable seats
- Good noise suppression
- No all-wheel drive offered
- Sluggish performance
- Not yet rated for safety
- Will real-world MPG match ratings?
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 enters the world's limited roster of dedicated hybrids, headed by the Toyota Prius, now in its fourth generation. Among dedicated hybrids, the Niro is joined by the Hyundai Ioniq hatchback, with which it shares underpinnings. The 2017 Niro is offered in four trim levels: the base FE, the mid-level LX and EX, and the high-end Touring model.
Given the surging popularity of car-based crossover utility vehicles, the Niro may find an audience among buyers of small SUVs who want high fuel efficiency—EPA combined ratings range from 43 to 50 mpg depending on trim level—but don't like conventional hatchbacks or cars that scream "hybrid," as the new Prius does. While the newest Kia has a crossover shape, the Niro doesn't offer all-wheel drive, which could limit its sales in some parts of the U.S.
We rate the Kia Niro at 6.6 out of 10 overall. It wins points for its handsome wagon styling, the comfort and quality of its interior, its feature content, and of course its fuel economy. But its sluggish performance in the standard Eco mode is a drawback, and so far it doesn't have any safety ratings. (Read more about how we rate cars this year.)
Design and performance
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 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 nothing in its lines tips off 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 is no exception, with good-quality materials and soft surfaces.
That powertrain uses a 104-horsepower direct-injected 1.6-liter 4-cylinder engine, running on the ultra-efficient Atkinson cycle, combined with the company's own 6-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 a total combined power output at 139 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 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 arrive by the end of 2017 as well.
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, 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 closer in feel to a conventional car.)
Comfort and features
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 gives easy access to the rear compartment. 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 is also commendably quiet, with Kia having put considerable effort into insulating the body structure and isolating engine noise.
It's too early yet for safety ratings from either federal testers or the IIHS, but Kia says it's targeting "top honors" in those scores. The Kia Niro offers most of the latest active-safety features as options, including blind-spot monitors 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. The 2017 Niro starts at roughly $24,000 including a mandatory delivery fee; a fully equipped top-of-the-line Touring version can run to $33,000.