- 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.
2017 Kia Niro
There's no sedan version, but the 2017 Kia Niro "crossover" has the proportions of a classic wagon; it's handsome, and the interior is stylish but straightforward.
Deciding what kind of car the 2017 Kia Niro really is can take some time. Kia calls it the first "crossover hybrid vehicle," but its proportions and shape are more those of a classic wagon—although there's no Niro sedan, and wagons are usually derived from sedan models. Still, the Niro blends a lower height and a wide stance with a five-door body and vertical rear tailgate, which sounds like a wagon to us.
The Niro's low nose and wide, swept-back front neatly disguise its long front overhang. But it's just thick enough through the cowl to qualify as a sleek crossover, and its black-outlined wheel arches underscore its utility vehicle character. On the other hand, its smoothly rounded lines are lower than both Kia's Soul tall wagon and its Sportage compact crossover. Nor does the Niro offer all-wheel drive or the ground clearance of a utility vehicle, with its lower-to-the-ground stance reinforcing the passenger wagon look. On the other hand, its roof rails and sill cladding signal crossover—as does its rear view, complete with skid plate, which not only looks rugged but has a striking resemblance to the back of the current Jeep Cherokee, slightly squashed.
Whatever you decide it is, nothing in the Niro's lines indicates that it's a hybrid—and that's by design. Kia wants to attract buyers who like the idea of higher fuel economy but shrink away from a vehicle that telegraphs its advanced technology.
Despite the smooth, carefully rounded crossover (or wagon) shape, careful aerodynamic work by Kia designers has reduced the drag coefficient to 0.29. That's low for any kind of utility vehicle, and undoubtedly contributes to its fuel-economy ratings at higher speeds.
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, soft surfaces, and a smattering of glossy black trim pieces on higher-end models. Again, the interior is a well-executed version of that in a conventional car; nothing about it says "hybrid" except for a tree display on one energy-efficiency display. Think of it as the anti-Prius, if you like, especially considering the bizarre styling of the latest generation of Prius that debuted in 2016.
We rate the Niro at 7 out of 10 for its design, giving it one extra point for pleasing exterior proportions and another for a good, clear, attractive interior. (Read more about how we rate cars this year.)
2017 Kia Niro
The 2017 Kia Niro has Jekyll-and-Hyde performance: slow and sluggish in standard mode, when you'll get good gas mileage, but far more fun to drive in Sport mode—when you likely won't.
The 2017 Kia Niro hybrid has just one powertrain at the moment, though a plug-in hybrid is expected to arrive by the end of 2017. The performance of the hybrid model has a distinct Jekyll-and-Hyde personality. It's slow and sluggish in the standard Eco mode, the one that delivers those good fuel-economy ratings, but far more fun to drive in Sport mode—which will likely cut real-world gas mileage substantially.
We rate the Niro at 4 out of 10 on our performance scale, docking it a point for sluggishness in the standard mode. (Read more about how we rate cars this year.) And we'll need more time to test the Niro in real-world use before we weigh in on whether it can deliver its 43- to 50-mpg combined EPA ratings; we saw indicated fuel-economy figures of 35 to 46 mpg during three 50- to 60-mile routes, mixing Eco and Sport modes.
The 2017 Niro is propelled by a 1.6-liter direct-injected 4-cylinder engine that puts out 104 horsepower, plus a 32-kilowatt (43-hp) electric motor between the engine and a 6-speed direct-shift automatic gearbox. The maximum power output of the combined system is 139 hp, with a torque rating of 195 pound-feet. The engine is tuned to use the highly efficient Atkinson cycle, and can reach 40 percent thermal efficiency under some circumstances, Kia says.
Despite Kia's references to the Niro as a "crossover" utility vehicle, only the front wheels are driven. And there's likely little room for a rear differential, given the 1.6-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack under the rear seat between the rear wheels. Like every hybrid, the Niro can run on a blend of engine and electric power, all-electrically at low speeds under gentle acceleration, and occasionally on engine power alone when that's most energy efficient. On engine overrun and braking, the electric motor turns into a generator to recapture otherwise wasted energy to recharge the battery that powers the motor.
Eco vs. Sport modes
Behind the wheel, the Niro's default Eco mode simply makes it a slow vehicle, with the engine staying in high gears at low revs as long as possible. Flooring the accelerator increases the car's speed, of course, but not very fast. Pulling the shift lever to the left, however, flips the car into its Sport mode, when its entire personality changes. That mode remaps the throttle response, transmission shift points, and even the steering, and it turns the Niro from a slow-ish compact car into one that's at least competitive in fast-moving traffic.
Choosing Sport mode often causes the gearbox to downshift immediately to a lower gear, and its engine response is much peppier, though we felt little if any difference in the steering between modes. We were puzzled, however, to find there was no appreciable engine braking on manual downshifts, which are possible in Sport mode by pulling the shift lever back. We'd have liked paddles behind the wheel for up- and down-shifts, but that may not be of particular value in this segment.
The blending between regenerative and friction braking in the Niro was seamless, although the pedal was slightly on the spongy side of firm, with a relatively long travel. The Niro's handling and roadholding was good, and it had less body roll on corners than a taller SUV with higher ground clearance.
Indeed, the Niro isn't necessarily recognizable as a hybrid unless you concentrate. That's exactly what Kia intended, and one reason it chose the direct-shift gearbox. Many potential hybrid buyers dislike the characteristics of the continuously variable transmissions used in most hybrids, the carmaker says, and the direct-shift transmission gives the same feel as a conventional automatic that shifts among set gear ratios.
The Niro plug-in hybrid model that will arrive late in 2017 will have a larger 8.9-kwh battery pack with a portion in the spare tire well under the load floor. Its electric motor will be more powerful, and Kia says it expects that version to be EPA-rated at 25 or 26 miles of all-electric range.
2017 Kia Niro
Comfort & Quality
The 2017 Kia Niro is spacious inside, with plenty of passenger room and a large cargo bay for its size.
The 2017 Kia Niro is a spacious and comfortable compact wagon or crossover utility vehicle. It's comfortable for four to ride in, its wide passenger compartment can handle five passengers, and a large and practical load bay without the intrusion of all-wheel-drive hardware makes it a good hauler. It's also very good at suppressing most on-road noise, to the point where unless you're paying attention, you may not realize it's a hybrid at all.
We rate the Niro at 6 out of 10 for comfort and quality, giving it an extra point for its quiet and comfort against compact crossovers in its class. (Read more about how we rate cars this year.)
Front-seat riders sit higher in the Niro than they do in a sedan; Kia says the seats are about 2 inches higher than in standard passenger cars. They're not as high as the Soul tall wagon or Sportage compact crossover, which makes the Niro a nice midway point. The seats are high enough for drivers to see through some taller vehicles ahead, but without the body roll and occasionally inconsistent ride that afflicts some crossovers of the same size. The cabin is wide, too, compensating for the lower overall height and making the cabin feel expansive.
Kia says the seat frames used in the Niro are based on those for its pricier Optima mid-size sedan, and we found the front seats both comfortable and sufficiently adjustable to handle drivers up to 6-foot-6. The rear seat offers space for two full-sized adults, with the proviso that the head room is achieved by a rear seat back that's more angled than those in taller, more upright utility vehicles. That same cabin width gives a third rear-seat rider slightly more wiggle room than in compact crossovers that may be a few inches narrower.
With the rear seat up, the cargo bay offers 19.4 cubic feet of volume, lower than that of the taller Soul or Sportage without cargo trays in place. With the rear seat folded, that rises to 54.5 cubic feet, just 5 to 6 cubic feet down on those two vehicles. While the seat back flops down to a not-quite-flat angle on top of the rear seat bottom cushion, we found that putting weight on it delivered a level floor after all.
Noise suppression in the Niro is good until the accelerator is floored, likely a result of all that aerodynamic work to bring down the drag coefficient to 0.29. Even then, while the noise level rises substantially, the engine howl is somewhat removed from the passenger compartment.
The quality of the interior materials, with soft-touch surfaces and both matte silver and glossy black trim in the high-end Niro Touring, gives the impression of a nicely outfitted car that's not trying to impress with exotic shapes or lavish design flourishes. It all works, with knobs on the center console for commonly used functions and Kia's very good user interface for the touchscreen display.
One note: To date, we haven't been in the mid-level Niro EX trim level, which has fewer trim enhancements.
2017 Kia Niro
The 2017 Kia Niro hasn't been rated for safety by either the IIHS or the NHTSA.
To date, the 2017 Kia Niro hasn't been rated for crash safety by either the NHTSA or the IIHS. Until at least one agency has weighed in, we can't give the Niro a safety rating. Kia says it's confident the car will receive top ratings when it's tested. (Read more about how we rate cars this year.)
The 2017 Niro comes standard with seven airbags, and a rearview camera with guidelines is also a standard fitting on every trim level.
Blind-spot monitors are standard on the EX and Touring trim levels, but not offered on the FE or LX. A package of active-safety features, including adaptive cruise control, lane-departure warning, and automatic crash braking, is available on the two high-end trim levels, the EX and Touring. The Touring also adds a front and rear parking sensors not available on any other Niro model.
2017 Kia Niro
The 2017 Kia Niro has a good level of standard equipment for the price, from a stripped-down gas-mileage champ to the luxury Touring model with lots of bells and whistles.
The 2017 Kia Niro hybrid comes in four trims. The base FE model, which deletes a few features to squeak it over the line and earn that crucial 50-mpg combined EPA rating, is likely to be a low-volume model. The bulk of Niros sold will be the LX and EX mid-range versions. At the high end, the Touring model comes with all the bells and whistles, and lower fuel-economy figures.
For 2017, the Niro starts around $24,000 including a mandatory destination fee, and tops out at around $33,000. It has a good level of standard equipment for its segment, including dual-zone climate control, a 7.0-inch touchscreen, and LED headlights. At the high end, it's less expensive than the top Toyota Prius versions, though its suite of electronic safety systems isn't quite as comprehensive.
We rate the Niro at 7 out of 10 for its features, giving it an extra point above average for good base content and another for its standard 7.0- or 8.0-inch touchscreen displays. (Read more about how we rate cars this year.)
All 2017 Niro models come with 16-inch alloy wheels, LED headlights, a six-way manually adjustable driver and front passenger seats, 60/40-split folding rear seats, a rearview camera, dual-zone automatic climate control (including a driver-only air conditioning setting to conserve energy), audio controls on the steering wheel, two 12-volt power outlets and USB and auxiliary input jacks on the center console, a 4.2-inch digital display between the instruments, and a 7.0-inch touchscreen in the center of the dash that includes Android Auto and Apple CarPlay.
The base FE model is very similar to the LX trim, but it comes without the roof rails, keyless ignition, rear-seat center armrest, and LED taillights that are standard on the LX and all other Niro versions.
The EX trim adds fog lights and LED running lights (also optional on the LX), power folding heated door mirrors with integrated turn signals, blind-spot monitors, cloth-and-leather upholstery, heated front seats, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, a USB charger in the center console, and various glossy black interior trim pieces.
Finally, the top-of-the-line Touring version adds 18-inch alloy wheels (one of the reasons for its lower fuel-economy ratings), an 8.0-inch touchscreen, an eight-speaker Harman Kardon premium audio system with HD radio, front and rear parking assist, a 10-way power adjustable driver's seat (optional on the EX), leather seats, ventilated front seats, memory settings for the driver's seat and mirror, and a heated steering wheel.
Options include a space-saver spare tire in place of the standard inflator kit and crossbars for the roof rails. Options on the Touring only include high-intensity discharge headlights, a wireless mobile-phone charging pad, and a household-style power plug.
A package of active-safety features, including adaptive cruise control, lane-departure warning, and automatic crash braking, is available on the two high-end trim levels, the EX and Touring.
2017 Kia Niro
The 2017 Kia Niro gets EPA combined ratings of 43 to 50 mpg, depending on model, though it remains to be seen whether it will deliver that in the real world.
The 2017 Kia Niro has the highest fuel economy of any vehicle in the Kia lineup, with one model earning a combined EPA rating of 50 mpg—very close to Toyota Prius territory. As such, it earns 9 out of 10 points on our fuel-efficiency scale, the highest level for any car without a plug. (Read more about how we rate cars this year.)
The FE model carries EPA ratings of 52 mpg city, 49 highway, and that crucial 50 combined. The LX and EX models, which are likely to be the volume sellers, come in just below that, at 51/46/49 mpg. But fuel efficiency takes a drop for the high-end Touring model that we tested, at 46/40/43 mpg.
On three different 40- to 50-mile legs, however, we recorded fuel-economy figures of 35 to 46 mpg as indicated on the display. That's considerably lower than the 10 or 12 percent variance from the combined rating that most hybrid owners will accept.
All the legs had a mix of regular and Sport-mode driving, some hills, and a mix of local, country, and highway driving. We look forward to testing the Niro for a longer period to get a better sense of its real-world fuel economy.