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2017 Kia Niro review: A hybrid that requires fewer compromises

Good honest review but still mileage is 10 miles below Prius

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2017 Kia Niro review: A hybrid that requires fewer compromises
Nov 21, 2017

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Capitalizing on the crossover craze right now, Kia decided to combine two elements with niche appeal -- hybrid technology and crossover design -– in one package to appease the masses, which is where the new Niro comes in.
Kia claims the Niro is a utility hybrid vehicle, which will help the automaker steal some sales away from the Toyota Prius, the Niro’s strongest competitor. And Kia’s not messing around. The Niro is the automaker’s first vehicle designed from head to toe to be a hybrid and has some tricks up its sleeves to deal with the segment leader, starting with its bespoke powertrain.
Power comes from a 1.6-liter inline-four engine and an electric motor, which have a combined output of 146 hp and 195 lb-ft of torque – the electric motor accounts for 43 and 125 of those horses and torque, respectively. The engine sends power to a six-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission -- no CVT here -- with drive going to the front wheels.
The traditional gas engine, electric motor, and other necessary components, including the Hybrid Starter Generator and Hybrid Power Control Unit, are stuffed underneath the hood. The other heavy item, the lithium-ion battery pack, is hidden beneath the rear seat.  
In addition to the unique packaging and powertrain, Kia wanted to cut out as much as weight possible. The automaker did that using aluminum for the engine, hood, tailgate, lower front suspension arms and more. The changes also go deeper than exterior components -- the entire Niro lineup only comes with a manually adjusting seat for the passenger, for example, to help cut every bit of weight out.
The weight savings and unique powertrain are par for the course in the world of hybrids, but the Niro has another major selling point over other fuel-efficient cars: its looks. On our drive, a Nissan Rogue Sport pulled up next to the Niro, revealing just how much smaller the Kia is next to other crossovers. It’s noticeably shorter in height and is missing the tall backlight that defines most compact SUVs and crossovers. Compact crossover? Tall hatchback? That’s for you to decide, but one thing’s clear: The Niro is a handsome car.
The tear-shaped headlights help rein in the sharp creases of the front end, while the short overhangs and curvy rear end give the crossover a simple, yet likable design. The Niro’s sheetmetal is more than just a good-looking take on a hybrid. It’s also a smart one that features active shutters in the front grille that close at higher speeds to improve aerodynamics.
The interior features the same less-is-more look with a straightforward center console that has easy-to-use buttons in accessible areas and a well-sized touchscreen that’s clear and simple to use. The instrument cluster, which has become overly complicated in some other vehicles, is precise, providing only crucial bits of information. Kia’s need to squeeze out as much fuel economy from the vehicle as possible is still evident in the interior, though, with a driver’s only HVAC mode that electronically shuts the passenger vents off, lowering the amount of energy the HVAC components use.

The fully-loaded Touring trim – starting at $30,675 – comes with an upgraded Harman/Kardon stereo, dual-zone automatic temperature control, heated and ventilated front seats, a heated steering wheel, an 8-inch touchscreen display and voice-command navigation. Our Niro also had the Advanced Technology Package that brought a bunch of safety tech, including Smart Cruise Control, Forward Collision Warning and Autonomous Emergency Braking for an additional $1,900.
At the other end of the spectrum sits the FE trim that starts at $23,785. The FE, while not as handsomely equipped as the Touring model, still comes with a lengthy list of features including: 16-inch alloy wheels, a 7-inch touch-screen, Android Auto and Apple CarPlay compatibility, a six-speaker audio system, Bluetooth, steering-wheel-mounted controls, dual 12-volt power outlets and keyless entry. Kia always packs its entry-level models with a ton of equipment, and the Niro’s no different.
The Execution
The Niro may be classified as a compact crossover, but Kia is adamant that the vehicle is a Prius fighter. Unfortunately, when it comes to a comparison between the two hybrids, the Niro is going into the fight as the underdog. The Prius Eco, with its 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine and electric motor, is rated to get 58 mpg in the city and 53 mpg on the highway, which equates to 56 mpg combined. The base Niro FE is the most fuel-efficient trim of the lineup and has a rating of 52 mpg in the city and 49 mpg on the highway, resulting in a combined rating of 50 mpg.
The figures are even worse for the range-topping Niro Touring trim I drove that stickered at $32,575. The model is only good for 46 mpg in the city, 40 mpg on the highway, and 43 mpg combined. The upside to those figures is that after my time driving the Niro on the highway and in cities (including some time off the beaten path), the car was bang-on at a combined rating of 43 mpg. And I wasn’t driving economically either.
In the city, the Niro’s soft suspension soaked up Montana’s bumps with little drama and ran mostly on electricity alone, until a jab of the throttle forced the gasoline engine to kick on. When the Niro transitioned from electricity to gas, it did so seamlessly, providing only the traditional audible engine cue as a sign of what type of energy the car was using.
The dual-clutch gearbox is a welcome change over a CVT and provides seamless shifts, which come early and often in an effort to be as fuel efficient as possible. For the most part, the six-speed operates without hesitation and without any of the jerkiness that plagues other dual-clutches during city driving.
Heading out of the city and onto one of the state’s sizable roads reveals that the Niro’s combined output of 146 hp doesn’t back up the crossover’s handsome looks. It gets up to Montana’s speed limits of 70 and 80 mph just fine, but it’s not exactly what you'd call sprightly. The engine, despite making its power toward the top of the rev range, doesn’t like being wrung out to its fullest, emitting an almost woeful sound as it hits top end. In the city, the car’s performance is more than adequate.

2017 Kia Niro hybrid
Kia’s full array of driver assistance features – advanced high-strength steel structure, seven airbags, available Autonomous Emergency Braking (AEB), Blind Spot Detection (BSD), Rear Cross Traffic Alert (RCTA), Lane Change Assist (LCA) and Lane Departure Warning (LDW).
Once on the highway, you hear a decent amount of road noise. It’s not a roar, but more of a discernable whir that’s constantly there. Kia attempted to make the cabin quieter with more sound-deadening. While it worked, I don’t think it’s as quiet as the company hoped it would be.
I didn’t get to sample the vehicle on too many winding roads, but the few that I did tackle enthusiastically left me with a favorable impression. The Niro, thanks to its short height, handles like a tall hatchback with minimal body roll. The steering wheel, while providing little feedback, is nicely weighted and the brakes come on strong. While words like sporty and athletic may not appropriately describe the Niro, entertaining and enjoyable do.
The Niro even has a sport mode that makes the transmission more responsive and adds some weight to the steering wheel. Unfortunately, sport mode also makes the throttle pedal more sensitive, making smooth throttle inputs difficult. The result is a jerky and uncomfortable ride. However, sport mode is the best way to get the most out of the dual-clutch transmission, as it provides upshifts and downshifts more swiftly. While I didn’t shift the Niro into sport mode often, I found it to be especially beneficial when overtaking. 
For the most part, the Niro excels at doing everyday tasks extremely well and can even be enjoyed on curvy roads when the mood arises. If the Niro’s looks don’t convert Prius owners, the crossover’s more agile abilities might.
The Takeaway
The absence of all-wheel drive might push some typical crossover buyers away from the Niro, which is a shame because it has a lot to offer. While the cargo capacity isn’t exceptional, there’s plenty of room for people on the inside. The back seats are especially roomy with an abundance of space for full-size adults to stretch out over a long journey.
When it comes to saving money at the pumps, the entry-level trim is not only one of the most fuel-efficient crossovers on the market, it’s one of the most fuel-efficient vehicles on the road. Period. Not only is the Niro a viable option to the Prius, it’s also a standout option for any driver wanting a hybrid with an added dash of utility.  

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