First Drive: 2017 Kia Niro

2017 Niro – Blue

The worst part about driving a hybrid, is that you’re constantly reminded of the fact that driving enjoyment is no longer a thing about which you care. Sure, you can spend big bucks and get something with a bit of vigor like a Porsche Panamaniac e-Hybrid, but that starts at $100k and I bet you that you’ll end up with enough options that you could’ve thrown a base Macan into the mix as well. Your standard hybrid, however, is quite boring and manages to remind you of this every chance it gets.
Kia is hoping to change that with the introduction of its all new 2017 Niro. This is a vehicle that was built from the outset to be a hybrid. With that in mind, Kia knew it wanted something that was both a mere sipper of fuel yet also functional and enjoyable on a daily basis.
Much like Roman Emperor Nero looked to make his empire a more pleasing place, the Niro hopes to do the same for the hybrid. To see if that is something that’s actually possible in a vehicle not costing you six figures, I trekked to San Antonio, Texas to find out.
…because we know that Texans are rootin’ tootin’ and straight-up hollerin’ for more hybrids.

I should take that last statement back. Texas is a big place and it also happens to be the 3rd largest market for hybrids in the country. So slinging the Niro on Texas hill-country back roads isn’t as odd a proposition as it first appears. Especially one like this, which is devoid of your standard hybrid vehicle starter pack bits. Those could include an endlessly droning CVT, forced wedge-shaped styling for max aero efficient, and an interior that believes fun is for suckers who would prefer single-digit fuel economy figures.
Kia has kicked that starter pack to the curb because that’s all been avoided here. Inside you’ll find a cozy cabin space that can be outfitted with an eight-channel Harman Kardon sound system, which comes complete with a front center channel, a subwoofer, and the Clari Fi system. That last bit aims to add the color back into your digital music by filling in the spaces otherwise lost to compression. I asked a friend who’s way more into high-end sound than the average person said that the tech behind this system is akin to adding the Frog DNA in Jurassic Park. It’s not perfect, but to the average person you’re looking at a real life dinosauar, er, I mean hearing sound that’s a bit more full than your digitally ravaged ears are used to receiving.

The meat of the Niro, of course, lies with the powertrain and not its sound system. Under the hood, Kia is pairing a 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine with an AC Synchronous electric motor. The gas mill makes 104 horsepower and the electric unit produces 43 horsepower. Combined, the setup is good for 139 horsepower and 195 pound-feet of torque. No, your math isn’t off… Kia has it setup so that both systems can’t run at maximum output at the same time. There is no Ludicrious Mode to be found. What you will find and be thankful for is the six-speed dual clutch gearbox backing up the powertrain.
Kia is going to offer the Niro in four trims, and three of the four will all offer differing levels of fuel economy while utilizing that same engine, electric motor, and 1.56 kWh lithium ion battery pack. This is the part where you’re actually likely to become really impressed, because you have to remember where dealing with a crossover here.
The LX and EX trims will return 51 miles per gallon in the city and 46 miles per gallon out on the highway. There’s the top-spec Touring trim, which is what I drove, and it’s fuel economy figures are 46 mpg in the city and 40 mpg out on the highway. If you care more about saving fuel and less about in-cabin niceties, there’s the FE trim. This one here will see 52 mpg in the city, 49 mpg on the highway, and 50 mpg in combined driving. That’s impressive at every trim level. 

Yet the Kia Niro never managed to feel like, well, a boring old hybrid. Now, it’s not some exciting machien but it’s not a dullard either. Kia managed to shave a bit of weight by utilizing aluminum construction with the hood, tailgate, parts of the suspension, and the brake calipers. The center of gravity is nice and low, and the Michelin rubber mounted at the four corners makes use of low-rolling resistance compounds but it’s been optimized to return a bit of feel.
There is certainly noticeable wind noise though when you’re whipping down the highway. That front piece of glass is an acoustic windshield but there is tire noise and some noise from the side mirrors. It’s not jarring but it’s definitely noticeable.

With the gear lever moved over into the Sport mode space, there’s a bit more liveliness at play from the throtttle and transmission. It will hold gears and react more enthusiastically. Inside you’ll have all the space you could need if you’re single, DINKS, or even have a singular car seat to throw back there. I was impressed with just how much legroom Kia managed to squeeze out of this otherwise compact space.
Additionally, the fit and finish is top notch for a vehicle in this class. All the touch points feel nice and the level of tech and comfort you’ll find will be impressive, even more so when you can spec a Niro for under $30,000. The base price of a Kia Niro FE is a few hundred bucks below $24,000. At the top level, you’ll find the Touring starting out at $30,545. A very nicely equipped LX or EX will keep you below that magic $30k mark, which is harder and harder to do these days with modern cars.

There’s a reason Kia has climbed to impressive heights over the last few years. In 2016, the automaker managed to wind up in the very top spot on the JD Power Initial Quality Study. This marks the first time in 27 years that a non-luxury brand has earned that placement, and it’s a far cry from 2001… that’s when Kia was the absolute last name on the list.
With the Niro, Kia has taken aim at the hybrid segment and chosen to forgo a hyper-focused vision of fuel economy. Instead, we have a practical, stylish, crossover that manages to to keep you happy enough behind the wheel while still returning impressive range thanks to that gas-electric combination.
Kia is taking strong steps here in the US market. This should sell well for the brand, and allow them to make products even more appealing to us here in the Hooniverse… yes, we’re dying to give that Stinger GT a go. For now, the Niro at least shows us that a hybrid crossover doesn’t have to force you into a greener lifestyle shared with soul-sapping Prius wedges in every lane.
[Disclaimer: Kia invited us to try the Niro and flew us out to Texas to do so. There were food, drinks, and a dope hotel included as well. Seriously, go check out Hotel Emma if you’re in that area.]

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25 responses to “First Drive: 2017 Kia Niro”

  1. Sjalabais Avatar

    The Niro stands out as a really reasonable, restrained and decent design – inside and out. Even the dashboard, with well-placed buttons and an integrated screen, is very appealing. Kia, in my mind, is coming around to produce cars I’d actually want to own – not just cheap, reliable, rational mobility choices.

    1. Dean Bigglesworth Avatar
      Dean Bigglesworth

      No shit. Now you can even get the Turbo Optima, although it’s a detuned 245hp auto only version.And a Turbo Soul. Which at 35k euros is more than a MINI Cooper S, so absolutely nobody will actually buy it. But at least it’s sort of available.

  2. YuppieScum Avatar

    I dunno, I get a lot of driving enjoyment out of my Volt, but that’s just me.

    1. Jeff Glucker Avatar
      Jeff Glucker

      I do like the Volt, I just haven’t driven the latest one. That’s a good car, but the ratio of Prius to Volt is disproportionate… so when I say or think Hybrid I also think Prius.

  3. Mister Sterling Avatar
    Mister Sterling

    Excellent write-up, Jeff. If I got a Niro, I think I would get the Touring and swap the wheels for 16″ aftermarket alloys. Smaller wheels should bump up the fuel economy a bit. Just don’t think it can be called a true crossover at 4″ shorter than a Ford Escape or Hyundai Tucson. We shall see. The Niro interior might be Kia’s most interesting and ergonomic yet.

    1. NapoleonSolo Avatar

      Smaller wheels would reduce the fuel economy unless you mount 70 series tires or something. Larger tire diameter = fewer revolutions per unit of distance.

      1. outback_ute Avatar

        I expect Mister Sterling was referring to smaller wheels (higher profile tyres to compensate) most likely being lighter, with less rotational inertia in addition so they would take less fuel/energy to turn.

        1. NapoleonSolo Avatar

          Personally, I doubt that. 😉 And higher profile tires would probably add more weight than the smaller wheels subtract.

          1. Ol' Shel' Avatar
            Ol’ Shel’

            Wrong, because rubber weighs less than aluminum.
            Please acknowledge that you now understand the difference between wheels and tires.

          2. NapoleonSolo Avatar

            Please acknowledge that you understand that it depends on how much rubber and how much aluminum are involved. I have no specific volumes and therefore cannot do the calculation. For that reason, I used the word “probably.”

  4. Paul Bubel Avatar
    Paul Bubel

    “Seriously, go check out Hotel Emma if you’re in that area.”
    No kidding. It’s a nice place

  5. Zentropy Avatar

    “Kia has it setup so that both systems can’t run at maximum output at the same time.”
    This isn’t atypical– most hybrids are like that. Even the NSX.

    1. outback_ute Avatar

      Yep, you won’t get the power peaking at the same rpm for both.
      I’d need to learn more about the hybrid system in this vehicle, but with the DCT I imagine it is a serial system and thus not as effective as the Toyota system.

  6. Fred Talmadge Avatar
    Fred Talmadge

    There sure are lot of buttons in that Kia

  7. Rover 1 Avatar
    Rover 1

    Has anyone else noticed that the Niro and the other Kia AWDs trace a little bit of the ‘Tiger Mouth’ grille surround into the upper edge of the windscreen? I don’t think I’ve ever seen a windscreen that doesn’t have a simple line or curve as it’s upper edge before. Peter Schreyer is sure being given a lot of control to do as he sees fit with styling. It’s much easier to see in photos of light coloured Niros like this prototype and easy to see on the real cars. Having a distinctive styling feature carried across is very upmarket for a brand.Not something Toyota does but more BMW/Mercedesish.

    1. outback_ute Avatar

      It is on some of their cars at least, such as the Optima sedan from introduction

  8. Dean Bigglesworth Avatar
    Dean Bigglesworth

    I wasn’t expecting to like it, but it really is a pretty nice car. The powertrain feels normal in a good sense, and it’s very nice to drive when you take it easy. Trying to keep it in electric even made a dreary commute slightly less boring. Push it hard and the substantial weight and complete lack of steering feel are clearly noticeable, but 10/10 motorway ramp driving probably wasn’t very high on the design priority list.. That’s also when the rather slippery leather and near complete lack of lateral support was noticeable, but again i doubt many actual customers will ever notice.
    Oh and one negative I noticed is that the (EU spec) LED lights have nearly no light scattering.. Good in theory, but bad when it doesn’t light up the reflectors of pedestrians until they are actually within reach of the light beam. So unless you want to run someone over you pretty much have to use the high-beams whenever possible, even in populated areas when they wouldn’t otherwise be needed.

    1. outback_ute Avatar

      Interesting point about the stray light Dean. I imagine that would make overhead signs harder to read too.

  9. dukeisduke Avatar

    I caught one of these with my phone, undisguised, back in October. I thought it was okay, if a bit nondescript.

  10. outback_ute Avatar

    The photo of the HVAC controls is interesting. I can’t say I’ve come across a driver-only fan button before. And I also didn’t know that Ford was sharing Sync either… 🙂

  11. Ol' Shel' Avatar
    Ol’ Shel’

    It’s only available in front wheel drive, but remind yourself that the theme of 2017 is “FWD with snow tires is superior to all wheel drive with almighty god pushing and the Bud Clydesdales pulling”

  12. crank_case Avatar

    Spot on about this being a car for DINKS, it’s pretty much along the lines of what we’d like in our next sensible car/wifemobile. The only think I’m unsure of is the DCT transmission. Sure it makes it marginally more “fun”, but fun is taken care of by my fun car. I want my sensible car to do sensible well and my reservations are twofold:
    How reliable is that gearbox? Say what you like about the Prius planetary gearbox but that’s an inherently tough design, where my impression of DCT boxes is that they’re more high maintenance.
    How smooth is it? Quick changes are great, but in the dull boring world of real city traffic, smoothness is more important. Is it as smooth as a conventional slushbox or does it jerk if pull off slowly like some DCT boxes?

    1. Jeff Glucker Avatar
      Jeff Glucker

      I never noticed the gearbox while driving the Niro… which is a good thing. I didn’t find that jerky first gear pull you often notice.

  13. robbydegraff Avatar

    Harmon Kardon in a Kia? 😮

    1. Jeff Glucker Avatar
      Jeff Glucker

      Yeah they’ve actually been working with them for a bit now.