First Drive: 2017 Kia Niro
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.]