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Kia’s new Niro is perky hybrid crossover with excellent fuel economy and surprising performance

Source: Driving.ca By Graeme Fletcher – February 2, 2017

 

Fuel economy standards are getting tougher every year, so all manufacturers are being forced to look for ways to reduce the reliance on gasoline. In 2025, the corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards in the United States will hit 54.5 miles per gallon, or 4.3 L/100 km. The only real solution is the electrification of the drivetrain – and Kia’s latest hybrid, the new Niro, is aimed at meeting that goal without killing the fun of the drive.

From the headlights to the rear roof-mounted spoiler, the Niro is a cute-ute that’s reminiscent of the Rondo, but with an edgier visage. It’s also destined to do battle with the likes of the Toyota Prius V and Ford C-Max hybrids. Tough competition, but as the drive proved, the Niro has the wherewithal to be a player.

Riding on a 2,700-millimetre wheelbase, there’s plenty of legroom in all spots and the tall roofline means enough headroom for a 6-foot-2 rider. Likewise, the cargo space is plentiful – 635 litres with the seats upright and 1,789 with them dropped. And, as the 1.56 kWh lithium-ion polymer battery sits beneath the rear seat, it does not eat into the space or utility.

 

2018 Kia Niro

 

The cabin is also marked by the quality of its materials — they look like they belong in a richer ride. The dash is simple in its elegance, with the left side of the instrumentation giving the charge state of the battery, fuel level and the combined distance to empty. This information is ringed with a charge/eco/power meter that shows what the system is doing.

The SX tested brought comfortable leather-wrapped front seats and a lengthy list of standard fare, including Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, both of which are accessed through an eight-inch touchscreen, as well as GPS navigation and eight gigabytes of built-in music storage. Safety-wise, a blind-spot monitor with rear cross-traffic alert, a lane departure warning system with lane-change assist, adaptive cruise control and automatic emergency braking are all part of the SX trim as well.

The Niro is powered by a 1.6-litre Atkinson cycle four-cylinder that puts out 104 horsepower and 108.5 lb.-ft. of torque. It’s married to a six-speed twin-clutch transmission and a 43-horsepower electric motor; the plus is it twists out 125 lb.-ft. of torque. The net result is a combined system output of 139 hp and, more importantly, 195 lb.-ft. torque from 1,000 rpm. This explains the Niro’s perky performance.

 

2018 Kia Niro

 

A big part of the driving feel is due to the efficiency and shift speed of the twin-clutch transmission. Goose the gas and the Niro canters off the line with spirit and it holds this ethic through the midrange and on to speed. On the drive route it stayed with some pretty quick traffic without missing a beat. The selectable Drive modes help; in this case, everything is accessed through the shifter. Drive equals Eco mode, while moving the shifter into the manual gate engages Sport, and bumping it back/forth brings manual. Eco is peppy and willing to do what the driver demands, and so it proved to be the mode of choice. However, move to Sport and efficiency takes a back seat because it locks out sixth gear unless shifted manually. Regardless, in Sport mode, the Niro scampers to 100 km/h in 9.5 seconds – two seconds faster than the Prius V.

New to Kia is the Eco Driver Assistance System, featuring Coasting Guide and Predictive Energy Control. The former maximizes fuel economy by coaching the driver on the best times to coast and brake. The latter taps into the navigation system to look for topographical changes on the road ahead. It then actively manages energy use, to determine the right place to recharge the battery and when to use the stored energy to improve efficiency; it is an interesting take on battery management.

All of this technology brings a claimed fuel economy of 5.1 L/100 km in the city and 5.8 on the highway for the SX. The base Niro, for that matter, is 270 kilograms lighter; it’s rated at 4.5 city and 4.8 highway. On our drive route, the SX yielded a stellar average of 5.4 L/100 km, which is better than the claimed number. On a straight town drive, it returned – if you can believe it – 3.7 L/100 km.

 

The efficiency thrust might make the Niro a bit of a dullard to drive. However, the strong platform gives the suspension a good base of operations and surprisingly tight handling. Throw in a nicely weighted steering setup and the grip provided by the SX’s P225/45R18 tires, and the Niro proved to be an entertaining drive. Remember, this is a hybrid crossover! The Niro also gets a thumbs-up for the brake pedal feel; so many hybrids feel mushy under foot, which makes a smooth stop a tougher task than it should be. The Niro’s pedal is firm and, consequently, easily modulated.

Kia’s new Niro is a perky drive that delivers excellent fuel economy and better performance than is expected of a traditional hybrid. Of more interest is the fact it will be joined by a plug-in version down the road, which promises even better economy.

The lone disappointment is pricing. The Niro L starts at $24,995 and goes up from there. The pricing was not given for the top-of-the-line SX tested, but with all of its added amenities/safety technology, it could sneak up on being rich.

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