Starting Price: Around $23,000
Fuel Economy: 49 mpg combined
Similar: Toyota Prius, Prius V, Ford C-Max
On sale: Beginning January 2017
Synopsis: An uncommon mix of practicality and efficiency, surprisingly well-sorted The 2017 Kia Niro is the automaker’s first offering built from the get-go as a hybrid/electric vehicle, á la the Toyota Prius and Chevrolet Volt. The end result is a well-packaged blend of exceptional fuel economy, ample passenger room and versatile cargo flexibility, our conclusion after spending a full day on the streets, highways and winding, undulating back roads in and around San Antonio, Texas.
Kia’s first gas-electric entry, the original Optima Hybrid, left a lot to be desired when it came to the complex interplay of the gas, electric and braking systems. While its successor, the current-generation Optima Hybrid is much better, the new Niro is far and away Kia’s best hybrid yet. With acceleration and braking profiles similar to those of any traditionally powered car of its size, it would be very easy for its gas-electric nature to go undetected.
While most hybrids utilize a “gearless” continuously automatic transmission, the Niro utilizes a newly developed 6-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission that shifts gears more like a traditional automatic. Combined with refined mechanics and programming behind the scenes, the Niro drives more like a regular car than many other hybrids.
A tight turning radius, backup camera, good outward visibility and available rear cross-traffic alert combine to make the Niro a cinch in tight parking lots, too.
Behind the Wheel
The Niro’s hybrid-ness was perhaps most obvious while merging full-throttle onto the highway. Fifty mpg does not come without compromises, and 139 horsepower is not a lot for a vehicle that weighs more than 3,000 pounds. In contrast, the hybrid system’s 195 lb-ft of torque is one of the reasons for the car’s impressive in-town performance.
Once up to speed the Niro proved quiet and comfortable for a car of its stature, and tracked well down the highway without requiring excessive steering inputs. Adding to the car’s highway prowess is a long list of available safety and convenience technologies including blind-spot detection, lane change assist, lane departure warning and smart cruise control.
Two new navigation-linked features aim to further enhance fuel economy. By analyzing the route input by the driver, Coasting Guide coaches the driver on when to coast and brake for maximum efficiency. Predictive Energy Control takes a more proactive approach and manages energy flow by anticipating the effects of any hills ahead.
While the typically modest power and added battery weight of the most efficiency-focused hybrids don’t do much for their fun factor, the Niro’s quick shifting dual-clutch transmisison, independent rear suspension and decent driving feel help mitigate some of its inherent shortcomings.
Kia is making some of our favorite interiors right now, and the Niro’s is no exception. The clean design impresses first, followed by the intuitive, intelligent functionality. We like the well-placed audio and climate controls and the handy open bin with USB and power ports ahead of the transmission selector. And every bit that moves — buttons, knobs, transmission selector — does so with a refined feel that inspires confidence in the whole vehicle.
Rear passengers are treated to ample headroom and legroom, plenty for six-footers and beyond.
Kia’s attractive, intuitive and functional UVO infotainment system remains among our favorites. The Niro’s UVO3 system and 7-inch touchscreen are standard equipment, and include Apple CarPlay, Android Auto compatibility and subscription-free telematics features like vehicle diagnostic and roadside assistance services.
With the rear seatback in position, cargo volume in the Niro is good, not great. Kia’s own Forte5 compact hatchback offers about 20 percent more room behind the rear seats, for instance. But like most any hatchback, wagon or SUV-like vehicle, the Niro is cavernous with the rear seats folded down. The resulting load floor is flat, thanks to the battery being positioned beneath the rear seat.
The Kia Niro’s EPA fuel economy ratings are downright impressive. Most Niro buyers will find themselves in an LX or EX model, both of which return 49 mpg combined (51 city, 46 highway). That doesn’t quite match the 52 mpg number of the latest Prius, but it’s much higher than the larger Prius V’s 41 mpg figure.
Niro buyers enticed by all the attractive options should be aware that the top-shelf Niro Touring model is rated to return 43 mpg combined (46 city, 40 highway), the result of added weight and aerodynamic compromises. But even at 12,000 miles per year and $3/gallon, the difference works out to less than 10 dollars per month compared to the LX and EX models.
Sitting opposite the Niro Touring on the pricing spectrum is the Niro FE. Tuned to deliver just one more combined mpg than the LX and EX models, the FE allows Kia marketers to advertise that the Niro delivers 50 mpg combined (52 city, 49 highway).
Kia hasn’t yet announced final pricing, but says the 2017 Kia Niro will start around $23,000 and top out around $32,000. We don’t yet have 5-Year Cost to Own or even predicted resale value figures for the Niro, but we like the overall value proposition considering our first impressions of the vehicle and the estimated pricing.
And if all of that isn’t enough, you might be interested to know that Kia has announced the Niro lineup will eventually grow to include a plug-in hybrid version.