Is there anything that Kia and Hyundai can’t do? The South Korean brands transformed themselves from a punch line to a powerful force in affordable cars, and together, Hyundai and Kia sold 1.4 million cars in America in 2016—more than double the Volkswagen Group’s total sales, and not far behind the behemoths of Nissan and Honda.
Hyundai drew more snickers when it started building luxury cars, but its Genesis brand is finding a foothold with models like the G70. Kia is aiming for bigger game as well with its stylish 2018 Stinger sport sedan, an affordable rival to a BMW 4-Series Gran Coupe and Audi A5 Sportback.
Now it’s hybrid time. And quite remarkably, the Kia Niro—the brand’s first-ever shot at a dedicated hybrid—represents a genuine leap forward, even if giveaway gas prices may blunt its market significance. The Kia is practical and ultra affordable for a car of this quality, starting from $23,795. It delivers remarkable economy, with a Prius-like EPA rating of up to 50 mpg in combined city and highway driving—an official figure that I crushed in real-world driving, observing well over 60 mpg on one hour-long highway run. And in stylish contrast with the tubby Toyota, or even Chevy’s all-electric Bolt, the Kia doesn’t look like a science geek’s misshapen flask or a cheap econobox. Instead, the Niro is a handsome if self-effacing tall hatchback—or a subcompact wagon if you prefer—with a seating position that’s about four inches lower than a Honda CR-V or other small SUV. That straightforward approach to high mileage, minus the earnest, earth-saving gimmicks, is part of what makes the Kia so compelling. It’s just a car, and a very good one.
The Kia shares a dedicated, front-drive hybrid chassis with the new Hyundai Ioniq. Like the Ioniq, the Niro will spawn a plug-in hybrid and pure EV in addition to this conventional hybrid version. A 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine with dual cooling circuits adopts the frugal Atkinson cycle. Kia claims the engine extracts energy from unleaded gasoline at 40 percent thermal efficiency—a number achieved only by the Prius, or the best diesels. By its lonesome, the engine manages just 104 horsepower and 109 pound-feet of torque. But a 43-horsepower electric motor rides shotgun between the engine and a six-speed, dual-clutch transmission, and draws from a small 1.6 kilowatt-hour battery hidden below the back seat. Add it up, and you’ve got 139 horsepower and 195 pound-feet of torque. A second clutch allows brief bouts of all-electric propulsion, but not much beyond 15 or 20 mph. A Prius or Ford Fusion Hybrid has the edge here, with the ability to light-foot it around town at higher speeds without the engine firing up. The Kia still aggressively seeks to shut down the engine whenever you’re coasting or working through heavy traffic; While conventional cars fritter away gasoline, the Kia’s mileage soars.
That dual-clutch transmission, despite a very occasional hiccup as it divvies up gas and electric power, is one of several Kia trump cards. Most every hybrid employs some form of continuously variable transmission. For all their NASA-complex planetary gearsets and control algorithms, there’s no escaping their non-linear operation, those oozy power surges and weird disconnect between the engine’s speed and actual acceleration. In pleasing contrast, the Kia feels like its engine is actually connected to the wheels, because it is. Slide the smartly sculpted shifter into Sport mode—you’ll be doing this a lot, because the Eco mode is doddering and too eager to upshift – and you’ve got direct control over six real gears.
The pleasure continues inside, where the Kia recalls the boxy Soul. The cabin is an exemplar of generous features, quality materials, easy-peasy controls and a sharp eye for details. Chevrolet should take notes on the Niro interior, and undertake an emergency upgrade for the Bolt and its cheapjack, Barbie-plastic cabin. Even the Kia’s driver’s gauge cluster avoids the cutesy, video-game approach of many hybrids and EVs, while still remaining handsome and thoroughly informative. I also loved the Niro’s low driving position, only about 1.5 inches higher than a typical small sedan. It’s a refreshing change from the jacked-up stance of many crossovers, and it helps make the Kia feel less prone to body roll, more like a car. Ditto for the low load-in height at the rear, no taller than a traditional wagon. And there’s no all-wheel-drive, even as an option, because the Kia frankly doesn’t need it. The Niro feels solid and quiet, with a standard acoustic windshield. It steers with aplomb, smooths out the rough stuff, and delivers just-enough grip, shod with 16-inch, low-rolling-resistance rubber. A top-line Touring model gives up a few mpg, but adds larger and substantially stickier 18-inch wheels.
The Niro isn’t fast by any means, ambling to 60 mph in just over 9 seconds in my hands. Yet for this type of car and driving mindset, the languid pace didn’t bother me in the least. I never struggled to keep pace with traffic, or even pass it. Like other mildly motivated cars, the Kia mostly reminds you of how slow the average American drives; and how it doesn’t matter if you have 100 horsepower or 1,000 horsepower if you’re stuck in traffic, or in a line of fast-lane dawdlers at 62 mph. The Niro’s brake pedal also feels natural, with a smooth transition from motor-driven regenerative braking to the mechanical stoppers. But the brakes themselves could be stronger, as I nearly locked up the front brakes during a forced panic stop on the highway.
And man, is this Kia a teetotaler. Pussyfooting the gas pedal like a Prius veteran, I kept the Niro at 62 mpg on a 50-mile highway run, and that in hilly terrain. Boosting the pace to between 65 and 75 mph on another long stretch, I still saw 48 mpg. All told, the Kia returned 53 mpg combined over several days of driving, and that included some miserable, short city runs in Brooklyn and Manhattan that sapped my economy.
Displays can help coach a driver toward thrifty operation, including a simple power meter in the gauge cluster. And instead of amassing silly, digital green leaves (as in a Ford hybrid), a center screen display breaks your driving time into three categories – Economical, Normal and Aggressive – and assigns a percentage to each. Playing goody-two-shoes – or maybe goody right-shoe — to boost my grade, I was upset when simply climbing a steep hill upped my “Aggressive” score to three percent of the total. Intrigued at this digital bioryhthm game, I tried to drive the Kia in batshit-crazy fashion, just to see how bad my score could get. My “aggression” maxed out at 38 percent, no matter how many times I mashed the gas, suggesting that the Niro’s programming needs work, or that the car just didn’t want to hurt my feelings.
The Kia will definitely spare guilt feelings over profligate spending, with a base price of just $23,785. That fare slightly undercuts a Prius or Ford C-Max Hybrid. It positively kneecaps the Nissan Rogue and RAV4 hybrids, which cost a respective $3,000 and $5,000 more. My Niro EX model was laden with goodies, a short list including an excellent 7-inch color touchscreen; Apple Car Play and Android Auto; adaptive cruise control and automated emergency braking. The Niro EX started from $26,595 and went out-the-door for $28,895. A stylish, smooth-driving hatchback that can top 50 mpg, for under $30,000? With VW diesels gone to the scrapheap in the sky, that’s going to be hard to beat.
Give Toyota credit: Across two decades, the Prius’ unbeatable mileage and reliability have set the hybrid trend and made it America’s best-seller by far. Its smug green styling and wince-worthy driving dynamics have set a more-unfortunate trend.
The Niro has the potential to break that cycle, to convince people that a hybrid can deliver on the high-mileage promise without making its owner look like a twit or a starving student. And of all the companies to pull this off, it’s Kia. Not Ford, not GM, not Nissan or Subaru. What’s Kia going to design next, a supercar? Whatever you do, don’t laugh. As recent history indicates, Kia will just take it as a challenge.
Lawrence Ulrich, The Drive’s chief auto critic, is an award-winning auto journalist and former chief auto critic for The New York Times and Detroit Free Press. The Detroit native and Brooklyn gentrifier owns a troubled ’93 Mazda RX-7 R1, but may want to give it a good home. Email him at Lawrence@.