Roseville, Calif. – There’s no disguising the goal: provide a vehicle that challenges the Toyota Prius, the current undisputed king of the gas-saving cars.
The folks at Kia believe they may have developed a worthy rival in the 2017 Kia Niro hybrid. Kia labels the Niro a compact hybrid crossover sport utility vehicle. Not everyone agrees with Kia’s categorization, feeling with its elevated height that the Niro resembles a hatchback or wagon more than a small crossover SUV.
We suspect that Kia put the SUV tag on the Niro because that makes it more appealing to American car buyers. We feel the Niro can be identified as either a hatchback or a small SUV.
Labeling aside, the all-new Niro is certainly a competitor for the Prius, the larger Prius V, and other gas-saving vehicles like the Ford C-Max, Ford Fusion hybrid or Toyota RAV4 hybrid.
The Niro has a gas-electric powertrain that Kia engineers designed to drive more like a regular car than a traditional hybrid. When one looks at a Niro it appears to be a more normal-looking vehicle than the Prius, which has the unimaginative outward appearance of a hybrid built primarily for one reason – to run as efficiently as possible.
2017 Kia Niro Hybrid
* Performance: 1.6-liter, four-cylinder hybrid, 139 horsepower
* Mileage estimate: 40-52 mpg
* Price estimate: $24,300 to $32,500
* Warranty: 5 years/60,000 miles; drivetrain: 10 years/100,000 miles; roadside assistance: 5 years/60,000; corrosion: 5 years/100,000
Depending on the source, the regular Prius gets an estimated 50-54 mpg. The Niro is not far behind. The basic model (FE) gets approximately 49-52 mpg. The mileage dips to 40-46 mpg for the Niro Touring model that was test driven here. Later this year, Kia will be debuting a plug-in hybrid that the Korean automaker says will possess 26 miles of all-electric range.
All Kia Niro trim models have identical 1.6-liter, four-cylinder hybrid-electric powertrains that produce 139 horsepower and 195 pound-feet of torque. The power lies in the front wheels via a six-speed, dual-clutch automatic transmission.
The Niro LX hybrid has been tested going 0-60 mph in 8.7 seconds, a second faster than last year’s Prius model. Yet that doesn’t mean the Niro is Mr. Peppy. In ECO mode, it can lag from a standing position and doesn’t excel at hill climbing. However, in Sport mode the Niro aggressively ups its game and shows more energetic performance and sportier handling. The bad news regarding Sport mode is the gas mileage decreases.
The engine shifting is smooth and rather fast, adding to the drivability of the Niro. It handles challenging turns very well, is fairly quiet, and the braking is responsive.
The Niro interior receives high marks. It has ample space – head and leg room – for driver and four passengers. The doors are wide and easy to enter and exit. We love that the door handles and center armrest are made of soft material and add to the Niro’s overall comfort. Kia smartly kept the hard surfaces for the dash.
There is 19.4 cubic-feet of space in the back area that expands to 54.5 cubic feet when the 60-40 rear seat folds down flatly. The Niro employs Kia’s UVO system that oversees the navigational and multimedia system. Unlike some systems, this one is relatively easy to master.
Not only is the Niro a gas-saver, it also features a stylish exterior, smartly designed interior, and provides a pleasant ride. Although Prius has more name recognition and overall resale value, in years to come the Niro might own a similar reputation.