Say “KIA NIRO” three times quickly and it can sound like “Canyonero,” that fantastically flawed 35-seat sport-utility vehicle from The Simpsons, a vehicular ode to glorious excess gone awry. The new Niro is essentially the polar opposite of that—a lean, frugal wagonoid, albeit with a twist of the upright and rugged.
From across the parking lot, the Niro’s modern crossover proportions, bright accents, and brawny, blacked-out lower body tease utility-vehicle allegiances. But step close and it’s abundantly clear that the Niro is instead a tidy hatchback with a tall roofline. There’s no all-wheel drive to be found in the Niro, and, depending on trim, its window sticker boasts an EPA combined fuel-economy rating of up to 50 mpg. The Niro is the eco geek of Kia’s lineup, built on the same dedicated hybrid/ electric platform as the Hyundai Ioniq. But with its SUV look, it’s definitely trying to keep its fuel-saving mission on the lowdown. That makes it a kind of counterpoint to the Prius-like Ioniq, which apes the Toyota’s familiar wind-cheating, Kammback styling to maximize every drop of fuel at the expense of interior acreage.
Kia sandwiches a single electric motor between the Niro’s superefficient 1.6-liter four and its six-speed dual-clutch gearbox [see tech highlight], and most of the time the arrangement is harmonious. You hear shifts but barely feel them, with the motor finessing it all into one smooth torque flow. Kia doesn’t have all that much experience with hybrids, but it’s already nailed one of the toughest parts of making one feel right: brake blending. The Niro transitions seamlessly from regenerative to friction braking during the last few feet before stopping. The steering has decent weight and on-center feel—better, it seems, than many of the Korean brand’s models that aren’t quite so eco-friendly.
But the gearbox and hybrid system sometimes fret over American-style rolling stops, with occasional indecision and sounds unbecoming of a modern car. And the Niro is confoundingly sluggish in its default eco mode, far more so than its combined output of 139 horsepower and 195 pound-feet of torque would suggest for this roughly 3200-pound vehicle. Slide the shift lever to the sport gate for sharper responses and keep it there if you have any love of driving (and the judge has confiscated your Porsche and ordered you to drive this). Engine braking is in short supply any way you work it, though, and the lack of a tach speaks volumes about this Kia’s priorities.
The Niro’s dash and doors get finished with soft-touch materials and a few thin lines of blue trim to remind you of this model’s eco focus. The front seats afford good forward sightlines while the rears have enough head- and legroom for taller adults. The split rear seatbacks fold forward to create a flat load floor.
Kia has sent us a nearly decade-long hit parade of handsomely styled, smartly equipped vehicles that cost less than you might expect. The Niro’s price of entry undercuts the Prius’s base price by $1765. And there’s more of this lineup waiting in the wings: A plug-in–hybrid version arrives this fall, and a pure-electric Niro makes its debut in 2018.
Hybrids never needed to be weird, and we think Kia has the right idea, grabbing a platform conceived for high mileage and scrapping the penalty-box-form factor, instead dropping on a pragmatic body with its own appeal. It’s an especially smart move now, as the price of gas probably won’t be spiking anytime soon. No, the Niro isn’t completely charming, but if this is the face of an excess-free future, it’s one that many of us can embrace.
2017 KIA NIRO
VEHICLE TYPE: frontengine, front-motor, front-wheel-drive, 5-passenger, 4-door hatchback
BASE PRICE: $23,785
POWERTRAIN: DOHC 16-valve 1.6-liter Atkinson-cycle inline-4, 104 hp, 109 lb-ft; permanent-magnet synchronous AC motor/ generator, 43 hp and 125 lb-ft; combined system output, 139 hp, 195 lb-ft
BATTERY: air-cooled lithium-ion, 1.6 kWh
TRANSMISSION: 6-speed dual-clutch automatic with manual shifting mode
DIMENSIONS WHEELBASE: 106.3 in LENGTH: 171.5 in WIDTH: 71.1 in
HEIGHT: 60.4 in
PASSENGER VOLUME: 100 cu ft
CARGO VOLUME: 19 cu ft
CURB WEIGHT: 3200 lb
PERFORMANCE ZERO TO 60 MPH: 10.5 sec
ZERO TO 100 MPH: 32.0 sec 1/4-MILE: 17.9 sec
TOP SPEED: 101 mph
FUEL ECONOMY EPA COMBINED/CITY/ HWY: 43–50/46–52/ 40–49 mpg