On the Road Review: Kia Niro Touring Hybrid

After seven days with Kia’s all-new Niro hybrid five-door hatchback, several thoughts come to mind. One, it’s amazing how much Kia has evolved and matured in the short 25 years it has been selling cars in America, and two, if our future hybrid cars are as good as the Niro, auto geeks have nothing to fear about this technology’s eventual necessity.

The Korean automakers Hyundai and Kia have taken a different tack on hybrid model design from Toyota and Honda, employing more conventionally styled automobiles for their most efficient powertrains rather than Jetson-like looking cars that shout “different.” Buyers will like the Niro’s comfortable and roomy cabin, can readily embrace the efficient and modern exterior design and most appreciate the efforts to make this a “regular” car despite its elevated efficiencies.

As we saw a few months ago with the Hyundai Ioniq, the Niro employs a similar 1.6-liter Atkinson-cycle four-cylinder engine along with a 43-hp electric motor powered by a 1.56kW Lithium Ion Polymer battery pack under the rear seat. In this versatile five-door that looks like a crossover, a European-esque six-speed dual clutch transmission puts the power to the front-wheel-drive chassis rather than a CVT. Peak output is 139 hp accompanied by a robust 195 pound/feet of maximum torque. Kia will offer a plug-in version soon after you read this — with a 34-mile all-electric range.

Driven as if there were eggs under the throttle pedal, we were able to coax a real-world 51.5 mpg over a 175-mile day from the Niro, while the usual “pace” driving revealed 43.3 mpg for three other days totaling 273 miles. If you are never in a hurry, the Niro can travel up to 15 mph on pure battery power — good for in-the-city stop-and-go — while there is ample torque to make secondary road passing moves without hesitation. Always in Eco mode, the Niro driver can flick the shift lever into “sport” mode for heightened power delivery at any time.

Kia has four trim levels for the Niro. The base FE (for Fuel Efficient) starts at $23,785 — almost $600 less than Prius, while earning EPA stats of 50 mpg on the combined city/highway cycle. Our experience exceeded that number in the heavier, and feature-endowed, Touring model, $30,545, which has EPA numbers of 46-mpg city, 40-mpg highway, and 43-mpg combined. In the middle, price and fuel economy-wise, are the LX- and EX-trimmed models, which have 49-mpg combined ratings.

Hybrid-powered cars generally achieve their best fuel economy at steady 50-60-mph running over secondary roads with little terrain change — like most vehicles. And that’s where the Niro shined — running like a regular wagon. The ride is steady, the handling is assured, plus the steering feel is surprisingly communicative. Visibility is excellent, the controls are simple, efficient buttons and knobs, plus the whole package illustrated a concentrated effort to present a complete automobile to buyers.

Arriving a week after the Toyota C-HR, the Niro is the same size and essentially chasing a similar buyer. The Niro proved to offer all of the pieces that the C-HR was lacking: a full portfolio of electronic driving aids, heated and cooled leather seating with a heated steering wheel, a power sunroof, as well as the detailing that made the Niro a much better driving companion. The Niro’s powered seat was more comfortable, the steering wheel controls offered all of the tactile feel necessary for eye’s free operation, plus the Niro’s more convenient access and roomier rear seat earned valuable points in the daily driving grind with passengers.

Like the C-HR, the Niro’s seats are positioned a few inches higher than in the compact cars that donated their platforms for use here, yet each also is a few inches lower than comparable small crossovers, so your driving position is slightly higher and your view out also is improved. Ingress and egress also is easier than in a car.

The Niro is about the same size as Ford’s C-Max, Honda’s HR-V and Subaru’s Crosstrek. On sale for only a few months, the Niro is outselling the C-Max, Hyundai’s Ioniq, as well as Nissan’s Leaf, while equaling the sales of Chevy’s new all-electric Bolt.

This is the size and shape consumers apparently want their compact hybrid car to be. The Niro hits many sweet spots; its content level is first rate with numerous standard amenities that competitors completely lack, the level of fit and finish and driver interaction with controls is superior to several rivals, plus the performance and price point make this hybrid a very attractive vehicle regardless of its underhood power-pack.

Some buyers will like the Niro hybrid because it is not a Prius, and that’s OK too. The Niro is an impressive package. Consumers will be amazed and pleased with this latest Kia.

Tim Plouff

Tim Plouff

Columnist at The Ellsworth American
Tim Plouff has been reviewing automobiles in the pages of The Ellsworth American weekly for nearly two decades.
Tim Plouff

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