The hybrid vehicle is nothing new. The Toyota Prius Hybrid first made its appearance in the U.S 17 years ago, and has sold over 1.5 million units. For a while, the Prius stood alone as the high-mileage champion, and when fuel prices were high, it was one of the only cars to truly stand and deliver. Now, 10 years later, every manufacturer has at least one hybrid in its fleet. Some jumped on the bandwagon sooner, while some took a while to study the market in order to introduce a hybrid product that could be all things to all people instead of all things to just a few. This is where the all-new 2017 Kia Niro steps in. While this is not the newest electrified product from the now-booming Korean brand, it is unequivocally the best. And it’s about as different from a Prius as the Kitty Hawk is from the B2.
Kia is in the process of building its EV stable. It’s already started with the Optima sedan hybrid and plug-in hybrid, as well as the fully electric Kia Soul EV. And this is just the start. Kia has created its own five-year “green” roadmap, which includes a 25-percent increase in fuel economy by 2020, a five-percent reduction in vehicle weight across its lineup, and a commitment to grow its green-vehicle lineup from four to 11 vehicles by 2020 as well. Included in this lineup will be a Kia Niro plug-in, as well as a fuel-cell vehicle that will merit no further discussion until later in Kia’s future.
Obviously, the political and environmental climates of the world are dictating the future of transportation. We are in a flux period right now, where the internal combustion engine, which remains the one constant, is quickly becoming an axis of evil. Debates aside whether switching to electrical power is better or worse, the bottom line is we are all seeking ways to make our money go further. If this means paying for electricity rather than gasoline, so be it. However, electricity isn’t the only answer. Hydrogen fuel-cell technology also is vying for a spot in the sun. Bottom line is that the manufacturers must be ready to go on a moment’s notice with whatever becomes the dominate automotive power source of the future. For the moment, electric vehicles, for better or worse, are quickly leading the pack not only in popularity, but in numbers.
Kia’s approach to the market wasn’t “let’s be the first out of the gate,” but rather, “let’s hang back, see what they rest are doing, and then do it better.” Which is exactly the case with the new Niro. It’s not a sedan, it’s a compact crossover, bordering on the smaller side. Some might even call it wagonesque. How does it stack up? Compared to the Toyota RAV4 EV, the Niro has a 106.3-inch wheelbase, versus the RAV4’s 104.7. The Niro has a real six-speed automatic transmission, compared to Ford’s C-MAX, which has a CVT. The Niro looks like a real vehicle, compared to the Toyota Prius V. The Prius has a center console instrument display; the Niro has it in front of the driver as God intended. This is where stepping back and seeing the big picture helps create a better product.
When it comes to creating a better product, that includes exterior design. The Niro is a clean sheet of paper vehicle. It isn’t a spinoff of anything else Kia makes (however it does share a platform with the Hyundai Ioniq, which we will be reviewing shortly). It slots into a category below Sportage, closer to the Forte’s footprint, and looks more like a tall wagon than an SUV. Because the Niro is going to be an international vehicle (it will be sold in the U.S., Korea, Europe, and other markets), it had to fit within the C-car segment range. Designed in combination at Kia’s design center in Irvine, California, and Namyang, Korea, Michael Torpey spearheaded how the Niro would look. He knew the Niro needed to be a combination of efficient design, yet be both tough and sleek. As is with most great ideas, the Niro’s initial sketches started from mindless doodling during a telephone conversation. Torpey strongly adhered to the new vehicle designer’s creed of MAYA…make the vehicle the most advanced yet still acceptable to the public. Which might be where Prius designers strayed from this important styling edict. The Prius is hailed for its fuel economy, but never for its appearance. Torpey’s goal was to make a car that didn’t look like a hybrid; “don’t over celebrate the technology.” He did a nice job taking that design idea and turning it into the vehicle you see here. It’s rugged efficiency that features strong shoulders and a purposeful tiger-nose (Kia trademark) grille, yet looks contemporary enough as to not blend in with the rest of the segment. Form here definitely works with function, as the Niro features a coefficient of drag of 0.29, which helps tremendously with fuel efficiency. The whole idea is to be relevant, yet still be different. With the Niro, that mission was achieved.
Inside is more of the same. The focus is on a relaxing space that’s easy to use. According to Niro’s interior designer, high-tech shouldn’t have to scream at you. We drove both the FE entry-level trim as well as the top-end Touring model (there’s an LX and EX model in between), and the Niro’s interior is exactly what the designer envisioned. The instrument panel is clean and functional, ergonomics are good, the controls are logically placed, the seats were comfortable, the steering wheel thick and solid, and the screen easy to read and use, even through our polarized Ray Ban sunglasses. Ingress and egress in the Niro is excellent. While it might seem a no-brainer to make a vehicle taller (about 1.5 inches to be exact) so it’s easier to get in and out, the fight was on between the design team and the engineers because a taller vehicle, no matter how slight, will change a dozen other areas such as wind resistance, aerodynamics, handling, and ride quality. The engineers relented, and now the Niro has a good H point (seating position for more up-high visibility) which, when combined with the large greenhouse, delivers excellent input for the driver from all angles.
Just because the Niro is on the smaller size outside doesn’t mean there isn’t interior room. With the seats in the lowest position, even those well over six feet will have plenty of head and leg room. With 116 cubic feet of interior volume, the Niro offers almost as much room as the midsize Kia Optima sedan, even with a 14-inch-shorter wheelbase. Speaking of room, the cargo area is impressive, at 19.4 cubic feet with all seats up and 54.5 with second-row seats folded including the luggage under tray. While the rear seats fold flat, there are a few inches of step up between the cargo floor and the seatbacks. This was actually a conscious decision because the bump is caused by the rear bottom seat cushions. To make the cargo area perfectly flat, the seat cushions would have to be equally flat or, translated, incredibly uncomfortable for rear-seat passengers. Kia was not going to compromise in passenger comfort, hence the seat bump. We’re okay with that.
Speaking of seats, the cloth seats in the FE and the leather seats in the Touring both were supportive and comfortable. Even without power operation for the passenger, and no power height adjustment for the driver on the FE model, the pump system allowed us to raise up our seats enough to provide good visibility all around the vehicle. Both models had screens, but the Touring model’s readout of the hybrid system was a lot more detailed. Other useful standard features included dual-zone automatic climate control, USB audio jack, steering-wheel mounted audio controls, Bluetooth, power windows, cruise control, rearview camera, and the Drive Mode select system (Eco, Normal, Sport modes).