2017 Kia Niro First Drive: Sometimes being last can make you first

Kia’s partnership continues with Harman/Kardon, and with good reason. The H/K sound system standard in Touring models features eight speakers, including a subwoofer, and the speakers include a center front channel to fill out the sound. It’s 315 watts of awesomeness, and includes Clari-Fi technology, which is all about filling in the dead spots that happen when an MP3 file gets compressed to go digital. Brilliant technology that brings back the definitive highs and lows of the music as it was originally intended to sound.

IMG_2716Kia’s objectives for the Niro were clear: make it progressive, engaging, efficient, and practical. Practical is covered by the interior dimensions and roominess. Efficiency is all about the powertrain. The Kia Niro’s power is first an Atkinson-cycle four-cylinder 1.6-liter GDI engine that makes 104 horsepower and 109 lb-ft of torque. The engine in a hybrid needs to be focused on efficiency rather than power, because torque comes from the electric motor. In the Niro, that’s an AC synchronous permanent magnet motor with 43 hp and 125 lb-ft of torque. Total combined performance for the Niro is 139 horsepower and 195 lb-ft of torque. It has all the juice it needs to get to speed, do any passing, and generally deliver a pleasant ride. Unfortunately, too many journalists often feel the need to drive every vehicle, no matter what, as if it’s an Audi R10. This not only defeats the purpose of the testing, but also delivers a lower fuel economy number than the majority of owners will see. Sad. We’ll get to the fuel economy numbers in just a minute, but let’s talk more about the power. The Niro uses a 1.56 kWh lithium-ion battery (another improvement over the Prius’ nickel metal hydride one), and keeps its charge through regenerative braking and recharging from the engine. It all works seamlessly to allow the Niro to start up and idle in electric mode, and use the engine to both deliver power to the wheels and recharge the battery. It’s a simple parallel design that delivers power when and where it’s needed.

IMG_1375How it gets that power to the wheels is via an all-new six-speed dual-clutch transmission. As we said previously, Kia opted to depart from the normal continuously variable setup as in most hybrids. This transmission helps deliver a fun driving experience without any CVT whine that’s lacking in a lot of the competition. The transmission also has a sport mode to enhance the driving experience. Now that we’ve kept you in suspense long enough, for the FE trim level, the EPA estimated fuel economy numbers are 52 city, 49 highway, and 50 combined. For the LX and EX models, they are 51/46/49, and for the Touring, they go to 46/40/43 because it’s fully loaded. While the numbers look great on paper, they are even better in real life. During our test of the FE, we reached an impressive 55.4 mpg with a combination of city and highway driving. In the Touring we were averaging 47 mpg, with a lot of highway time. With a near 12-gallon fuel tank, that means you can drive between 511 and 595 miles on one tank of gas. We could have gone almost 660 miles with our observed average.

xxIf you think that’s good, Kia wanted to see just how far it could go, and set out to find the maximum fuel efficiency in the Niro. A run from Los Angeles to New York of over 3,700 miles delivered 76.6 mpg and used only 48.5 gallons, or 4.1 tanks of gas. That was good enough for Niro to receive a Guinness World Record title for the lowest fuel consumption driving coast to coast in a hybrid vehicle. Astonishing.

IMG_9943No matter the trim level, the Niro features an independent MacPherson strut front suspension and multilink rear setup. The suspension does a good job providing a comfortable ride that also felt sporty when pushed. Part of the reason why the Niro handles so well is because of its structural rigidity. Over 50 percent of the body is made up of advanced high-strength steel, which adds integrity as well as helps to reduce overall weight. Using industrial joint adhesives also aids metal bonding without extra metal welding. With extensive use of aluminum for the hood, tailgate, suspension and brake components, the Niro is strong yet not overly heavy. Saving weight in many areas allowed Kia to add extensive insulation and an acoustic windshield to dampen noise from entering the cabin. And Quad-mount front subframe bushings also help add strength while maintaining quiet. On the road, we were highly impressed at the noiseless cabin. Even going through some hilly areas and winding roads, the Niro maintained its composure and peaceful interior. The engineers definitely delivered on the engaging part of the objectives. The motor-driven power steering also felt linear and direct, and added to the driving enjoyment.

KiaNiroNPIwave1-55The last objective, progressive, is all about technology. The best way we can put it is, if the Niro doesn’t have it, you probably don’t need it. (Except for maybe all-wheel drive; Kia said that in order to make a flat load floor and to save weight, it had to forego that option.) The Niro gets the first-ever use of Kia’s Eco-DAS (Driver Assistance System), which uses a coasting guide and predictive energy control that analyzes the driver’s route (through the nav system) to improve efficiency. Basically a brake coach for the driver, the coasting guide helps the driver generate the most power back to the battery. Predictive Energy Control reads the road and actively manages energy flow for battery charging and battery power usage. Other driver-assist features include blind spot detection with cross traffic alert, lane change assist, smart cruise control, lane departure warning, and automatic emergency braking. Of course, Kia’s UVO3 system comes with standard Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, along with 14 free services such as geo fencing, curfew alert and parking minder standard. For those who have Android phones, a wireless charging tray is optional only on the Touring trim.

We realize we are favorable toward Kia, but it’s because the marque has proven itself over and over as a solid competitor. The Niro is fun to drive, is comfortable, has great features, is priced well, and, obviously, we can’t say enough good things about the fuel economy. We asked other scribes on the trip what they didn’t like about the Niro, and most of them said there wasn’t anything they didn’t like.

IMG_6053With everything we’ve mentioned, you might think that the Niro will be a bit pricey. After all, hybrid versions of popular models tend to add a premium price. Which is the beauty of the Niro. The FE model, in which we spent the bulk of our time, starts at an incredibly reasonable $22,890, excluding $895 destination. The LX and EX come in around $23,200 and $25,700, while the Touring is $29,650. There’s a Touring Launch Edition that will be available with some added features only for a short time, and that’s priced at $28,000. For comparison, the Prius V, which is the closest to the Niro in ideology, starts at $26,675 and goes above $34,270.  The RAV4 Hybrid starts at $29,030, and the Ford C-MAX begins at $24,120.

If you’re looking for a vehicle that delivers the total package, seriously, look no further. More than a few of us said if we were in the market for a hybrid, this would be it, either for ourselves or for first-time or college-age drivers. It’s affordable, fun, economical, and just plain smart. Certainly, the Niro was worth the wait.

Photography © Team Killeen and courtesy Kia Motor America.

 

The following are Kia design sketches for the soon-to-be production Niro. Enjoy!

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