Hybrids are no longer the hot commodity they were 10 years ago, but automakers still need to pursue the technology to meet higher fuel standards. And while the Optima Hybrid is a solid alternative to the likes of the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry hybrids as well as its in-house rival, the Hyundai Sonata hybrid, Kia hasn't really offered a viable alternative to the hybrid poster child, the Toyota Prius.
That's the job of the new 2017 Kia Niro. It comes armed with an obvious styling advantage. It's not nearly as funny looking as the newest Toyota Prius, which was clearly inspired by a pile of arrowheads. Instead, the Niro looks blandly handsome, not unlike every other small Kia we've seen lately. Kia also dressed up the Niro with roof rails, some black fender trim, and just enough raised ride height to appeal to buyers who will buy anything as long as it's a crossover. We think hatchback or wagon is a more appropriate description, especially since all-wheel drive isn't available, but since we're not in the marketing business Kia can call the Niro whatever it wants.
Out and about in Priustown U.S.A.—Los Angeles—the Niro holds up nicely. You'll get about 38 mpg if you hammer it around, and more than 50 mpg if you're a casual hypermiler; most of the time we saw figures between 40-45 mpg, spot on the EPA's combined estimate of 43 mpg for a Niro Touring model like we had. Those aren't Prius numbers, but then again, nobody beats the Prius when it comes to avoiding its gas tank.
A non-hybrid hybrid
So it has the fuel economy chops, but the Niro never really feels like a hybrid. The engine switches on and off almost noiselessly at speed, and under acceleration the 6-speed automatic transmission shifts gears like a regular car, so there's none of the constant engine drone you get from the Prius and its continuously variable automatic transmission. With only 139 horsepower it's not a rocket, but the Niro has enough to get out of its own way, and that's fine by us. There's a Sport mode you engage by sliding the shift handle to the left from D, and it gives you sharper throttle response and heavier steering. We tried it but it just made the Niro feel jerky and nervous; we wound up leaving it in the default Eco mode instead. The firm suspension provides decent grip, but the ride felt harsh over freeway expansion joints and other sharp impacts. On the other hand, the brakes were firm and responsive and perfectly normal; engineers around the world have finally gotten blended hybrid regen braking right.
The quiet interior is a ringer for the Forte, Soul, and Sportage, or even the Sedona and Sorento, with clearly marked controls, a sensible layout, and overall high-quality feel. The comfortable front seats get heaters and coolers, and the decently sized rear seat happily holds two, with the third squeezed between. There's enough cargo area behind the second row to swallow the weekly grocery run, and if you need more the seatbacks fold for a nicely flat load floor. Just don't carry anything too heavy; a warning label on the cargo floor mat lists a maximum weight of 130 pounds.
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Our loaded 2017 Kia Niro Touring carried an MSRP of $32,840 including the $895 destination charge, but prices start at about $26,000, and you can even get a decently equipped example for less than $30,000. That's easily competitive, and a good price for a nice looking, fuel sipping hatchback like the Niro. Hatchback? We meant wagon. No, crossover. Y'know...car.
By Keith Buglewicz