SAN ANTONIO, Texas – What’s great about a hybrid is that we can drive it like a normal car, and it will magically provide us with lower fuel bills. No need to plug it in or calculate the distance of our commutes, all we have to do is fill a hybrid vehicle with fuel and go. It’s that simple.
It’s what partly explains the Toyota Prius’ success, other than its “treehugger’s car” branding that celebrities and environmentalists like so much. On the other hand, those who have driven a Prius will never convince anyone that this car is actually fun to drive. It’s an appliance on wheels, although many people don’t ask any more of it. Would there be room on the market for a vehicle that’s just as fuel efficient as the oddball Toyota, but that does offer a more engaging drive as a bonus?
The Korean manufacturers think there is. The Hyundai Ioniq and the Kia Niro are new models dedicated to hybrid and electric propulsion. While the Ioniq will go head to head against the Prius and Prius Prime, the Niro will try to clobber the Prius v. Oh, and we almost forgot about the Ford C-MAX hybrid.
It’s important to mention here that we’re the ones associating the Niro to the Prius v and the C-MAX, and not the manufacturer. Unlike Hyundai who’s unabashedly promoting the environmental friendliness of its Ioniq, Kia prefers marketing their model as a conventional car that just happens to be equipped with a hybrid powertrain.
More a crossover than a car
On sale this March, the Korean brand presents the 2017 Kia Niro as a small, front-wheel-drive crossover, while Hyundai’s Ioniq is a car. They share the same platform, their dimensions are similar, but the Niro is slightly more spacious. While we’re on the subject, its cargo capacity is rated at 635 litres, and grows to 1789 litres once the rear seatbacks are folded down. That’s quite a bit of room.
Four trim levels will be offered in Canada, the base L, the EX, the EX Premium and the SX Touring. They’re all equipped with an Atkinson-cycle, 1.6-litre four-cylinder engine and en electric motor, for a combined output of 139 horsepower. The peak torque of 195 pound-feet, available from 1000 to 2400 rpm thanks to the electric motor, promises interesting performance off the line. In addition, the Niro relies on a dual-clutch, six-speed automated transmission, unlike the continuously variable gearboxes that are found in many hybrid vehicles, including the Prius.
Despite the generous torque, the car isn’t all that quick, while the transmission is programmed for maximising fuel economy. On the other hand, acceleration is much more satisfying here than in the Prius v and the C-MAX. A Sport mode is offered, which sharpens the throttle’s sensitivity and allows the gearbox to keep the engine in its power curve; the difference is notable, but fuel consumption rises accordingly.
When the 2017 Kia Niro was unveiled, the automaker mentioned having developed a braking system that got rid of the awful pedal feel of the energy regeneration system at work, a typical hybrid shortcoming. While pedal feel is indeed improved, the brakes lack a little bite, unless we mash the pedal with more conviction.
A unique aspect of the Niro is that instead of using a regular 12-volt battery for starting the car and powering the accessories, Kia decided to install a small lithium-ion battery underneath the rear seat, alongside the hybrid system’s 1.56-kWh battery pack. If the small battery runs out of juice, the owner can simply press on a dash-mounted button labeled BATT RESET, and the bigger battery will transfer a portion of its energy to the smaller one.
The SX Touring trim also includes a coasting coach that uses the car’s navigation system to detect up to two kilometres of the road ahead, when the driver will need to slow down and suggest him or her when to start coasting. By minimising use of the brakes, less fuel is wasted.
On the admittedly smooth roads of Texas, the 2017 Kia Niro nonetheless showed off the rigidity of its body, the sound insulation of its cockpit and the refinement of its drive. Handling is what we expect of a conventional, compact-sized car, thanks to the placement of the batteries under the rear bench, which balances the car’s weight. The L, EX and EX Premium variants are equipped with 16-inch alloy wheels and Michelin Energy Saver tires, while the Niro SX Touring benefits from 18-inch wheels wrapped in sportier Michelin Primacy MXM4 rubber.
Holding the line on fuel consumption
As for fuel economy, the Niro is actually pretty impressive. The L version is rated at 4.5 L/100 km around town and 4.8 on the highway, while the EX trims add a few tenths. The combined average of the SX Touring is 5.4 L/100 km, compared to 4.7 for the Niro L, attributable to the added weight of the car’s extra features—600 lbs. worth or 272 kg, according to Kia. During our drive, we averaged 5.9 L/100 km during the first portion of our test, and 5.3 during the second leg. That’s better than what the Prius v and C-MAX can achieve, and much better than the horde of subcompact and compact SUVs.
In typical Kia fashion, the Niro benefits from a long list of standard features for the asking price. For a base MSRP of $24,995 before freight and delivery charges, the L version includes heated front seats, a heated and leather-wrapped wheel, dual-zone climate control, automatic headlights, height-adjustable front seats, an infotainment system with seven-inch touchscreen, Bluetooth connectivity, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto integration, a rearview camera and much, much more. That’s quite a deal.
As this is being written, pricing of the other trim levels hasn’t yet been finalised. However, the EX version adds an intelligent key, a cargo cover, a five-volt USB port (for quicker charges), roof rails, backup sonar and more. We must point out that from the EX trim up, the Niro includes a raised cargo area floor with a shallow, concealed cargo tray—which reduces maximum cargo volume a little.
Lots of equipment
The EX Premium version gets an eight-way power driver’s seat, a power sunroof and blind spot monitoring with rear cross traffic alert. Last but not least, the SX Touring piles on the features with adaptive cruise control, front and rear park sonar, lane departure warning, ventilated front seats and heated rear seats, leather upholstery, a Harman/Kardon stereo with eight-inch touchscreen, navigation and much more. However, its price should rise well above the $30,000 mark.
In a nutshell, we think the most interesting version of the 2017 Kia Niro is the least expensive one. This new hybrid vehicle won’t revolutionise the automotive industry like the Prius did more than 10 year ago, and we’d be surprised if the Niro reached the same status as the Prius, the car of choice for Hollywood actors. On the other hand, in Canada, and thanks to its no-compromise fuel economy, it can seriously affect both the compact hatchback car and the subcompact SUV segments. The only thing missing here is all-wheel drive, but with a good set of snow tires, that’s not a big problem.