Mountain Wheels: Kia enters the hybrid world with the Niro SUV
2017 Kia Niro Touring
MSRP: $29,650; as tested, $30,545
Powertrain: 139-HP 1.6-liter four-cylinder/electric motor with six-speed automatic transmission
EPA figures: 43 combined (46 city, 40 highway)
Since their mass-market introduction of the ever-evolving Toyota Prius family and even the early Honda Insight, hybrids have suffered from a slight issue of universal practicality, outside of the magic Southern California environment the carmakers often seem to think is common everywhere in the U.S.
Deep snow, steep hills and a long, long winter are not a totally dedicated hybrid’s best friend, and while snow tires and a fearless attitude can help provide additional flexibility to regular hybrid models, sometimes they’re not the best choice for mountain folks.
All of this might change with the debut of a couple of new hybrids that promise to expand the practicality and prowess of the technology. I’m looking forward to some time with the new Chevy Bolt, the authentically SUV-styled reinvention of the Volt, which is able to realistically travel more than 200 miles between recharging sessions.
And on the gas-electric hybrid front, we also welcome the new Kia Niro, a small but dynamic crossover-styled automobile that can hit close to 50 MPG with its combination of a small and efficient gasoline engine and an electric generator.
Not unlike its Prius competitors, the total output is still relatively austere (139 combined horsepower), but that electrification boosts torque to 195 lb.-ft., allowing a little more room for tackling our long, steep slopes, especially in wintertime. You can travel at impressive speed on the highway, or cruise along in total electrical silence in town; overall ride and feel are solid and sprightly.
Besides its distinctive SUV shape and size, allowing perhaps a bit more all-season practicality than the typical full hybrid alternatives, Niro is also unique in the way it puts the power to the road.
In the Kia’s case, that means a real six-speed, double-clutch automatic transmission, versus the often slushy continuously variable transmissions found in other hybrids; the result is a driving experience that’s a lot more like a regular automobile, and maybe even a little fun at times (which often seems like a bourgeois attribute many hybrids seek to avoid at all costs).
And while still an unusual looking little whip (with a 106.3-inch wheelbase, it’s small but not tiny), Niro also blends more effortlessly into the world of regular automobiles — with less of the overt angles and standoffish design found in oddballs like the BMW i3 or even the newest Prius models.
I’m guessing the little engine needs a lot of ventilation and Niro’s radiator grille is surprisingly large; wraparound lamps and even some large air scoop vents in front of the front wheels make for a unique look. Niro’s rear aspect is the most hybrid-looking piece of the car, with a long, black air foil stemming off of the roof, squared-off rear glass and under-bumper aerodynamic bits.
Kia’s also gone for an interior experience that’s far from the austere feeling experienced in some other hybrids, which seem dead-set on reinforcing their societal benefits by boring their drivers senseless.
Space is also a big bonus in the Niro, with a full-sized front passenger cabin and rear seating I would describe as pretty generous. There’s a large, carpeted cargo deck with some additional hidden space underneath and a helpful receptacle for tippy objects like bleach bottles. Rear seats down, you’ll get over 54 cubic feet of storage.
Hybrid-land of course brings with it an unavoidable devotion to data for many drivers, and Niro’s owners can geek out with a multiplicity of range, power flow and general efficiency displays, contained within a very busy cabin design. Lots of piano black bits, a real Harmon/Kardon stereo and a smooth and sleek dash all make it very contemporary.
Day to day, you’ll get a simple readout illustrating how much electric charge remains, your range (no anxiety here as there is that gasoline engine to keep it all running) and even some friendly encouragement of your overall driving style. I earned a “76 percent economical” rating during my drive, both highway and city, though I did only get 38.5 MPG overall during my time in the car.
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