SAN ANTONIO — With its no-compromise combination of head turning style, cutting-edge technology, real-world utility and eye-popping fuel economy, the 2017 Kia Niro truly is a smarter kind of crossover.
That’s how Kia described its new hybrid electric crossover in a welcome letter to reporters here for the media launch of the 2017 Kia Niro Hybrid. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder but the Kia Niro did look good.
A static model was parked in front of the Hotel Emma and at a leisurely pace we saw that the crossover had short overhangs, aggressive headlights, and Kia’s tiger nose grille that seemed a little wider and black cladding that framed the edge of the vehicle’s lower body as well as its wheel wells. We particularly liked the trim bezel for the fog lamps and it also adorned the rear fascia.
The Niro was designed from the ground up as a hybrid. Stylists made it wide and low and it had a long wheel-base and an athletic stance. The crossover had strong shoulders, well defined wheel arches, rocker-panel cladding, and roof rails. In the rear it had a wide stance, rear skid plate, and multi-element horizontal LED tail lamp graphics.
Kia worked hard at reducing NVH. It used specially designed engine mounts, equal length drive shafts and dampers inside the steering wheel hub minimized vibrations. Foam in the A and B pillars helped to keep road noise out of the passenger cabin. More than half the body in white was made of advanced high strength steel. Special tires and acoustic glass were also used to reduce noise in the cabin.
The Niro model in front of the hotel had a stance which created a slightly forward lean and it looked like it was cutting through the wind. Its tailgate was curved, almost round. The side mirrors were attached to the A pillars but they weren’t obstructive.
The static model had heated front seats and a heated steering wheel. The controls were at the base of the center console. The shift lever was forward of those buttons and the climate controls were at the bottom of the center stack followed by the audio controls and then the infotainment screen.
The color was great. A metallic Gravity Blue. It was rich, the sort of hue you’d find on a large luxury sedan. Kia sales were up 3.5 percent while the overall market was up less than one percent. That’s significant since the brand does not have a pickup truck or large CUV. And the company undoubtedly expects continued sales growth with the Niro, the first of 20 all new vehicles that will be launched by 2020.
The Niro is special. It averaged 76.6 mpg on a coast-to-coast cross-country drive, using about 4.4 tanks of fuel. And that Niro was just like the one they brought here. It had a 1.6-liter direct injected four-cylinder engine that made 104 horsepower.
Kia said the new engine marks the first combination of the Atkinson Cycle, cooled exhaust gas recirculation (EGR), GDI and a long-stroke-narrow-bore specification to maximize fuel efficiency to up to 50 mpg combined.
Efficiency and emissions were further improved via the Niro’s exhaust heat recovery system, which sped engine warm-up by routing coolant to a heat exchanger in the exhaust system. A 43 horsepower electric motor was fitted between the engine and transmission and worked in tandem with the gasoline engine to produce a total of 139 horsepower and 195 lb.-ft. of torque.
That power was transmitted through a newly developed, second-generation six-speed dual-clutch transmission with a sport mode. The transmission delivered smooth, quick shifts which were in stark contrast to other hybrids equipped with continuously variable transmissions.
It sounds like hype out of the press materials but they were right, the Niro shifted gears quickly and without that drone that comes with a CVT. Shifts were sharp and decisive, the car was peppy and it was relatively quick for a hybrid.
Some of that quickness had to do with weight. Depending on the trim level, the Niro weighed from 3,060 lbs. to 3,300 lbs. That’s 500 pounds less than some of its competitors. To reduce weight the hood, tailgate and some suspension parts like the steering knuckles were aluminum. What’s more, the Niro only comes in front-wheel drive to keep its weight down.
This is Texas hill country and the Niro was very spry on two lane thoroughfares like Rebecca Creek Rd, Spring St., TX 306 and TX 2325. Spring and shock compression never bottomed out in the severe dips and acceleration was pretty good even when ascending some relatively steep hills.
The seats were comfortable. The Niro was pretty quiet. There was plenty of elbow room for two adults in the front. The dashboard was wide and flat-faced. It was textured but we thought it was a bit hard. We were test driving the Touring trim line.
Electric energy and power for the whole system was provided by a compact and lightweight 1.56-kWh Lithium Ion Polymer battery located underneath the rear seat. Because the high-voltage battery was both powerful and energy dense, Kia claimed it was smaller and lighter than other hybrid batteries, and that allowed engineers to downsize the gasoline engine to further maximize fuel economy and reduce emissions.
Kia wanted a versatile crossover vehicle because people use the heck out of them, said Michael Sprague, Kia’s executive vice president. The automaker didn’t want the Niro to look like a hybrid (it doesn’t). They were after rugged modern efficiency. “It’s styled to be used,” Sprague said. Coefficient of drag was 0.29 and a wide tailgate with a low lift-over makes it easier to put things into the back onto the flat cargo floor.
It was an efficient interior with a sweeping horizontal field and a large center control area, logical control placement and higher hip point. The sight lines were great.
There are five trim levels:
The FE, with a starting MSRP of $22,890 and 50-MPG (combined) is equipped with a long list of standard features, including: 16-inch wheels; 6-way front seats; power windows; keyless entry; cruise control; 7-inch touchscreen display with rearview camera; UVO3 with Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and a six-speaker audio system with steering-wheel-mounted controls.
Moving up to the $23,200 LX trim adds Smart Key with push button start, roof rails and LED rear combination lamps.
Among the extras added to EX, $25,700, are heated combination cloth and leather seating, leather-wrapped steering wheel, LED daytime running lights, heated power folding mirrors, front fog lamps, and Blind Spot Detection (BSD) with Rear Cross Traffic Alert (RCTA) and Lane Change Assist (LCA) driver assistance features.
The Launch Edition is available in Snow White Pearl or Aurora Black Pearl exterior colors and offers an exclusive look because of its unique Hyper Gray 18-inch alloy wheels with Michelin tires, unique metallic color grille, 10-way driver’s seat, 8-inch touchscreen navigation system, 8-speaker Harman Kardon premium audio system and it costs $28,000.
The Touring trim model, $29,650, is equipped with power tilt/slide sunroof, front and rear park assist, heated and cooled seats, heated steering wheel, 10-way power driver’s seat with memory and 8-speaker Harman Kardon premium audio.
Three option packages are available:
Advanced Technology Package is offered on the LX at $1,450 and includes forward Collision Warning, Autonomous Emergency Braking, and a Lane Departure Warning System.
Sunroof and Advanced Technology Package is offered on EX at $2,300 and it includes power tilt/slide sunroof, Smart Cruise Control, Forward Collision Warning, Autonomous Emergency Braking, and a Lane Departure Warning System.
The Advanced Technology Package at $1,900 is offered on Touring; it includes HID headlights, wireless phone charger and 110V inverter, Smart Cruise Control, Forward Collision Warning, Autonomous Emergency Braking, and Lane Departure Warning System.
The FE has an EPA rating of 52 mpg in the city, 49 mpg on the highway and 50 mpg combined. The LX and EX get 51 mpg in the city, 46 mpg on the highway and 49 mpg combined and the Touring gets 46 mpg in the city, 40 mpg on the highway and 43 mpg combined.
With the 2017 Kia Niro, the automaker has a credible entry in the crossover as well as the hybrid market in one vehicle. The only question is which manufacturer is going to lose sales because of it.
Frank S. Washington is editor of AboutThatCar.com.