Rabid hybrid advocates – however many might still be left – will puzzle over the polished new Kia Niro.
Something just doesn’t seem right.
Hybrids should look like clumsy college science experiments, with odd aerodynamic bodies drooped over laughably skinny tires and tiny cart-sized wheels.
And where in the Niro are all the bizarre gauges and big badges and flashing lights that identify the vehicle – and its driver – as carbon-pure?
Most of all, why is the 2017 Niro hybrid so good-looking?
As you may know, the Niro is an all-new hybrid from Kia, sharing a hybrid-specific platform with the more eccentric Hyundai Ioniq. (Kia, incidentally, is a subsidiary of the Hyundai-Kia Automotive Group.)
And its new Niro arrives at an interesting time.
For the most part, manufacturers can’t give the little sippers away in this era of $2-a-gallon gas. Meanwhile, automakers want all federal fuel-economy standards eased, which could cut hybrids’ market-share even more.
However, the Niro looks like the perfect hybrid vehicle to contend with life after Big Don Trump, particularly if the feds do pull back on the fuel-economy standards.
Mine radiated style – the sort that typically appeals to buyers of all kinds.
The Niro’s surprisingly strong face, for example, featured Kia’s signature tiger-nose grille flanked by bold, peering headlamps wrapped gracefully atop the front fenders.
A fairly short hood – wearing slight lines on each side that looked kind of like semi-straightened hockey sticks – abutted a raked-back windshield. They flowed down to clean sides and short overhangs front and rear, adding to the subcompact crossover’s subtle contemporary flash.
Moreover, it wore one small badge on the right side of the hatchback that quietly stated “Eco Hybrid.” Get this: my high-end Niro Touring rolled on very un-hybrid like 225/45 tires wrapped around good-looking 18-inch multi-spoke wheels.
We may lose our Earth First credentials just looking at it.
But check under the hood. A 1.6-liter four-cylinder gas engine is paired with a single electric motor and lithium ion batteries to produce a combined 139-horsepower and 195-lb-ft. of torque.
In another unusual twist for a hybrid, Kia opted to fit the Niro with a dual-clutch six-speed automatic rather than a dull, droning CVT. Hats off to Kia!
The Niro Touring carries a rating of 46-miles per gallon in town – a good bit short of the class-leading Toyota Prius’ 58 mpg – but believe me, the Niro is a lot easier to live with and look at.
And as anyone who’s married knows, there’s nothing wrong with that.
Initially, I found the Niro’s motors to be kind of squishy with soft tip-in away from idle – like a mound of mashed potatoes might be piled behind the accelerator. It also seemed tuned differently than the Prius. As you probably know, the Prius relies pretty heavily on its electric motor to get the vehicle rolling, summoning its little four-banger after the car begins gathering speed.
I didn’t feel that in the Niro. Instead – according to the one hybrid power gauge in the instrument cluster – the engine and electric motor worked in concert most of the time, even when accelerating lightly from a roll. That seemed to work better once I discovered the Niro’s “sport” setting.
In sport mode, the Niro jumped away from red lights more vigorously and responded better when I kicked the transmission down a gear or two to merge onto the Shrub – er, the Bush Tollway, a bit of a racetrack in Dallas.
While largely an illusion, it felt and sounded pretty good. The Niro accelerates to 60 in 10.5 seconds, according to Car and Driver, exactly what the Prius does.
Though its steering felt a bit numb – a long-standing issue with Kias and Hyundais – at least it was quick and well-weighted.
Corners could even be mildly amusing. The front-wheel-drive Niro sits a bit lower than subcompacts such as the Chevy Trax and Honda HR-V, and cornered a little more flatly. Better yet, the Niro didn’t step stiffly over bumps like some hybrids do or suffer from grabby hybrid brakes.
Price, though, may be the appealing little crossover’s biggest weakness.
With a window-sticker of about $32,400, the Niro is roughly $4,000 higher than a Prius and $5,000 more expensive than competitors such as the Mazda CX-3 and Honda HR-V.
That could be a big gap to bridge. Maybe the Niro’s impressive interior will ease some of the price pain.
On mine, a sleek, flat-top dash cast in above-average gray plastic slid down onto a mid-dash in black.
All the controls – buttons and switches, not infuriating touchpads –were laid out horizontally below the mid-dash like high-end sports sedans.
The gray-and-black theme flowed into the door panels as well, which featured gray upper panels with padded black armrests stitched in blue.
Likewise, the gray leather seats offered sectioned, perforated centers, while leg- and head-room in back was excellent.
No matter what happens to hybrids in the short term, I figure they are here to stay – kind of like Congress. My beloved gas engines alone just can’t achieve the sort of efficiency that will one day be needed.
So it’s heartening to see a mainstream automaker working hard to excise hybrid hokeyness.
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