2017-05-18 / Top News

BEHIND THE WHEEL

Kia Niro is the latest all-in-one hybrid gadget

The new Kia Niro feels like a vehicle that was built for the bonus generation. It’s for those people who got their best gadgets in the pre-internet era from late-night TV infomercials that screamed, “But wait! There’s more…”

After all, this is the compact crossover that’s for a more mature crowd than Kia’s Soul, and if you act now — they’ll throw in the hybrid drivetrain for free!

Compact crossovers are one of the big expansion markets right now, and having one that is strictly gas-electric might be an interesting way to stand out in the expanding marketplace. But the Niro doesn’t need hybrid power to be distinctive. This one spent real time in the styling department, likely because it was a tough birth.

A good hybrid should be low to the ground for better aerodynamics, but crossovers try to add ride height. Plus, the blocky elements that stylists use to make this segment look tough usually add to the wind resistance. Thus, this vehicle was probably a constant battle between design and engineering.

The compromise seems to be a thoughtful design with deep ridges in the hood to create the effect of more fender flair, a line of black cladding all the way around the car for the appearance of extra height, and swoopy silver accents on the bumpers like a beast showing its teeth. It all makes for an attractive package that looks sporty from most angles. The only exception is the head-on view where the large crossover grille makes the lights a little smallish and awkward. In total, the design accomplishes exactly what Kia wanted — a wagon-like vehicle that doesn’t instantly get mistaken for one.

No matter if people view this as a wagon or a crossover, the versatile design is felt on the inside. The Niro shares a platform with the Hyundai Ioniq, and they even have the same wheelbase. Despite Hyundai’s hybrid hatchback being a few inches longer, the Kia is a few inches taller, and it sustains the extra height over the whole cargo area. It makes the Niro feel a bit more airy, spacious and versatile, just like a good crossover or wagon should.

The Niro comes nicely furnished even at the base level. Standard equipment includes a keyless entry, power windows, driver’s knee airbag, Bluetooth and a touchscreen infotainment system with backup camera. Also, because a key to a hybrid’s fuel economy is minimizing the amount of work a motor has to do, the Niro even has dual zone automatic climate control. That might seem like an odd economy feature, but it allows for a “Driver Only” setting so the vehicle can efficiently keep a smaller portion of the cabin comfortable.

In fact, conservation is at the heart of the Niro. It has a 1.6-liter gas engine working with an AC electric motor for a combined output of 139 horsepower. It’s not likely to win the stoplight grand prix. Instead, its victory is at the gas pump with an EPA combined rating of 40 to 49 mpg depending on trim level. That’s measurably better than the Toyota Prius V, but it still falls short of its Ioniq cousin — that’s part of the crossover aerodynamic sacrifice.

And just like the Hyundai hatchback, the Niro feels like a regular vehicle on the road. The extreme dieting and low rolling resistance tires that are needed to help with fuel economy don’t result in featherweight that can be blown by the wind. That’s the true key to making sure the efficiency of a hybrid feels like a bonus instead of a sacrifice.

The Kia Niro’s base price is $23,785, and that makes it exceptionally appealing. Not only is it lighter, more powerful and more efficient that the Toyota Prius V, it starts out at about $4,000 less.

There are plenty of option packages available that will bring its cost up to its competition. But that’s not really needed with this one. The Niro is that all-in-one gadget that is versatile, efficient and just a bit different. And it’s all available for a buy-it-now low, low price for those smart enough to option it correctly.

Doesn’t that sound like your favorite infomercial? ¦

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