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2017 Kia Niro: An every-day hero for functional, fuel-sipping transportation

2017 Kia Niro 26.JPG
2017 Kia Niro (Sinclair Broadcast Group / Jill Ciminillo)

My first impression of the Kia Niro centers around Melissa McCarthy. More specifically, it’s her encounters with a rhino and face plant against the side of a tanker as she tries valiantly – and hilariously – to save the world while driving a Niro.

The slapstick humor, over-the-top situations and “I Need a Hero” theme song illustrate that even a small action – like owning a fuel-sipping hybrid – can help save the world. Or at least your little piece of it.

While some might call the Niro a utility vehicle or crossover, others lump it into the wagon or hatchback category. However you want to categorize it, one thing is for sure: the all-new Kia Niro is an attractive compact package that fits well in both urban and suburban situations.

Design

I would probably lump this into the compact crossover category, among the Honda HR-Vs and Mazda CX-3s of the world. Except there’s no available all-wheel drive.


Niro looks like a baby Sportage with strong horizontal lines and signature Tiger Nose grille. The overall effect is nothing unique or earth shattering, but simple and attractive nonetheless.

The interior is where the Niro shines with its vibrant behind-the-wheel gauges and visual eco page that symbolically adds leaves to a tree when you drive efficiently.

The test vehicle was an up-level Touring trim, so it also had the attractive black leather seats with reverse stitching. Front seats were heated and cooled, and the vehicle added one of my new favorite features: a heated steering wheel.

The center stack has a nice, clean design, and Kia does a really good job of having hard buttons and dials for frequently used items such as tuning, volume and HVAC. I thought the infotainment system had an easy-to-follow flow and I was able to easily page through the displays and find what I wanted with one or two taps.

Ride & Handling

What makes the Niro an interesting find is the fact it is compact enough to drive in trafficked urban situations but has enough rear-seat legroom and cargo volume to make it a comfortable suburban cruiser for a small family.


It comes equipped with a 1.6-liter, 104-horsepower engine paired with a 43-horsepower electric motor. The combined power output is 139 horsepower and 195 pound-feet of torque.

Overall, I think this powertrain suits the compact utility vehicle fairly well. It has a decent amount of get-up-and-go for passing on the highway, and it does a nice job with more aggressive city maneuvers.

Niro has a slightly higher ride height than a car, which translates to a comfortable ride on the highway. Another bonus point: The Niro is also incredibly quiet while traveling at highway speeds.

I’m a particular fan of the rear camera with dynamic lines and rear cross-traffic alert. This is great for busy parking lots as well as tight parallel parking spots.

I did notice one small burp in the powertrain, though. If you slow down without stopping before a quick turn or maneuver and your engine is on, the vehicle almost feels like it’s stalling as it tries to switch into hybrid mode but doesn’t quite make it before you hit the gas pedal. It causes a brief hesitation, almost like the vehicle is confused about what it should be doing.


Fuel economy

All told, I was pretty impressed with the fuel economy of the Kia Niro. Anyone who reads my articles regularly knows I’m not a light foot when I drive. When I’m testing a hybrid, I don’t try to drive any differently because, well, I want to see what happens.

EPA estimates that you should get 46 mpg in the city and 40 mpg on the highway, with a combined rating of 43 mpg. My numbers during the test week, with mostly city driving, fluctuated between 41 and 45 mpg with a final mpg of 44.3.

I’ll chalk that up to a win for Kia.

Tech & gadgets

One of the things that continually impresses me about Kia vehicles is the amount of technology you get for your money. In addition to items such as heated and cooled front seats, push-button start and passive entry, other available features include power seats, memory presets for your seats, navigation and a premium Harman Kardon audio system as well as standard Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.

I found the Eco screen to be particularly enthralling as it displays how efficient your driving is without being too judgey. It comes in the form of a large tree that you can fill with leaves as you drive well and “save the environment.” I was usually around a Level 4 but managed to eke my way up to a Level 7 in stop-and-go traffic.


Trims

The test vehicle was a top-tier Touring trim with all the whistles and bells. But there is a nice range of trims that are sure to hit the right levels.

FE ($23,785): In addition to being the base model, this trim is the “fuel efficient” model, tweaked to get a combined fuel economy rating of 50 mpg. Features at this level include a standard 7-inch touch-screen infotainment display, Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, rear camera, Bluetooth phone pairing technology, cruise control, dual auto zone climate control with a driver only mode and cloth seats.

LX ($24,095): This trim adds a little more content, but still manages to maintain a 49 mpg combined fuel economy rating. The main features included at this level are roof rails, push-button start and passive entry.

EX ($26,595): This trim adds features such as fog lights, LED daytime running lights, cloth/leather seating surfaces, heated front seats and heated outside mirrors.

Touring Launch Edition ($28,895): Starting at this trim, combined fuel economy drops to 46 mpg. Features at this level include sport black accents, 18-inch Hyper Gray wheels, navigation, 8-inch touch-screen infotainment display and a Harman Kardon premium audio system.

Touring ($30,545): This top-tier trim adds features such as a power sunroof, leather seats, heated steering wheel and front ventilated seats.

The test vehicle added the Advanced Technology Package ($1,900) and carpeted floor mats ($130) for an as-tested price of $32,575.


Safety

Niro comes standard with all the safety features you’d expect from a vehicle today, including dual-stage front air bags, a driver’s knee air bag, seat-mounted side air bags, full-length side-curtain air bags, anti-lock brakes and a tire pressure monitoring system.

Available safety features include blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, autonomous emergency braking (AEB), forward collision warning (FCW), lane departure warning system (LDWS) and smart cruise control (SCC).

In a world where automakers like Toyota are making the high-tech safety features standard across all trims, it’s important to note that Kia isn’t one of them and the way they add in the safety tech is a bit peculiar.

None of the high-tech safety equipment is available in the base FE model. AEB, FCW, LDWS and SCC become available at the LX trim – but blind spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert aren’t available. Blind spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert become standard at the EX trim, and the other items are available. While the Launch Edition has standard blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert, none of the other safety tech is available. The Touring trim is optioned similar to the EX trim.

Because Niro is a new model for Kia, it hasn’t yet been rated by the National Highway Traffic Administration or the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

New for 2017

The Kia Niro is all-new for 2017, marking the brand’s first dedicated hybrid-only vehicle.


A few of my favorite things

This is a neat little package chockfull of fuel savings and up-level features. The test model was a Touring trim, and came completely decked out with a whole host of features I would expect on a lux-level vehicle. But for an as-tested price of about $32K, I got heated and cooled front seats, a heated steering wheel, lane departure warning, adaptive cruise control and blind spot detection.

What I can leave

While I think most of the Niro is mechanically sound. I did notice a small hesitation in power when you come to an almost stop. For example, say you’re getting ready to turn right and you slow down to wait for a passing vehicle. You slow down but don’t stop completely in anticipation of making a quick turn. Well, the engine of the Niro feels like it stalls, and you have a moment of lag before you can move and complete the turn.

The first time it happened I thought it was a glitch. The second time it happened, I thought maybe I was doing something wrong. But it kept happening – both in reverse and forward gears – and eventually became annoying during the test period.

The bottom line

As far as hybrids go, the Niro is pretty decent. Fuel economy is an actual representation of what you can expect to get, and ride and handling is great for both urban and suburban situations.

While the fuel economy isn’t going to be as good as a Toyota Prius or Prius v, it has a more “normal” design scheme, which could be a selling point for some.

I’m also a huge fan of the luxury upgrades you can pack into the Niro, including the cooled seats and memory settings for the driver’s seat.

If you are looking to be an every-day hero with a hybrid purchase, the 2017 Kia Niro is definitely a new one to add to your must-test list.

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