If 50 miles per gallon in city travel remains a shopping-list priority, there's a new player in town with a starting price of south of $23,000.
Enter Kia Niro, an all-new 2017 model year vehicle which made its global debut just over a year ago at the 2016 Chicago Auto Show boasting one of the lowest prices for a vehicle offering hybrid advances. Niro was built from the ground up as a hybrid, rather than borrowing an existing model and jamming in the necessary workings.
The newsworthy 2016 media preview press conference touched upon the diminutive crossover's lofty aspirations. Three distinct high-mileage versions eventually come on line boasting different under hood technologies. First out the gate; a gas-electric non-pug-in hybrid (now arriving at dealers) followed by a plug-in hybrid and finally an all-electric (EV) version. The South Korean automaker describes Niro as a 'hybrid utility vehicle' (HUD), its niche within the automotive universe.
Niro keeps weight in check through extensive use of advanced high-strength steel and targeted use of light-weight aluminum in the hood and rear hatch. It measures almost a foot shorter than the compact RAV4 crossover, which has grown steadily in size since its mid-1990s debut. It's a 'tweener' falling between traditional compacts and sub compacts.
With Niro built from the button up as a hybrid, designers maximized interior space by smartly incorporating the 240-volt 1.56 kWh lithium-ion polymer battery pack under second-row seats. Second-row seat backs fold down in conventional fashion with a 60/40 split, opening up 54.5 cubic feet of space. Prone, a usable 19.4 cubic feet of room awaits. Both figures align closer with sub-compact crossovers (such as Honda's relatively new HR-V).
While all-wheel-drive remains available in many compact crossovers, Niro's laser fuel-mileage focus highlights fuel-friendly front-wheel drive. Ground clearance remains a welcome 6.3 inches.
Niro does an excellent job of blending in exterior-wise with conventional, gas-exclusive subcompacts. Some aerodynamic slight-of-hand abounds if looking in the right places.
Front grille shutters close at speeds above 35 mph to diminish drag. Underbody, air flow gets redirected in a smooth fashion most notable in and around the muffler to pimp up fuel economy. In front, Niro includes the Kia family's familiar, 'Tiger Nose' grille.
A new four-cylinder engine teams with an alternating current 43 horsepower electric motor/generator connected to a six-speed dual clutch automatic transmission sending power to the front wheels. Niro's four-cylinder engine, an updated 1.6-liter, delivers 139 horsepower when combined with the electric motor/generator.
Dual clutch transmissions have been found under hood of various vehicles sold in the U.S. since 2003, but rarely team with hybrids as most opt for a continuously variable transmission (CVT). Dual clutch offers better performance characteristics notable when behind Niro's wheel.
From a driver's perspective, a dual clutch transmission operates like a standard automatic with no foot clutch (found in manual transmissions) to push when changing gears. Instead, under hood computer enhanced dual clutch mechanisms quickly shift (with no driver input) without disconnecting from the engine and interrupting power flow. One clutch handles first, third and fifth gears while another targets second, fourth and sixth.
All this adds up to a truly fun-to-drive hybrid crossover with extended fuel range that looks and drives very conventionally.
Four trim levels include FE, LX EX and this week's tester, a top-trim Touring. Trims differ slightly in mileage estimates largely due to differing weight and standard features. Touring weighs in about 170 pounds heavier than the fuel-leading FE trim (52 mpg city, 49 mpg highway).
Our fully-loaded Touring tester (46 city, 40 highway) includes power front bucket seats, eight speakers, automatic emergency braking and larger 18-inch wheels. The diminutive 11.9 gallon tank accommodates regular unleaded petro.
Pricing starts at a respectable $22,890 for the high-mileage FE. An advanced technology package (lane departure warning, autonomous emergency braking, radar-distancing cruise control) is available in all trims sans FE representing the sole factory-available package.
Our Touring tester started at $29,650, adding $1,900 for the advanced technology package. A smattering of a-la-carte port options (sliding cargo privacy cover, cargo net, carpet floor mats totaling, mud guards, etc.), added $1,180. Combined with the $895 destination charge, the bottom line totaled $33,625.
Touring exclusively features as standard fare: heated and ventilated front seats, heated steering wheel, power tilt and slide sunroof, leather seat trim and glossy black front grille trim.
Push-button start comes standard. Once pushing the circular red dashboard button, expect an eerie moment of silence as the inaudible electric motor's called into action prior to the gas engine kicking in. If new to gas-electric hybrids, this takes some familiarization.
The outside provides few cues of under-hood hybrid hijinks (save for tailgate's small rectangular 'Eco Hybrid badging); so too does the interior. No high-tech Jetsons design, just knobs and dials placed in familiar and ergonomically sensible positions.
Niro's mechanical, T-bar grab shifter between front bucket seats differs from what's inside Toyota Prius, which for years has employed an electronic joy-stick like dashboard shifter.
However, if a high-tech fix is needed, look no further than the eight-inch, in-dash multi-function touch screen anchoring the center console. Press the square 'hybrid' icon and the screen showcases engine energy flow. Once done, hit the back button for the main menu for radio presets or optional in-dash navigation.
Below the color screen, two rows of buttons flanked by dials (one volume, one station select) compliment the touch screen. Under that, a similar layout of buttons and dual-zone dials control interior temperature. The lowest-level of the center stack is an open air landing for portable pocket-sized electronic devices with two 12-volt outlets flanking USB and auxiliary ports.
The easy-glance instrument panel features a low-tech circular analog speedometer right side and a scrollable (via steering wheel controls) digital message window center. The left-side three-quarter analog circle contains three needle-indicated hybrid indications (power, charge, eco) at the outer edge. Inside, a handy 'miles to empty' digital countdown teams up with a small, bar-like fuel gauge.
Generous ground clearance creates a rather high seating position, making egress and ingress a simple motion while still providing decent headroom front and back. Two adults occupying row two makes the most comfort sense. Three could survive very short jaunts.
As with most hybrids, regenerative braking captures kinetic energy during deceleration and recharges the on-board battery. Another fuel-extending feature: start-stop technology. Each time Niro comes to an extended stop, the gas engine quiets to conserve gasoline.
Also, when traveling in reverse, a low-level beeping sound (a-la large commercial trucks) emanates. It's not as annoying at the Toyota Prius' sometimes headache-splitting levels.
Niro Touring at a Glance:
Price as tested: $33,625
Gas Engine: 1.6-liter four cylinder
Combined Horsepower: 139
Wheelbase: 106.3 inches
Overall Length: 171.5 inches
Overall Width: 71.1 inches
Overall Height: 60.8 inches
Curb weight: 3,274 pounds
Fuel Economy: 46 mpg city/40 highway