Electrified automobiles appear to the future of motoring and they come in a variety of flavors, the most proven of which is the gas-electric hybrid. But the packaging around them can be quite different. Well Kia thinks they’ve got the perfect blend of fuel efficiency and utility in their all-new Niro crossover.
The Kia Soul EV is the best all-electric vehicle I’ve ever driven. But if you’re not ready to make the leap to electrons and protons exclusively, Kia’s got the Optima Hybrid, Optima Plug-In Hybrid and now the Niro. Those other 2 are sedans but the Niro is a small wagon or crossover, if you will, offering as much as 52mpg depending on trim – the highest mileage of any Kia without a plug. If you’re willing to compromise a bit on MPGs in exchange for a fully-loaded feel, there’s this top trim Niro Touring, rated at 46mpg city/40mpg highway. Bigger wheels, more content and a roof rack add weight and somewhat spoil aerodynamics thus the reduction in mileage but 40-some MPG is still nothing to thumb one’s nose at. I spent a tank of gas this week, took 1 out of town highway trip and mixed in a lot of city commuting with a fair dosage of sport mode to achieve 41mpg, so this isn’t some hybrid smoke and mirror trick. The mileage is legit and a driving range of over 500 miles keeps gas station stops to a minimum.
So how does it work? Well, in many ways like other popular hybrids. Take a small 4-cylinder engine, tune it to run on the hybrid-friendly Atkinson Cycle and subsidize its modest output with a torquey electric motor. But in the Niro, there’s a 6-speed dual clutch automatic transmission and not an unappealing CVT. Plus this 1.6-liter engine is fitted with all of the current modern engineering tech to maximize efficiency. Add in the compact and lightweight lithium-ion polymer battery pack, and you’ve got a front-drive utility vehicle capable of 139 horsepower, a reactive 195 pound-feet of torque and stellar mileage. The battery is located under the 2nd row seats but doesn’t interfere with passenger comfort or expanding cargo room. The rear seats are actually quite roomy in all directions and cargo volume is greater than in the Soul EV. Plus, there’s clever underfloor storage.
The driving experience is the tale of 2 cars – the Niro Eco and its very conservative hybrid driving demeanor and the Niro Sport which is ready to run with a shot of adrenaline. This is the go to mode when you’re out of the city. Handling is better than expected with a spirited nimbleness but the suspension feels a little unsophisticated, particularly over rough terrain. Plus, it gets pretty loud in here even when the engine is asleep.
The Niro’s ride has a bit of an edge to it that more conveys a low price point than athleticism. A softer tune would likely satisfy a greater number of Niro buyers. That being said, the Niro has made a very positive impression. I like the ease of simply kicking over the gear shift for Sport mode when I want more power and its overall drivability is favorable, never frustrating the driver with its controls like most hybrids do. The one possible exception to that is the regenerative braking, which at times, in city driving, can feel mushy or too aggressive. But the slightly elevated seating position, low windshield and excellent ergonomics create a welcome environment.
The Niro’s cabin is reminiscent of the Soul EV’s and features light blue accents, comes packed with awesome Hybrid tech and offers very decent space. I also like its simplified driving choices – it’s either in ECO or Sport.
Kia knows how to do in-car electronics and this Touring trim with the optional Advanced Technology Package is a shining example of how to include everything the owner wants in a simple to use manner. UVO rocks and never induces screen smashing behavior. Plus, the hybrid displays and driving tools are perfectly done – informative but easy to follow. And then there’s the pantry of safety features including autonomous emergency braking and smart cruise control. A heated steering wheel, heated seats, auto climate control with a driver only setting and a really nice sounding Harman Kardon audio system give this Touring trim a premium car personality. Typical for Kia, the content is sky high in relation to its as-tested price of $32,445. Lower, more economical trims begin at around $24,000.
Think of the Niro as the spiritual successor to the Rondo; quirky but like-able.