My first encounter with the new-for-2017 Kia Niro came at last November’s Los Angeles auto show. Plopped into a static display of outdoorsy accommodation, it looked fresh, neatly drawn and ecologically primed.
The 2017 Kia Niro is a crossover vehicle, one of the most popular segments today. Looking like a modern station wagon (without that dastardly name), Niro is also a hybrid, using a gas/electric/battery propulsion system that’s intended to garner exceptional economy. The real world doesn’t intervene much on those intents.
Significantly shorter – by nearly a foot – than other intentional crossovers like Honda’s CR-V and Toyota’s RAV4, both market leaders, the 2017 Kia Niro also has a lower seating position that makes it feel much more agile than either of those crossovers; ground clearance is 6.3 inches. Kia’s reputation for building good vehicles in the current marketplace, coupled with its realization that the hybrid market could use a small crossover body, have brought the Niro plenty of interest and popularity.
The opportunity to drive a 2017 Kia Niro Touring – top of the line – from Long Beach to Sonoma for the NHRA’s 15th race of the season, in late July, allowed usage that was relevant to anyone needing a hybrid vehicle for both in-town and over-the-road excursions. The gorgeous Crimson Red Touring Niro, with its charcoal leather interior presented a truly rich visual environment. The running gear did the same.
Kia fits Niro with its directly injected 1.6L four-cylinder engine, a 43-horsepower electric motor and a 1.56 kWh lithium-ion polymer battery. It’s a simple, smooth solution to hybridization and one that cumulatively puts out a somewhat anemic 139 horsepower at 5,700 rpm; torque is measured at a healthy 195 lb-ft at 4,000. Combined with a six-speed dual clutch automatic transmission, the running gear works pleasantly enough, except when needing to quickly enter a fast-moving freeway or make a run up the Grapevine pass between Los Angeles and central California. At stoplights the engine goes full-stop to aid efficiency.
There are several renditions of the Niro: a truly frugal FE model, LX, EX and Touring models. Mileage figures are wide-ranging, going from a Toyota Prius-like 52/49/50 from the lightweight FE to 46/40/43 with the Touring, all using an 11.9-gallon gas tank. In putting close to 1,100 miles on the 2017 Kia Niro Touring, which had around 7,500 miles at pickup, our figures were spot-on with the government’s. Best tank load was the first, at 45mpg; worst was the last at close to 44mpg. Still not bad when you consider the 3,274-pound weight of this Touring model.
This front-wheel-drive crossover (no AWD offered) has MacPherson struts and independent multi-link suspensions, front to rear. Niro has a spot-on motor-driven power steering and uses disc brakes all around. Everything works to the point of not needing to discuss the chassis further, other than to say that the Niro handles nicely on back roads, is easy to park and can make a full turn on most city streets. Niro’s Touring model has the largest wheel-tire combo in the lineup with its Michelin 225/45R 18-inch rubber mounted on spiral-look twinned five-spoke alloy rims.
Visiting a photographer friend on the first night outside Santa Barbara, we did a walk-around of the Niro and decided the aesthetics were definitely pleasing to our eyes. We both like the simplicity of line, with Niro’s tautly drawn front end, capped by a black grille and matte silver finishing touches around the fog lights. Chrome-look surrounds to the windows, a light, lower-body plastic strip to stop door dings and an indented side strake dominate the side view, which is capped by black plastic atop the wheel arches and at the base of the Niro and matte-look roof rails atop. The rear polished black rear wing, more strakes at the rear and high tail lamps make for integrated physical properties.
Inside Niro is just as to-the-point. The gauge cluster is definitely different, featuring efficiency information to the left, with a gauge that indicates whether the driver is charging the car, driving in “eco” mode or on the power. There is a blue battery gauge atop this part of the info area, while the fuel gauge lies below. At the center of the gauge cluster are various forms of information including outside temp with the speedometer at the right of the cluster. One can access energy flow, average fuel economy, vehicle settings and lane departure programs in the middle of the gauge array.
The Kia Niro Touring’s central stack does its work capably, furnishing the driver with an eight-inch touchscreen that can be split or used singularly for navigation, music and the rear camera display as part of Kia’s UVO eServices infotainment system. Below are heating, air conditioning, audio through the Harman Kardon premium sound system that features both Apple CarPlay and AndroidAuto. SiriusXM has a three-month grace period. At the base of the central stack are two 12-volts, one USB and a single auxiliary plug atop a grippy open surface.
The tilt/telescope steering wheel on this 2017 Kia Niro Touring has audio and phone controls to the left, together with cruise control and information on the right. One can ratchet up and down on the info system easily to find specific data necessary for the drive.
In the central tunnel lie controls for heated and cooled front seats and steering wheel heater. The driver’s seat has full power controls including lumbar and two memories; the front-seat passenger’s seat is manual but does have a seat height adjustment, unusual for this class of car. Kia did go a bit cheap on the inside rearview mirror – no power operation – but it really isn’t missed. Seats are exceptionally comfortable and offer supreme support; even though I suffered from sciatica on this trip, I was relatively comfy throughout the grueling 7-hour drive back to Long Beach.
Passengers in the rear are treated to air flow and a 115-V power outlet. There are pockets in both front seatbacks for storage and a pull-down armrest offers beverage holders. The rear seat has a 60/40 fold to accommodate luggage; there is a cover for the hatch area, together with excellent privacy glass. No spare tire but plenty of storage below the floor to hide just about anything. There’s 22 cubic feet with the rear seats up and 54.5 cubic feet with both rear seats down. All in all it’s better than acceptable space.
Kia priced the 2017 Niro Touring at $30,545 including freight. To this it adds an Advanced Technology Package of HID headlights, autonomous emergency braking, forward collision waring and lane departure warning, along with smart cruise control, that rear-seat 115-volt inverter and wireless phone charger. It also bills for carpeted floor mats, bringing the total to $32,575. There’s no extra charge for the two-way, one-touch sunroof, for pushbutton start with the smart key, blind-spot detection and front/rear parking assist, all included in the list price. Right now Kia is making deals on Niro – I’d definitely check them out.
Pairing the phone was easy, figuring out how to work all infotainment systems was the same, as was turning off many of the ‘nannies’ installed as options. The moment one’s iPhone is attached, the system immediately goes to Apple CarPlay, even if the objective is to charge the phone.
The richness of this interior can’t be overstated; all functions are understated and simple to achieve and fitment is superb, with plenty of soft-touch plastics. While Kia does have a fuel release there is none for the hatch, which operates through a touchpad and is simple to reach. Outside mirrors fold on lock and revert to position when the fob is close to the car. The driver’s seat slides back a bit on entry/egress, another rich touch.
Kia’s use of the touchscreen is coupled with hard buttons. It was interesting to see the Niro’s stashing of energy for the intended climb up the Grapevine on the route home as it anticipated energy use through GPS. While screen response isn’t instantaneous it is about average for vehicles in its emerging class. Niro’s ability to use voice recognition and furnish real-time traffic is a plus in the marketplace.
As one who regularly drives hybrid vehicles, I was ready for the lack of pure acceleration and the need to drive by momentum. The 2017 Kia Niro Touring could have a bit more power, but that would nullify its intention, to be the kind of hybrid a non-hybrid buyer might choose. It definitely fulfills that last objective exceptionally well. It’s definitely easy on the wallet (once the initial investment is made) without looking like a hair-shirt vehicle, or feeling like one.
If this is the way the hybrid market is trending, it should be a happy mating for hybrid buyers who would usually never select a hybrid and the 2017 Kia Niro Touring.
Words and Photos By Anne Proffit