Although Kia didn't plan it this way, the company's first hybrid is hitting the market at a time when the future of such high mileage vehicles is up for grabs. Gas prices are still relatively low and President Donald Trump has promised to ease up on government efforts to force auto makers to greatly increase the mileage of their fleets in coming years.
Fortunately for Kia, the 2017 Niro hybrid should appeal to many buyers who aren't obsessing over the climate change debate. It is stylish, practical, comfortable and, with a starting price of just $22,890.
This is a remarkable, because, in the not-so-distant past, it was very expensive to mate an electric motor and battery pack to a gas engine. The so-called hybrid penalty usually meant that only committed environmentalists serious considered them. But the base Niro is very reasonably priced.
Kia is pitching the Niro as a crossover, but that's not entirely accurate. Although it looks like a compact SUV, it can't be ordered with all-wheel-drive. The same is true of Kia's quirky Soul. Both are really small wagons with a little additional ride height, giving their drivers a better view of the road.
Like the Soul, the Niro's boxy styling offers a number of benefits, including a surprising amount of interior space for a compact vehicle of any kind. That's true for both front and rear seat occupants. Cargo space is about the same as most compact crossovers, too.
Another selling point is how the Niro looks and drives, which is more or less like a normal car. There are no styling or control gimmicks that scream "I'm a hybrid!" Although a little slow off the line in Eco mode, it picks up speed quickly enough and the ride is very smooth and quiet over harsh pavement. The brakes feel normal, even though they are the regenerative kind that recharge the batteries.
One key to the Niro's success is the use of a six-speed dual clutch automatic transmission instead of the continuously variable kind found in most hybrids. Most drivers will feel it shifts more like a traditional car. We only detected an occasional shudder as the power switched for electric to gas at certain low speeds.
But the real reason for buying a hybrid is mileage, and here the Niro has already set a Guinness World Record — one got 76.6 mpg driving from coast-to-coast.
Of course, as they say in the ads, your mileage may vary. In fact, the Niro gets very different EPA mileage ratings, depending on the trim level. The highest is the 52 city/49 mpg highway for the stingy FE version. The LX and EX models get 51/46 mpg. That drops to 46/40 mpg for the fully-loaded Touring models, which come with around 170 pounds of extra equipment and wider tires.
Our test Niro was the Touring version, and while we enjoyed the power front seats, leather upholstery and eight-speaker Harman/Kardon stereo system, we think many buyers will be perfectly happy with the lower trim levels. They all come with a rearview camera and a 7.0-inch infotainment system with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity. Even mid-range models feature heated front seats, rear A/C vents, upgraded trim, adaptive cruise control and automated emergency braking and an available sunroof.
Regardless of future gas prices and the fate of the EPA's higher mileage standards, Kia says it is committed to green vehicles. The company already offers an all-electric version of the Soul. Plug-in hybrid and all-electric versions of the Niro are scheduled for later this year and 2018. And additional vehicles using such technologies are already in the works.
So even if mileage isn't your top priority, if you're in the market for a small but practical vehicle with a comfortable ride and a lot of standard and vailable features, the 2017 Kia Niro should be near the top of your shopping list.
2017 Kia Niro
Base price: $$22,890
Price as tested: $32,840
Type: Compact hatchback
Drivetrain: 1.6-liter 4, electric motor (139 hp, 195 lbs-ft)
Transmission: 6-speed dual clutch automatic
EPA estimated mileage: 40/46 (Touring) to 52/49 (FE)
Overall length: 171.5 inches
Curb weight: 3,106 to 3,274 pounds
Final assembly: Hwaseong, Korea