by Frank A. Aukofer

Though not quite like the Big Bang, the all-new 2017 Kia Niro, a gasoline-electric hybrid, expands the idea of what it means to be a crossover sport utility vehicle in this modern era.

It enters the fray in the current hottest sales segment of the market: small and compact crossovers, which are taking over from compact and midsize sedans mainly because of their more useful cargo carrying capability and higher seating position to see over traffic.

You could argue that it’s unique. The Niro is smaller than the compact leaders, including the Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4, Ford Escape, and Nissan Rogue. It’s also smaller than its Korean cousins, the Hyundai Tucson and Kia Sportage.

2017 Niro - Red

But it is marginally bigger than the Mazda CX-3, Buick Encore, Honda HR-V, Chevrolet Trax and two newly-announced 2018 entries, the Ford EcoSport and Toyota C-HR.

As a dedicated hybrid, the Niro competes against the Nissan Rogue Hybrid and the Toyota RAV4 Hybrid, and handily beats both on fuel economy. But it has one major shortcoming: It is not available with all-wheel drive, as are all the others except for the smaller Toyota C-HR, which also only comes with front-wheel drive.

Because it was designed and built on a dedicated front-drive hybrid platform, the Niro is stuck; it will not add all-wheel drive later. But that should not be a major liability. Except for the foulest weather areas of the country, its front-drive should manage just fine.

2017 Niro - Red

Although it competes in the small and compact crossover class, Kia representatives believe it could steal some thunder from the best-selling hybrid in history, the Toyota Prius. The standard Prius is a hatchback, not a crossover, but it only uses front-wheel drive. However, it also offers variants that include a station wagon and a plug-in model called the Prius Prime.

The Niro’s strong suits are fuel economy, quality, refinement and feel, decent performance, comfortable ride, competitive price, and attractive exterior and interior styling. It also will add a plug-in hybrid model later.

For now, it boasts exemplary fuel economy across the board. There are four trim levels: FE at $23,785; LX, $24,095; EX, $26,595, and the tested Touring, $30,545. The lightly-equipped base FE has the highest EPA city/highway/combined fuel consumption rating of 52/49/50 mpg while the LX and EX get 51/46/49 mpg and the features-laden Touring comes in at 46/40/43 mpg. (The larger RAV4 AWD gets 34/31/33 and the front-drive Rogue is rated at 33/35/34).

2017 Niro – Red

All Niro models come equipped with a 104-horsepower, 1.6-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine that works in concert with a 43-horspower electric motor. Combined, they deliver 139 horsepower and 195 pound-feet of torque.

Unusual in an era when continuously-variable automatic transmissions (CVTs) are proliferating, the Niro uses a dual-clutch six-speed automatic transmission. It was chosen, Kia representatives said, because it provides a traditional, familiar feel as it pauses for shifts between gears. CVTs have no shift points, although some use computer programming to mimic shifts.

The Niro’s transmission has selectable economy and sport modes. In the latter, the shifts are calibrated to occur at higher engine revolutions to improve acceleration. In the economy mode, stoplight sprints are leisurely, so some drivers may opt to use the sport mode exclusively. Of course, that reduces fuel economy. Take your choice.

2017 Niro - Red

The choice here is for the sport mode, which imparts a sprightly feel from stops and in freeway merging. An armchair estimate pegs the zero to 60 miles an hour acceleration time at eight to nine seconds. Once underway on the highway, it doesn’t matter which mode is selected. Either way, the Niro feels like a normal car; hybrid operation is seamless.

On the road, the Niro is a quiet, relaxing conveyance with quality and pleasant surroundings. There is little intrusion of mechanical, road or wind noise.

Interior passenger space totals 101 cubic feet, which is similar to a midsize sedan. Outboard back seats are nearly as roomy and comfortable as the front seats, though the center-rear position is compromised by a hard cushion and intrusion of the front console. There’s 19 cubic feet of space for cargo.

The tested Touring model came with a full suite of safety and infotainment features, including lane keeping assist, autonomous emergency braking, smart cruise control, wireless smart phone charging, and Apple Car Play and Android Auto.

Though not a banger, the Niro is a hero.

2017 Niro - Blue

Specifications

  • Model: 2017 Kia Niro Touring four-door hybrid crossover sport utility vehicle.
  • Engines:6-liter, 104 hp gasoline four-cylinder engine with 43 hp electric motor; combined 139 hp, 195 lb-ft torque.
  • Transmission: Six-speed dual-clutch automatic with sport mode and front-wheel drive.
  • Overall length: 14 feet 4 inches.
  • EPA passenger/cargo volume: 101/19 cubic feet.
  • Weight: 3,174 pounds.
  • EPA city/highway/combined fuel consumption: 46/40/43 mpg.
  • Base price, including destination charge: $30,545.
  • Price as tested: $32,445.

Disclaimer: This test drive was conducted at a manufacturer-sponsored press event. The manufacturer provided travel, accommodations, vehicles, meals and fuel.

2017 Niro

Photos (c) Kia