Purpose Built Hybrid – Going Where No Crossover Has Gone Before
Full Road Test Review Coming Soon!
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the word passé as (1) past one’s prime, and (2) outmoded or behind the times. Harsh to think that anyone or anything we have loved is considered to be fading into the sunset, but that is exactly what is happening to the venerable family sedan. The new kid on the block, which has been creeping up slowly over the past few years, is the crossover. Though they share similar underpinnings, the crossover has a taller ride height, more interior passenger and storage space and the option of all-wheel drive (AWD).
Kia asks you to eliminate the AWD trait from the list with its all-new front-wheel-drive-only 2017 Niro Hybrid. Clean Fleet Report was invited to the U.S. press launch of the Niro in San Antonio, Texas. We had the opportunity to meet Kia’s designers, planners, engineers and marketing team members that have been working on the Niro for the past several years. We also had the chance to drive the Niro on highways, country roads and city streets, in other words, exactly what you would be doing if you had a Niro.
This First Drive showed us that Kia has accomplished what they had set out to do more than five years ago: design from a blank sheet a purpose-built hybrid crossover. During our time traversing San Antonio and the Texas Hill Country we were impressed with the powertrain’s smooth operation. Torque for highway ramp sprints and passing 75+mph big rigs was easy and effortless, with acceleration better-than-adequate. The fun factor was built into the Niro, which showed up as an atypical hybrid drive experience.
The country and hilly terrain was easily matched with handling that was not top heavy and had low body roll or pushing (understeer) when cornering at speed. Others noted that the electric steering was tuned for good road feedback. Unlike some hybrids, the regenerative braking on the Niro required little pedal modulation and had excellent feel.
Design Philosophy: Design and Build a Dedicated Hybrid Crossover
One of the more fascinating aspects of the automobile industry is the art and science of long-range product planning. Get it right and the birds are singing and the air is sweet. Get it wrong and you may not have a job any more. Most new vehicles from the initial concept to finished product take about five years.
In the case of the Niro, Steve Kosowski, Long Range Strategy Manager at Kia, told Clean Fleet Report that the “origin of the Niro came from top management in Korea to create a dedicated hybrid”
that would be sold worldwide. The need was driven by fuel economy, pollution regulations and targeted sales goals. Because this took place circa 2012, management wanted a wedge-shaped car similar to the Toyota Prius, Chevrolet Volt or Honda Insight (discontinued in 2014.) Each of these cars got exceptional fuel economy aided by being slippery going through the wind, but also were polarizing with a shape only a Green Bay Packer fan could appreciate fully.
However, the design team in the U.S. didn’t want to go this direction and pushed for a new hybrid concept that might compromise a bit of fuel economy with more of a crossover-type vehicle. This car would stand out from the existing hybrid offerings, making a statement that Kia was thinking differently from the pack.
Michael Torpey, Principle Exterior Designer for Kia, explained that the all-new Niro was designed from the start to be a hybrid, so don’t expect there to be a gas-only version showing up anytime soon. There will be a plug-in model coming in late 2017, which will make this car even more appealing. With a clean slate from which to start, Kia was able to position the batteries and fuel tank where the suspension could be designed for maximum handling and ride comfort. The goal was to create a vehicle that was stylish (which it is), has excellent sight lines for the driver with a taller stance (which it does) and delivers outstanding fuel economy through hybrid technology, while not looking anything at all like a hybrid car. On this last point they hit a home run.
Through focus groups in Texas and California, Kia learned that car buyers embraced the hybrid concept, but did not want to own what was currently on the market. Kia said it softly, but Clean Fleet Report will be a bit bolder. The newly redesigned Toyota Prius is not up to everyone’s liking, which has given people pause when pushing the buy button.
Torpey went on to say that the Niro design was to be “aggressive, but not threatening,” and to “not look like a hybrid.” What strikes you immediately about the Niro design is how uncluttered it is, with sleek and curved surfaces contributing to a .29 drag coefficient (Cd). The Niro has a wide stance with a long wheelbase and short overhangs, placing the wheels at the far outside corners.
This is what makes the Kiro look so unlike a typical crossover, which are typically taller and boxier with sharper edges. The Niro has incorporated Kia’s signature tiger nose grill that runs edge-to-edge on the front end, leading to the swept back projection headlights (high-intensity headlights are an option), LED daytime running lights and fog lights in the bottom fascia. The side profile draws a nice line to the A pillars, leading to a gently sloping roof with rack rails, a shark fin antenna and an integrated black spoiler over the rear hatch window. The narrow horizontal LED taillights and smooth surfaced hatch finish off the attractive rear.
This would make it a hatchback, which it certainly isn’t, or maybe a station wagon. While Kia says the Niro is “a new kind of crossover” and may not like it being considered a station wagon, this is what Clean Fleet Report leans towards. The Niro is a high-stance, almost-crossover, or maybe a “cross-wagon”? Bottom line, it’s beautifully designed and gets up-to 52 mpg.
The All-new Hybrid Engine Design
Something special under the hood
The Niro carries an all-new and specifically engineered hybrid powertrain of a 1.6L gasoline engine and an AC synchronous permanent magnet motor, putting out a total of 139 horsepower and 195 pounds-feet of torque. Mated to a six-speed dual clutch transmission (DCT), the fuel economy is excellent. Kia toyed with the idea of the ever-more-popular continuously variable (CVT) transmission, but the low-end torque provided by their new engine design allowed them to eliminate the lowest gear, which saved cost, space and weight.
The hybrid system’s lithium-ion polymer (Li-Ion) battery is replenished through the regenerative charging system. This technology converts kinetic energy into electric energy and stores it in the battery when applying the brakes or coasting. This process can be viewed on a dash gauge, where you can watch the power flow into and out of the battery and electric motor.
There are three basic Niro models with the FE having an EPA fuel economy rating of 52 city/49 highway/50 combined. Opt for the higher optioned (i.e., heavier) models of LX and NX and the fuel economy numbers are 51/46/49. The wee bit lower numbers on the LX and NX are due to the larger wheels and tires and equipment that comes with each package. Regardless, this is the type of game-changing fuel economy that will make the Niro a hit with those who value leaving a lighter ecological footprint and really dislike stopping at gas stations.
Kia’s Design Philosophy: Interior
You quickly get a welcoming feeling when slipping into the Niro. Senior Interior Designer Brian Peterson delivered a spacious cabin with good sight lines, partially due to the 6.3-inch ground clearance. Sound deadening is very good with insulation and expanding foam placed throughout the vehicle’s structure, acoustic windshield glass, aerodynamically shaped exterior mirrors and even quieting technology designed into engine mounts, driveshafts and suspension bushings. All-in-all, it’s a quiet and comfortable place to spend time on longer road trips.
With an outlook on the road higher than a sedan, but not as high as a SUV —Kia crafted a comfortable compromise. The good seat support, including lumbar adjustment and a long seat track for taller drivers, helped in finding a comfortable seating position. The rear 60/40 split-folding rear seat has a center armrest with cup holders, and is best suited for two adults.
The center dash finds a seven- or eight—inch LCD touchscreen housing Kia’s UVO eServices infotainment system, which includes navigation. Depending on the trim level, an excellent Harman Kardon sound system with eight speakers is available for AM/FM/CD/MP3/AUX with Pandora, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. The Niro FE model offers a long list of convenience features that drivers want. Move into either the LX and NX and no convenience is left off the table.
Safety, Pricing and Warranties
An extensive list of standard safety features are available on the 2017 Kia Niro Hybrid, including seven airbags, four-wheel power disc ABS braking system, forward emergency braking, intelligent cruise control, blind spot monitoring, park assist with front and rear sensors, vehicle dynamic control, traction control, hill launch assist, tire pressure monitoring system, engine immobilizer, lane departure warning and rear cross traffic alert.
The 2017 Niro comes in five trim levels. MSRP for each without options or the $895 destination fee:
- FE $22,890
- LX $23,200
- EX $25,700
- Touring Launch Edition $28,000
- Touring $29,650
The 2017 Kia Niro Hybrid comes with these warranties:
- Powertrain – 10 years/100,000 miles
- Battery – 10 years/150,000 miles (CA, OR, WA, NY, CT, DE, ME, MA, NJ, PA, RI, VT)
- Battery – 10 years/100,000 miles (remaining states)
- Basic – Five years/60,000 miles
- Roadside Assistance – Five years/Unlimited miles
- Corrosion – 10 years/Unlimited miles
Observations: 2017 Kia Niro Hybrid
Clean Fleet Report will provide a more in-depth review after we have had the opportunity to get a few hundred miles of seat time in the 2017 Kia Niro Hybrid. Until then, this First Drive showed us that Kia has accomplished what they had set out to do more than five years ago: design from a blank sheet a purpose-built hybrid “crossover.”
The compact crossover segment is extremely competitive—and becoming more so every model year. The hybrid segment only had one manufacturer in this space a few short years ago (Lexus) and now there had better be a pretty good reason why a car company isn’t selling one. Toyota and Nissan have launched hybrid versions of their existing compact crossovers and more are expected from other manufacturers. But combining a hybrid and a unique compact crossover/station wagon/hatchback shoppers will notice was Kia’s goal. They met the challenge quite nicely.
The 2017 Kia Niro Hybrid is in dealerships now, so go take a test drive and see for yourself how it is possible to get at or above 50 mpg in a well-built, attractively designed, comfortable to drive compact crossover, station wagon or whatever you want to call it.
Whatever you buy, Happy Driving!
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Clean Fleet Report is loaned free test vehicles from automakers to evaluate, typically for a week at a time. Our road tests are based on this one-week drive of a new vehicle. Because of this we don’t address issues such as long-term reliability or total cost of ownership. In addition we are often invited to manufacturer events highlighting new vehicles or technology. As part of these events we may be offered free transportation, lodging or meals. We do our best to present our unvarnished evaluations of vehicles and news irrespective of these inducements.
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