The Kia Niro Hybrid crossover is now in production. Boatloads of them are on their way to American shores and will be in showrooms on the East Coast early in the new year. They will be available nationwide soon afterwards. If you are in the market for a crossover SUV, you should put the Kia Niro Hybrid on your shopping list.
Full disclosure time. I have just returned from a two day ride and drive event hosted by Kia in San Antonio. The company wined and dined a group of automotive journalists — they apparently believed I was one of them — before turning us loose in a fleet of Kia Niro Hybids on the twisty back roads that crisscross Texas hill country north of the city. So you could be excused for thinking I am going to say nice things about their car in order to pay them back for their generosity. But I am not. I am going to say nice things about the Kia Niro Hybrid because it is a damn good car!
To start with, the Niro has what I consider to be the best styling of any compact crossover on the market. They say people buy on emotion and justify their decision later with facts. The Niro is an emotional car. When I arrived at my hotel Wednesday night, there was a white SUV parked near the entrance. I didn’t know what it was at the time but I thought to myself, “Wow. That is a good looking vehicle.” It was only later I found out it was a Kia Niro.
This is a crossover that has visual impact. The proportions are just right. The wheel arches are just right. The hood is carefully sculpted. The slope of the roof is perfect. If the badges were removed and someone told you it was a new car from Mercedes, you wouldn’t question it. In my opinion — which is worth precisely what you paid for it — the Hyundai/Kai twins have the best automotive styling on the road. Everything they make looks expensive even if it isn’t.
The Hyundai Sonata started the whole creased sheet metal rising along the flanks of the car look a few years back. Now everyone including Mercedes is copying it. Stylists are trying to outdo each other with extreme designs that feature two, three, or even four creases that seem to be in competition with each other. The current Toyota Prius is a perfect example. It hurts my eyes to look at the car. (Guess I won’t be getting invited to any Toyota press events in the near future.) The Kia Niro has a crease along the side but it is subtle, not shrill.
Inside, the Kia Niro Hybrid looks and acts like a normal crossover SUV. There is a central touchscreen but unlike the Prius it does not force the driver to constantly watch electrons flowing this way and that. Instead, there is a meter in the instrument cluster that keeps track of when the battery is being charged. The 1.56 kWh battery is located under the rear seat and requires no compromises in passenger comfort. The rear seats fold flat just the way people who want a crossover like them to. Headroom and legroom are generous even though the front seats sit about 40 millimeters higher than they would in a conventional sedan. The seats themselves are comfortable and supportive.
One feature of the Kia Hybrid I found particularly pleasant was the 6 speed dual clutch transmission. I owned a Prius some years ago. I drove it for 85,000 miles and loathed the drone of its CVT transmission the whole time. The Kia offers two shifting modes — Eco and Sport. In Eco, the car drives like, well, a normal car. It’s not slow; it’s not fast. It’s perfectly fine for everyday driving and the driver gets the satisfaction of hearing and feeling actual gear changes. Slide the gearhift into Sport mode, though, and the car is transformed. Where before it motored gently away from traffic lights, now it feels eager to find some hills and curves so it can strut its stuff. It’s exhilarating in a “Hey, this is fun!” kind of way.
So what’s the take away from all this? The Kia Niro Hybrid is stylish, roomy, and fun to drive. It is a crossover SUV, which just happens to be a segment of the new car market that is white hot. Am I missing anything? Oh, wait. I haven’t said anything about the hybrid part of the equation yet. That’s because the car is so normal, it’s easy to forget it is also one of the most fuel efficient cars you can buy.
In FE trim, the Niro Hybrid is rated 51 mpg combined. In EX configuration, which adds push-to-start and a few other amenities, mileage is still a nearly unbelievable 50 mpg combined. Those are seriously good numbers. The other good news is the Kia Niro Hybrid starts at around $22,000. Fully loaded, it will sell for about $32,000. Final pricing has not yet been determined, but those numbers give you an idea what to expect. By way of comparison, the Honda CR-V starts at $23,845 with a CVT transmission.
Orth Hedrick, Kia’s vice president for product planning, told me during my visit to San Antonio that the company’s philosophy for the Niro was to make it an attractive, practical crossover SUV that also happens to get great gas mileage. If that was the target, the Kia Niro Hybrid scores a direct hit.
Photos by the author.