Automakers are getting tugged in two different directions these days. Cheap gas prices have consumers snatching up every high-riding utility vehicle there is, yet fuel economy standards are getting stricter by the year. The only solution seems to be a crossover with efficiency specs of a Prius and road character of a Rogue. Enter the 2017 Kia Niro, the all-new-from-ground-up hybrid that offers 50 miles per gallon with the goods CUV consumers crave.
At first glance, Kia seems to have checked off all these boxes with the Niro that debuted at the Chicago Auto Show. It delivers the clearance U.S. consumers are preferring when compared to sedan height, showcases a wide stance that provides interior comfort, and nails economy in a way no other crossover has to date. (Excluding electric vehicles, only the Toyota Prius has been able to cross the threshold of 50 combined miles per gallon.)
Kia went about achieving the high economy specs by developing Niro as a pure hybrid crossover. Much like we saw with the Ford C-MAX or Prius, there will be no gasoline model. We will, however, see a plug-in hybrid EV down the road. In that respect, Kia’s bet on sporty, economical models will run parallel to parent-company Hyundai’s with the Ioniq triple-threat.
In fact, Ioniq and Niro share a 1.6-liter, four-cylinder engine and six-speed dual-clutch transmission. Kia’s crossover combines that small power source with a “transmission-mounted electric device” to offer a total 146 horsepower and 195 pound-feet of torque through the front wheels. Its battery pack sits underneath the rear seats.
With hybrids struggling in an era of staggeringly low gas prices, fuel economy is clearly only one part of the battle for automakers. Kia acknowledges this issue with an emphasis on the Niro’s driving experience, powertrain innovations, and (perhaps most importantly) “un-hybrid design.” By that, the automaker is suggesting this crossover has the looks and road feel that will make you forget you’ve got the efficiency of a Prius working on your behalf.
Moving the camera back for a wider look, Niro represents Kia’s third entry in its “Green Car Roadmap” that began with the Optima hybrid and continued with the Kia Soul EV. As the company continues growing its U.S. market share, it appears any questions about compliance with economy standards will be answered with this line.
But will the Niro be a hit? Automakers can offer the moon, but it has to come at a reasonable price when it rolls into dealerships. There is no four-wheel drive to pull away Subaru lovers, but at the size of a Nissan Rogue (106-inch wheelbase) and impressive economy specs, we can see it gaining traction in California and other coastal markets.
For comparisons, the smaller Sportage gained 25% in 2015 while the larger Sorrento gained 13%. Slot in the Niro in between and there are going to be plenty of takers if the price is right.