As Kia’s first dedicated hybrid, the Niro blends very good fuel economy, sporty intentions, and crossover styling.

Proof that it hits a sweet spot is best shown by how many people are buying them, and thus far the 43-50 mpg compact crossover has surpassed three dozen entries in the U.S. hybrid market to fourth-best-seller through September.

Available in five trims, the base FE, LX, EX, Launch Edition Touring and Touring, they all borrow the 1.6-liter hybrid powertrain from sister company Hyundai’s also-new Ioniq Hybrid. The Niro however hides its super fuel-sipping sister’s powertrain in what Kia calls an “un-hybrid.”

All versions of the semi-athletic hatchback that the U.S. EPA anachronistically classifies as a “small station wagon” are propelled by the front wheels, with all-wheel-drive unavailable, and for its part, Kia describes it as a crossover.

And why not? There’s no universally accepted definition of “crossover,” but the implication is the Niro is more hip than a type of car that went out of vogue in the 90s.

Although lacking AWD which some say is a prerequisite, Kia does price it from a modest $23,000-level, while promising fuel economy and driving fun that make for a unique vehicle.

Let’s take a closer look.

‘Urban Crossover Hybrid Vehicle’

The Niro’s exterior and interior design shuns hybrid pretenses by avoiding a techy or pseudo-futuristic impression, instead tapping into a present day psychographic nerve.

Dimensions: Length: 171.5 inches; width: 71.1 inches; height: 60.4 inches (w/o rails or add 0.4 inches with); wheelbase (106.3 inches). Luggage capacity, rear seats upright, with luggage under tray: 19.4 cubic feet; Luggage capacity, rear seats folded with luggage under tray: 54.5; Luggage capacity, passenger volume: 97.1 cubic feet.

While the more-efficient new Toyota Prius is suffering its worst sales since 2004, in part due to the styling, Kia’s Korean product designers took input from California – not odd vibes from Japan – for a car that absolutely nails a trend in the U.S.

In short, Americans want crossovers and the Niro – AKA “Urban Crossover Hybrid Vehicle” – is stylized with overtones of just that with a long-enough 106.3-inch wheelbase, and wide and low presence. The car is also useful, with small SUV-ish body height, and respectable interior room.

As mentioned, lacking is AWD which has become a must-have on some peoples’ shopping lists. Kia says it wanted to max the fuel efficiency, but if it had contrived an electric motor drive in back like Toyota sells with its hybrid SUVs – or Japan-market Prius – it could have sacrificed little or no mpg.

For now that is not in the cards, and meanwhile the Niro’s style is winning hearts and minds thanks in no small part to its excellent hybrid powertrain.

Go Power

Further making it unlike other crossovers is the 40-percent thermally efficient 1.6-liter GDI Atkinson cycle engine paired with electric motor and merged with a six-speed dual clutch automatic transmission.

The Atkinson cycle hybrid setup is typical for hybrids but not typical is the dual clutch automatic transmission. The usual recipe for hybrids is some form of continuously variable tranny. gratifyingly to some, Kia – and Hyundai – have an institutional aversion to CVTs which while giving incrementally better fuel economy, do provide a different drive experience.

Total power is 139 horsepower, 195 pounds feet. The engine has 104 horses at 5,700 rpm, and 109 pounds feet of torque at 4,000 rpm. The motor contributes 43 horses and 125 pounds feet. Why don’t the horsepower and torque numbers from the motor and engine add to 139 and 195? Because they hit peaks at different operating speeds, so the net is less than the sum of the two peaks. A plug-in hybrid Niro version is also pending.

CVTs have infinitely variable ratios and thus the engine will rev and sound like a motor boat, lacking the distinct sound of stepped gear changes.

The DCT is thus a bone thrown to driving enthusiasts who like the “normal” soundtrack, and power delivery, but concessions for the environmentalist are there as well.

Namely, the powertrain when equipped in the Hyundai Ioniq beats the new Prius Liftback by a couple mpg and matches it with superlative efficiency specs and also makes for a chart topping “crossover.”

When the Ioniq’s powertrain is transplanted into the Niro – that weighs 3,100-3,300 pounds but which is less slippery than the teardrop Ioniq – fuel usage does suffer by as much as 15 mpg at the extremes, but it’s not a bad compromise.

The different Niro trims do achieve a disparity in mpg however. The base FE is rated 52 city/49 highway/50 combined, the LX and EV are rated 51 city/46 highway/49 combined, and Touring Launch and Touring (as driven) are rated 46/40/43. The Touring and Touring Launch Edition are rated 43 mpg due to extra weight, roof rails, and bigger tires.

By contrast Toyota’s RAV4 Hybrid, although AWD, gets a just-OK 32 mpg. Enthusiasts are hoping Honda’s CRV-Hybrid if/when it gets here could get near 40, but meanwhile you have this awesome Niro.


A functional “normal” looking interior layout also adds to the distancing of the Niro from techno-futuristic electrified vehicles.

Buttons and knobs logically positioned make for a comfortable experience as do firm but well shaped seats, good sight lines, and enough legroom for most front and back.

A seven-inch touchscreen comes in lower trims and the eight-incher in the upper level works well, and provides the usual bevy of infotainment, efficient data, nav functions, and even Kia’s UVO3, Apple Carplay or Android Auto.

And, let’s not forget the optional driver assistance features that are becoming the new normal as cars evolve (the plan is ultimately they’ll all drive themselves, but meanwhile advanced safety just tries to help).

2017 Niro – Blue

Within a high-strength steel cage and adding to seven airbags are available Autonomous Emergency Braking (AEB), Blind Spot Detection (BSD), Rear Cross Traffic Alert (RCTA), Lane Change Assist (LCA) and Lane Departure Warning (LDW).

Drive Experience

Quiet running thanks to acoustic glass and sound deadening in the A and B pillars and elsewhere, the car picks up speed nicely, and after driving it back to back with a Prius, its extra oomph is noticeable.

Zero to 60 can be in the middle 8-second range or low 9s – better than over-10 for a Prius – and in the Niro handles nicely enough (but then again, so does the new Prius).

Our Touring with 18-inch alloy wheels and wider tires instead of the 16s on the FE, LX and EX also added to the grip, and braking capability.

The 10-way power adjustable seat for the driver with height adjuster and two-way power lumbar support provided adequate support, and the car is all-day comfortable.

Infotainment functions work as expected, and the Nav is easy enough to work as well.

As for the all-important fuel economy, the U.S. EPA may be the most accurate estimates in the world – far better than what regulators estimate in Europe, Japan, and elsewhere – and the Touring is good for th 43 mpg it’s estimated for. We’ve heard the 50 mpg FE and 49 mpg LX and EX are also reasonably estimated.

Take care driving, and you can exceed the official estimates. Drive over the limit, and don’t work with the hybrid system’s strengths, and you’ll get worse.

All told, the Niro is very easy to get accustomed to.

The Crossover Hybrid for You?

Pricing including $895 destination fee is as follows: FE: $23,785; LX: $24,095; EX: $26,595; Touring Launch: $28,895; Touring: $30,545.

Through September, Americans have purchased 20,670 Niros compared to the class-leading RAV4 Hybrid with 36,352 sales. So far we’ve not been able to get sales info on the Nissan Rogue Hybrid, but it should be a competitive model too, but of these, the Niro far outclasses them in mpg, while being a smaller car than the AWD crossover SUVs.

Amazingly, it is the fourth best-seller among all hybrids with along with the RAV4, only the Ford Fusion Hybrid (44,677) and Toyota Prius (50,911) exceeding it.

We would like it more if they made an AWD option, but find it otherwise hard to fault. Kia (and Hyundai) are really improving their hybrid game as they aim to be second behind Toyota in sales by decade’s end.

A plug-in hybrid version on the horizon with maybe 27 miles range or so ought also to build on this model’s strengths.

In all, the Niro shows how well an aspiring maker can move up, as the established flagship Prius suffers relatively in part for the same reason the Niro succeeds: design.

The Niro’s fuel economy, price, style and utility make it a strong contender, and certainly worth a closer look.