Unveiled at the 2016 Chicago Auto Show: The 2017 Kia Niro, a Prius-killer

I have long believed that Prius has locked up the small hybrid sedan/compact hybrid SUV market (CUV), and competitors have been slow to take it on.  Over the past few years, people on a budget who needed space for stuff and hybrid economy have not much to choose from.

Once upon a time Ford offered the Escape Hybrid, a roomy little front-wheel-drive sport ute that could hide a fair amount of people and cargo.  Ford shuttered that line in the 2012 model year, leaving a gap in the market.  They may have seen the C-Max Hybrid as the Escape’s natural successor, but buyers have been slow to come around to that thinking.

Absent viable alternatives, people have been left to buy largest Prius they could afford; which is the Prius V Five.  The Five has a cargo area a little smaller than that of a CUV, but larger than a sedan.  But the Prius V Five isn’t an SUV.  The Five is also stricken by the thing I most despise in a Prius.  It looks like a Prius.  For marketers, a unique shape is branding.  Witness the VW Beetle or the Chevrolet Corvette. The Prius has executed on that, consistently refreshing a look that is as unique as the VW Beetle, or a Corvette.

If only the Prius were as “photogenic” as the VW or Chevy.

So I was excited a few weeks ago when I read a press release on the upcoming reveal of the hybrid-only 2017 Kia Niro at the 2016 Chicago Auto Show.  I was excited about the prospect of a good looking, hybrid-only choice in the CUV market.

When I finally saw it, excitement turned to enthusiasm.


The 2017 Kia Niro, revealed at the 2016 Chicago Auto Show.

The 2017 Kia Niro, revealed at the 2016 Chicago Auto Show.


The Kia Niro looks like a CUV, plain and simple.  It is a better looking vehicle as well.  The Niro is not trying to look like it comes from a future where we care about trees.  It looks like it is from a future where we want to drive something that looks normal while simultaneously caring about trees.

The 2017 Kia Niro makes a statement without having to.

The Kia Niro is a candidate to be a legitimate Prius-killer.  Put the two side-by-side, and which wins in terms of looks?  Niro.



But, as your loved ones will attest, looks are not everything. So let’s focus on what lies inside the 2017 Kia Niro, with a little help from the fine people of Kia.

Motivating the Niro is a highly efficient and engaging powertrain starting with an all-new, state-of-the-art Kappa 1.6-liter GDI four-cylinder engine, engineered specifically for hybrid applications. Making 103 horsepower, the new engine marks the first combination of the Atkinson Cycle, cooled exhaust gas recirculation (EGR), GDI and a long-stroke-narrow-bore specification to maximize efficiency2. Efficiency and emissions are further improved via the Niro’s exhaust heat recovery system, which speeds engine warm-up by routing coolant to a heat exchanger in the exhaust system. A 43-hp tractive motor, known as the transmission-mounted electric device (TMED), works in tandem with the gasoline engine to produce a robust 146 horsepower and 195 lb.-ft. of torque.

 

Power is delivered to the front wheels via a 6-speed automatic dual clutch transmission (DCT).  DCT provides a real-world driving experience not found in hybrids with continuous variable transmission (CVT).  CVTs feel sluggish, even at speeds and acceleration points where it should be peppy.

The Niro’s powertrain is enough to provide confidence when you need to out of trouble.  It is also enough for “spirited driving”–what some of us will tell the police before receiving a ticket.

Since the Niro is a hybrid-only vehicle, Kia engineers had an opportunity to address some of the nagging problems that accompany some hybrids.  If you own a Prius, you already know that the car is at one with the road.  Because you can hear every little thing going on around.  Road noise.  Bumps.  Vibrations. Et al.  The Niro is quieter, thanks to clever placement of insulation, better windshield glass design, new engine mounts, driveshafts and a special vibration damper in the shaft of the steering wheel.

The braking experience is better in the Niro.  Some hybrid owners complain about the “grab” when they move from accelerator to brake, a sign of the battery recovering power through brake friction.  Applying lessons learned from Optima Hybrid and Soul EV owners, the Niro should provide a more natural deceleration and braking feel.

The Niro is full of today’s best technology as well.  The vehicle keeps you safe with Blind-spot Detection, Rear Cross-traffic Alert, Lane Change Assistant, Lane Departure warnings, Smart Cruise Control, and Autonomous Emergency Braking.  Many of these features appear on a drivers-side Heads-up Display.

The Niro keeps you entertained with Bluetooth, an 8GB media drive, Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, and wi-fi tethering.

Kia had no pricing available at the time of the reveal.  I’d be willing to bet that it will come in around $18-$24k; more expensive than a Kia Forte 5-door, around the same price as a Kia Sportage, with a little room to recoup the costs for bringing a new green vehicle to market.

The 20147 Kia Niro.  It could really be a Prius-killer.

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Copyright 2016 Hybrid and Electric Car News

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Sebastian James

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