New Car Review

Kia Niro: First Look

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author photo by Doug DeMuro November 2015

If you've shopped for a fuel-efficient car in recent years, you've undoubtedly heard of the Toyota Prius and the Honda Insight -- two of the most popular dedicated hybrid models that offer no traditional gasoline-powered option. Some drivers may also know of others, such as the Ford C-MAX and Honda CR-Z. And now, there's a new dedicated hybrid poised to enter the market: the Kia Niro.

Billed as a hybrid utility vehicle by Kia, the Niro intends to combine the practicality of a small crossover with the fuel efficiency of a hybrid car. Although the Niro won't be officially unveiled until early next year, we had the chance to spend some time behind the wheel of a pre-production model -- and here's what we think.

What Is It?

That's a good question. When we arrived at Kia's Namyang research and development center in South Korea, we were told we'd be getting a sneak peek at Kia's first-ever dedicated hybrid -- so we thought we'd be seeing a rival to the Toyota Prius. Instead, the Niro turned out to be a compact crossover, similar in size to a Mazda CX-3 or Honda HR-V (but smaller than Kia's own Sportage).

With that said -- and despite Kia's billing of the Niro as a hybrid utility vehicle -- we're not sure if the Niro really qualifies as a crossover since it won't offer all-wheel drive. Instead, you might be inclined to think of the Niro as a Prius rival that's shorter in overall length but taller in height, offering a more imposing view of the road but a slightly smaller passenger compartment.

On the styling front, we're impressed with the Niro. Much like other recent Kia models, the Niro touts many modern, attractive design touches that contribute to an overall look that's clean and smooth. It won't stand out, but it'll never be called ugly, either. Inside, the Niro is slightly more upscale than other compact Kia models -- though its interior seems about average for the class in terms of fit and finish and overall quality. We'd like to show you photos, but Kia confiscated our phones and cameras upon arrival at Namyang, insisting that no pictures of the Niro should surface until the car's debut early next year.

Excellent Drive

Now that describing the Niro is out of the way, time to focus on the important stuff -- such as how it drives. To that end, we're happy to report that the Niro has a lot going for it.

One huge benefit is its transmission. While most hybrids use a fuel-saving continuously variable automatic, the Niro instead boasts a surprisingly smooth dual-clutch automatic. The result is a sportier feel than most hybrid rivals, especially when the car is placed in Sport mode. We also loved the Niro's regenerative brakes, which are among the smoothest we've ever tested -- and we felt the Niro's handling was stable, secure and (for a compact crossover) surprisingly quick.

As for engine power, the Niro is -- unsurprisingly -- not exactly a sports car. Although Kia wouldn't give us the total horsepower rating for the Niro's 1.6-liter hybrid engine, we suspect it'll be somewhere in the range of 120 hp to 140 hp. That's certainly adequate for most drivers, but not really athletic. Still, it's enough to make the Niro feel noticeably faster than any version of the current Toyota Prius.

In terms of the Niro's driving experience, perhaps the only drawback was its firm ride. Despite the Niro's hybrid utility vehicle status, we could feel every bump and pavement imperfection as if we were driving a sports car. Kia, which says the Niro is not yet production-ready, took down our complaint and says it might adjust the suspension for an improved ride before the Niro reaches dealers.

The All-Important Question: Fuel Economy

Given that the Niro is a hybrid, the biggest question most drivers will have likely relates to fuel economy. In that sense, we're impressed with the Niro: We were able to return between 44 miles per gallon and 46 mpg on Korean country roads, which are littered with speed bumps and areas with constantly changing speed limits. Given this observation, we believe Kia when it says the Niro should have no trouble hitting 50 mpg under the right circumstances -- about the same gas mileage you'll get in a Prius.

Although we don't have any complaints about the Niro's fuel economy, we do have one gripe with its packaging: We think a true utility vehicle should offer all-wheel drive (AWD). While the addition of available AWD would undoubtedly hurt fuel economy, it would help sell us on the point that the Niro really is a utility vehicle, not just a hatchback with a few extra inches of ground clearance.

Our Take

Small SUVs are popular. Hybrid cars are popular. For some reason, few manufacturers have thought to combine the two until the Kia Niro. While the Ford Escape Hybrid was killed off a few years ago and the upcoming Toyota RAV4 Hybrid will likely be little more than a RAV4 with a hybrid powertrain, the Niro is a totally new compact crossover with SUVlike ground clearance, Prius-like fuel economy and an impressive powertrain. Although pricing -- and, frankly, gas prices -- could make or break the Niro, we like what we see. We're excited to try out the production-ready Niro as it inches closer to going on sale, likely sometime in mid- to late 2016.

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This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
Kia Niro: First Look - Autotrader