In high school, I went to a small, local technical school for automotive sciences and technology. Classes were in a garage adjacent to the main high school of about 2,000 kids, and being a small town in a small state in New England, we didn’t have access to the kinds of top-shelf automotive experiences that the larger schools out west were blessed with.
There was a littering of pamphlets around the place from larger automotive tech institutions that bragged about the kind of exposure their students got. “Our students wrench on Dodge Vipers, Ford Mustang GTs, and so can you,” they would say in so many words, accompanied by pictures of pimply teenagers in starched uniforms wrenching, sure enough, on a new Viper.
This isn’t all that uncommon. Many pre-production units that can’t be sold to the public are either crushed or donated to tech schools where they’ll never actually see any open tarmac. But our school didn’t have a Viper, or a Mustang. We had a 1988 Hyundai Excel that hadn’t been driven since, well, probably 1988.
For those unaware, the Excel was the first car that Hyundai
cursed blessed the shores of North America with. Penned by none other than Giorgetto Giugiaro, the Excel promised — as has since been Hyundai’s core tenet — more value for less. It immediately found some early success, but as the models started to age, it was apparent that the idea and the execution weren’t mutually exclusive.
It’s hard to put into words what an epic penalty box the Hyundai Excel was, but in his review of the new Genesis G90, Automobile Magazine’s Arthur St. Antoine comes pretty close:
Turn the clock way, way back to 1985, and you’ll see me seated behind the wheel of the South Korean maker’s first entry into the U.S. market, the ultra-budget Excel. I headed out to my usual test loop, ran the 1.5-liter four-cylinder up and down the tachometer a few times, noted a distinct lack of enthusiasm and refinement from the wheezing 68 horses under my right foot, then reached to adjust the cabin-air fan.
The knob fell off in my hand.
Incredibly, that original Excel—one of the low points among the cars I drove in the 1980s—did gonzo business in its first year. Buyers flocked to dealerships, drawn like stampeding Black Friday shoppers to Walmart by the $4,995 sticker price—which back then significantly undercut even such econo-warts as the Chevy Chevette. But then knobs started falling off in their hands, too—and Hyundai, after that auspicious first year, suddenly became the favorite target of everyone from auto reviewers like myself to late-night TV comedians.
Like St. Antoine’s experience with the G90, I’m having trouble reconciling the car sitting in front of me (a 2017 Kia Niro in snow white pearl) with my high school days of wrenching on an ’88 Excel. Although Kia operates independently from sister company Hyundai in the United States (the two compete with each other as they would any other automaker), Kia’s story is similar. A brand that once got by selling Rios, Spectras, and Sephias is now moving vehicles in the $70,000 range that can match or best the world’s finest in virtually every metric.
With the introduction of the Niro, Kia’s showing that it isn’t just able to run with the pack, but lead it as well.
In terms of size, the Niro will compete more with the Toyota Prius V and Honda HR-V, rather than the RAV4 hybrid and Nissan Rogue hybrid, which might seem like more natural competition. Although there will be some inevitable cross-shopping, the Niro has a lot to offer, event against its larger rivals. Built on a platform that’s comparable in size to the Forte, the Niro has a small, city-friendly footprint that feels manageable in virtually every scenario.
Although the Forte might conjure images of a cramped compact, the Niro is anything but — the interior is spacious, with gratuitous headroom, rear seat leg room, and passenger space (it’s virtually identical to the Prius V’s). There’s ample cargo room for a small family, as well, though this will likely be the deciding factor when cross-shopping its rivals.
The Niro packages its space well. Though it’s technically a crossover SUV, the Niro’s low stance and swept lines make it feel and appear more like a hatchback. “There are many things to like about hybrids, but usually styling isn’t one of them,” Niro designer Michael Torpey said at the introduction. Torpey’s mission was to assimilate hybrid efficiency into a familiar package that won’t alienate those who aren’t necessarily looking to make an eco-conscious statement with their vehicle.
Largely, the brand has succeeded there; the Niro has all the hallmarks of a modern Kia, including the tiger-snout grille, the Sportage-esque headlights, and the muscular lines that have come to define modern Kias, including the Optima, Sorento, and the 2017 Cadenza. If we had one qualm with the Niro’s styling, it would be that the rear end looks like it was cribbed from the 2017 Jeep Cherokee. Although Niro wears it well, the two (not intentionally, surely) look startlingly similar.
Our tester was a $30,545 (or so, after destination) Touring model. On its top-spec trim, Kia has decided to sacrifice some MPGs (43 combined versus 50 combined in FE trim, 49 in LX/EX trims) in the name of comfort and performance.
Some of that decline is due to the Touring’s heavier curb weight (3,300 pounds versus a base FE’s 3,060 once accounting for all the optional weight-adding doodads), but it’s mostly attributable to the larger 18-inch wheels wrapped in larger, wider rubber. This makes the Niro more savvy when the roads get twisty. Although we weren’t able to test the Touring against a lower trim level on our drive, the Niro does feel planted and at ease taking a sharp corner with little body roll and quick recovery on the exit.
In consistent highway cruising, the Niro is quiet and silky smooth. The 1.6-liter Atkinson-cycle engine does like to make itself heard when under duress on a steeper climb, but on the generously-speed limited highways of Texas, the Niro was quiet and seemed to largely rely on its electric motor to maintain velocity. This meant that my driving partner and I could have natural, hushed conversations as the speedometer crested 80 and beyond. Kia’s use of a six-speed dual-clutch automatic in place of a more hybrid-conventional CVT likely helped its case here immensely.
If that powertrain sounds familiar, it’s because the Niro uses the same ingredients for forward motion as the Hyundai Ioniq. Although it’s packaged as a Prius-like liftback under Hyundai’s flag, Kia’s spin on the platform leaves it looking, behaving, and feeling like a vastly different car.
Although it produces just 139 system horsepower and 195 pound-feet of torque, the Niro’s stellar drag coefficient of 0.29 makes it nice and slippery to help reduce the burden on the powertrain. The Tesla Model S, for comparison, boasts a drag coefficient of 0.24.
It’s safe to say that during our drive, we weren’t driving the Niro how 99% of its owners will. Despite our best efforts, the Kia still managed to return about 35 miles per gallon over the course of a day in mixed scenarios.
“But wait,” you might say. “Kia promises close to 50.” This is true. And if you’re driving in a mature fashion, you’ll have no issue meeting that figure — surpassing it, even. In a Guinness World Record-backed attempt, a Niro drove from Los Angeles to New York City using just over four tanks of fuel — averaging about 76 miles per gallon.
You probably won’t see numbers like that in routine commuting, but from behind the wheel, it’s apparent that the Niro is eager to be meager. A gauge encompassing the speedometer points to what mode you’re using in real-time — charging, powering, and so forth. It may not be made into a game like the new Prius’ EcoScore system, but it’s enough to make you well aware of your acceleration habits in your inevitable quest for maximum MPGs.
Inside, the Niro is immediately familiar to anyone who has spent time in a new Kia. Its latest UVO system is quick and responsive, and base models come equipped with a 7-inch touchscreen (and 8-inch screen is optional on Touring models). Despite its low outside profile, the Niro feels plenty roomy inside. If you have more than two kids and/or three dogs, you might want to explore other options. But for couples and young families, the Niro will be perfectly adequate for almost any everyday situation.
The seats were comfortable enough, though on the firm side. They were (thankfully) heated and ventilated, and the center console/dashboard are positioned in a way so that driver and passenger movement is unconstrained. I didn’t spend much time there, but the backseat is generous in its leg and headroom. Adults and children should be comfortable there.
Refreshingly, Kia — even in its top-end trims — hasn’t given up on physical buttons. Stereo, climate, and even many aspects of UVO are all controlled with tangible, real-life, honest-to-god mechanical buttons. This is not only familiar to most drivers, but prevents them from getting lost in multiple layers of menus while trying to do something as asinine as turn the cabin temp up a couple degrees.
We maintain that in its price class, Kia has some of the finest switchgear available. Everything form the volume knobs to the window switches feels sturdy and premium. While the buttons themselves are laid out in an orderly and intuitive fashion, we found it a little strange that the HVAC controls and stereo switches were separated into two panels: The climate buttons looked natural and in place, but the stereo dash seemed to be awkwardly floating above it in a contrasting colored piece of dashboard trim.
The steering wheel feels sturdy and imposing, with thick, meaty places to rest your hands. In an effort to minimize as much distraction as possible, Kia moved a gratuitous number of buttons to the wheel. Efficient, sure, but ultimately too much. Although owners will eventually master the large cycle of MID menus, up until then, it’s a significant distraction. Small potatoes: Virtually every automaker is doing the same.
The steering feel itself was actually quite good. The Niro handles more like an Ioniq or Forte rather than a smaller Sportage. There’s a nice weight to the steering, and it’s immediately predictable and familiar even if you’ve never sat in a Kia before. Because of it’s humble wheelbase, the Niro has a turning radius that belies its status as a small SUV.
Wrap up and review
Had you asked one of those owners with an original ’85 Excel where they saw the brand going in 35 years, it’s almost assured that no one would have answered with something close to the Niro. Hyundai and Kia have stumbled on a formula where a car can simultaneously be upscale and economical. Call it Schrödinger’s crossover: The Niro offers close to no compromises, yet exchanges hands for less than the average cost of a new car in its fanciest suit.
The Niro is a small step for Kia, but it’s a large step for compact SUVs. The Toyota RAV4 hybrid is an SUV first and hybrid second, which compromises its green car cred. Built from the ground up as a hybrid, the Niro doesn’t have that issue. Though we’re sad to inform you that there likely won’t be an all-wheel drive option made available (due to packaging issues), something that the Toyota does hold over the Kia, that hasn’t stopped thousands of people living in volatile climates from scooping up Prii.
Niro has the ability to broaden the appeal of a highly efficient hybrid beyond coexist sticker-slapping hippies and into the suburban mainstream. That fact alone makes it unique in its segment, never mind the fact that it’s the first purpose-built hybrid crossover SUV.
You won’t leave streaks of rubber and a few bars of “Freebird” in your wake after picking up the kids, but you won’t be embarrassed to be seen in one either. All hail the new king hybrid multitasker, the 2017 Kia Niro.