Hybrid cars aren’t the headliners that they once were, but subcompact crossovers are on fire. So what happens if you combine the two?
You might get the Kia Niro, which is a pretty much a meh emoji on four wheels.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Have you seen the latest Toyota Prius? It’s an imp. Easily the most bizarre-looking mass-market car. Despite being an excellent vehicle, and the best Prius ever, its sales have been weak. Toyota insists this is due to low gasoline prices, not outlandish styling, but of course it says that.
Kia is no stranger to dramatic design. Its futuristically-boxy Soul is as edgy as crossovers come, but it delivers a fun vibe and has been a consistent hit since day one. So it’s surprising that the high tech Niro looks like the answer to the final exam in Crossover 101. This also describes its interior, which is as handsome and functional as most of Kia’s work, but doesn’t rise above the Niro’s $23,785 base price.
That gets you into a Niro FE, which suggests “fuel economy” because it’s rated at 50 mpg combined. That’s $4 per gallon gasoline efficient, so it’s future-proof. Midrange models get 49 mpg, which drops to 43 mpg on the top of the line Touring due to wide tires, less aerodynamic bodywork and other equipment that packs on the pounds, like climate-controlled seats and a heated steering wheel. For comparison, the similarly sized, but more car-like and pricier Prius gets 52 mpg and is available in an extra-sleek 56 mpg Eco model.
The front-wheel-drive Niro has a slightly more powerful drivetrain than the Prius, but it’s a mild 139 hp. That’s enough to get it out of its own way, but not much further. Switching its transmission into Sport mode makes it noticeably more responsive, but still not anywhere near fun to drive. Unless your passengers are in a hurry, they likely won’t care. There’s impressive room for a vehicle this size, lofty seating and great visibility all around, so everyone should be satisfied no matter how long the trip.
An automatic emergency braking system is available as a safety net for bored drivers, and comes bundled with radar cruise control, a lane departure warning system, blind spot monitor and rear cross-traffic alert. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard equipment for the infotainment system, but you can only get built-in navigation in the higher-end trims.
The Niro is perfectly practical, and even its least fuel-efficient model beats the rest of the subcompact crossover class. While the Prius is still the gold standard for hybrids, the Kia’s closest competitor is really the aging Ford C-Max Hybrid crossover, which costs a bit more and comes up short on the MPG. It’s also an anonymous jellybean that makes the Niro look almost exciting, or at least worthy of a smiley face.
2017 Kia Niro
Base price: $23,785
Type: 5-passenger, 4-door, front-wheel-drive crossover
Power unit: 1.6-liter 4-cylinder and electric motor
Output: 139 hp, 195 lb-ft torque
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
MPG: 46-52 city/40-49 hwy