2017 Kia Niro

Kia’s Prius fighter has a key advantage: it looks like a normal car


A number of mainstream automakers have at least one gasoline-electric model in their lineups, with Toyota developing the only separate — and successful — hybrid brand.

Yes, the Prius.

For the 2017 model year, however, the Prius will have two new direct competitors to contend: the recently launched Kia Niro; and the soon-to-arrive Hyundai Ioniq.

Both share the same platform, but the Niro’s wagon body differs significantly from the Ioniq’s hatchback design. Looking at the two you would never guess they were spawned from the same Korea-based manufacturing conglomerate.

The pair is arriving at a time of relatively stable fuel costs and will need to rely on practicality and price as well as economy of operation to make a dent in the marketplace.

The Niro’s wagon shape has the practical part of the equation well in hand. Although shorter by more than seven inches and a bit narrower than a Ford Focus hatchback, the Kia outshines that car by being taller and providing more space between the front and rear wheel.

The Niro’s total cargo area with the split folding rear-seat in the folded-flat position delivers 25 percent greater volume. With that much available space, you would never guess that the wagon’s compact lithium-ion battery pack is situated beneath the back seat.

The Niro’s attractive, yet conservative appearance offers no hint to the unique powertrain beneath the hood. From any angle, the smartly shaped Kia runs counter to the Prius’s apart-from-the-crowd design.

The cabin is also a paragon of normalcy, other than a specific gauge for monitoring the hybrid system’s operation, including the system that feeds braking energy to the battery.

At the Niro’s heart is a 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine that by itself makes 104 horsepower and 109 pound-feet of torque. It’s paired with a 43-horsepower electric motor producing 125 pound-feet of torque. The combo is rated at a net 139 horsepower and 195 pound-feet of torque.

Directing thrust to the front wheels is a six-speed automatic transmission with a manual-shift mode. That’s different than the Prius’s continuously variable unit (CVT) with no set gears.

In standard “eco” mode, the Niro’s six-speed maximizes the electric-only operating range and extracts the maximum fuel economy rating of 52 mpg in the city, 49 on the highway and 50 combined. However placing the shifter in “Sportmatic” mode increases gas-engine use for better acceleration and adds steering “feel”, but will negatively affect fuel performance.

Niro pricing starts at $23,800, including destination charges for the base FE trim. That includes the usual accouterments plus dual-zone air conditioning and a seven-inch touch-screen with integrated backup camera.

The LX adds roof rails plus a rear-center armrest, push-button start, under-floor storage tray and LED headlights.

The EX has power folding heated outside mirrors, upgraded interior trim and heated front seats. There’s also blind-spot detection, lane-keeping assist and cross-traffic alert, which is helpful when backing out of parking stalls.

The Niro Touring tops up with leather seat covers, power adjustable driver’s seat, heated steering wheel, premium Harmon Kardon audio package and front and rear park-assist warning systems. The standard 16-inch steel wheels are upgraded to 18-inch alloys for the Touring.

Niro options include crossbars for the roof rails, 110-volt power inverter and plenty of collision-mitigating electronic safety aids.

Later this year a plug-in hybrid Niro with greater electric-mode range will be added, followed by an all-electric model in 2018.

For now, it’s unlikely that die-hard Prius owners will be swayed by the Kia Niro’s marketing pitch. But the car’s subtly efficient shape, thrifty functionality and a base price that undercuts the Prius by about $1,800, just might entice many newbies to embrace the hybrid lifestyle.

What you should know: 2017 Kia Niro

Type: Four-door, front-wheel-drive compact wagon

Engine (h.p.): 1.6-liter DOHC I4 with 240-volt electric motor (139, combined)

Transmission: Six-speed automated manual

Market position: Despite a lessening of demand for hybrid models in general, the Hyundai auto group is moving into territory currently dominated by Toyota’s Prius lineup with two new brand offerings for the 2017 model year.

• Attractive styling matches the rest of Kia’s expanding lineup.
• Six-speed automated manual transmission provides more control than a CVT.
• Although Kia calls Niro a “crossover,” it’s really a front-wheel-drive wagon,
• Upcoming plug-in and all-electric models should make the brand that much more competitive with the Prius lineup.

Active safety: Blind-spot warning with cross-traffic alert (opt.); active cruise control (opt.); emergency braking (opt.); lane-change warning/assist (opt.)

MPG (city/hwy): 52/49

Base price (incl. destination): $23,800

By Comparison:

Toyota Prius
Base price: $25,600
Popular hybrid has stand-out looks. Plug-in Prime version is the most efficient.

Ford C-Max
Base price: $25,000
Roomy shape looks good, but other competitors are more fuel-efficient.

Hyundai Ioniq
Base price: $23,000
Sleek-looking hatchback has the same powertrain as the Niro.