Not since its entry into the luxury-sedan market has the South Korean auto industry introduced a product as bold and unique as the Kia Niro. This new model combines the looks, cargo-carrying capabilities and high seating position of a compact sport-utility vehicle, with the fuel-economy ratings of a subcompact hybrid. Only Toyota is building something similar — the Prius V wagon — but the Niro delivers comparable cargo room and better fuel economy. And with the exception of the new plug-in Prius Prime, sales of Prius models have declined by more than a third compared with last year.
Maybe Kia and Hyundai management knows something. If fuel prices rise, as some are predicting, Kia won’t be able to build enough Niros and Hyundai Ioniq hatchbacks to meet demand among SUV-loving American drivers.
In almost every respect, our 2017 Niro EX test car performed flawlessly. It handled nicely, in part because of the low center of gravity created by the hybrid battery pack. The ride was compliant and fairly quiet on the highway, though road noise was noticeable, especially at low speeds. There’s plenty of room in front and back; our 6-foot driver didn’t need to slide the seat all the way back to the pegs. The cargo compartment was big enough to accommodate three sets of golf clubs on one trip, and a twin baby stroller on another, though we had to lower one of the rear seatbacks for optimum placement of our cargo. And we were able to lower the seatback from behind the car, rather than having to go around to the side door.
Priced at $28,895, the Niro had very few imperfections. Power was adequate, but throttle response was inconsistent, and “sport mode” is attainable only by switching the shifter to the manual position. Tall drivers felt the tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel was too far away, even at its maximum reach. We’ve noticed this trait in other Kia models. And despite its SUV chops, the Niro isn’t available with 4×4 or all-wheel drive.
Like all Korean cars, the Niro had a long list of standard features. Among them were a 7-inch touchscreen with rear camera; dual-zone automatic climate control; heated cloth seats with leather trim; UVO infotainment system; satellite radio; Android Auto, Apple CarPlay and smartphone integration; blind-spot detection system; rear cross-traffic alert; and push-button start. The base Niro FE starts at $22,890.
The banner headline for the Niro, of course, is its lack of enthusiasm for consuming fuel. It’s rated at 51 mpg city, 46 highway, and we exceeded both numbers in mixed city and highway driving. The Niro’s range is nearly 600 miles. Among hybrid wagons and SUVs, only the Prius V comes close, at 43 mpg city, 39 highway.
Crash-test data aren’t yet available, but similarly sized Kia models like Sportage have received Top Safety Pick Plus ratings from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
2017 Kia Niro EX
Engine: 1.6-liter inline Four and electric motor, combined 139 horsepower, 195 lb.-ft. torque
Transmission: 6-speed dual-clutch automated manual
Weight: 3,161 lb.
Ground clearance: 6.3 in.
Suspension: MacPherson strut front, multi-link rear
Wheels: 16-in. alloy with covers
Tires: P205/60R16 all-season
Seating capacity: 5
Luggage capacity: 19.4 cu. ft.
Maximum cargo capacity: 54.5 cu. ft.
Fuel capacity: 11.9 gal.
Fuel economy: 51 mpg city, 49 mpg highway
Fuel type: regular unleaded gasoline
Steven Macoy (email@example.com) is a longtime car enthusiast and full-time editor who lives in Bethel, Conn.