The latest attack on the Prius comes from Kia, whose Niro hybrid undercuts the Toyota in price but unfortunately isn’t as efficient. What the Niro brings to the increasingly crowded under-$30,000 hybrid segment is an exterior design that will revolt no one and a spacious interior. After spending time with a 2017 Niro LX hybrid in the real world, we took the crossoverlike tall hatchback to the track, where its quickness impressed, but the car fell short of the competition in another metric.
The 2017 Kia Niro is only a hybrid for now, but in the years to come, the automaker will offer a plug-in hybrid variant, too. Those who want a plug-in Kia no longer need to wait. The Optima plug-in hybrid is available but starts well above $30,000. That’s where the 2017 Niro comes in. With a base price of around $24,000, the Kia is less expensive—before incentives that might shift depending on region—than the Toyota Prius, Ford C-Max, and every midsize sedan hybrid. The only hybrids carrying lower base prices are the new Hyundai Ioniq hybrid and the itty-bitty Toyota Prius C, but the former has the same hybridlike four-door hatchback shape as the Prius, and the latter is slow and only offers a rearview camera on the most expensive models. Because crossovers are hotter right now than sedans or hatchbacks, Kia is marketing the hybrid as a crossover even though the car lacks an all-wheel-drive option, and the Soul is more than 2 inches taller than the Niro. The Niro is also shorter in height than every player in our most recent Big Test comparison of subcompact crossovers except the Mazda CX-3.
Had the not-a-crossover Niro hybrid competed in that test of subcompact crossovers, the Kia would have out-accelerated two-thirds of the field from 0 to 60 mph while still being way more efficient than anything those nonhybrids can offer. In Motor Trendtesting, our 2017 Kia Niro LX hybrid accelerated from 0 to 60 mph in 8.7 seconds, or 1.0 second quicker than a 2016 Prius we’ve tested and 1.2 seconds better than a 2016 Prius Eco but not quite as quick as a 2013 Ford C-Max, which reached 60 mph in 8.3 seconds. (The C-Max was refreshed for 2017.) Compared to the regular Toyota Prius, the Niro hybrid is slightly heavier but also more powerful, with its 104-hp 1.6-liter I-4 mated to a 43-hp electric motor good for a combined-system 139 hp.
Fuel economy is one reason your car search isn’t centering on a Forte sedan or Sportage crossover, and the Niro is more efficient compared to those similarly priced Kias—just not as frugal on gas as the Prius. The base-model 2017 Niro FE is EPA-rated at 52/49 mpg, but it lacks the LX’s attractive LED taillights, SUV-ish roof rails, and useful hands-free keyless access for just $310 more. The 2017 Niro LX and EX are EPA-rated at 51/46 mpg, and if you really want the extra equipment and 18-inch wheels of the Touring Launch and Touring trims, the EPA ratings fall to 46/40 mpg. If it were my money, I’d skip the FE trim despite the extra fuel economy and consider an LX without any packages to maximize the hybrid’s respectable combination of budget-friendly price and people space, or I’d choose an EX in Rich Espresso paint (not available on FE or LX) with a package that adds a sunroof, power driver’s seat, and active safety tech, including a system that can apply the brakes to lessen the impact of a collision. If that technology appeals to you, know that Toyota offers it as standard on every Prius, along with LED headlights. Depending on your priorities, that puts a base-model Prius and Niro LX on level pricing ground if you were going to add the Niro LX’s Advanced Technology package.
Where the cars aren’t level is real-world or EPA fuel economy. The EPA-rated 51/46 mpg of the Niro LX and EX is great, but the 2017 Prius’ 54/50 mpg and Prius Eco’s 58/53 mpg are better. After running all three of those cars through our Real MPG tests, which involve using a $150,000 gas analyzer and driving every car on a set route, the difference in efficiency expands. The 2017 Niro LX did well in city mileage, surpassing the EPA’s 51 mpg rating with 54.3 in Real MPG in our tests. Highway mileage was 43.8 mpg (down from the EPA’s 46 mpg). In comparison to the Niro LX’s 54.3/43.8 in Real MPG, a 2016 Prius Eco was good for 61.2/52.9, and a 2016 Prius in the Four trim was at 56.5/53.4. But maybe you can’t stand the new Prius’ styling or wish it had more rear headroom—in that case, compare the Niro LX to the Ford C-Max. When we Real MPG tested a 2013 model, it turned in a performance of 47.8/43.2, noticeably lower than the Niro LX’s city rating in Real MPG but about the same on the highway.
On the road, the Niro feels quicker than the Prius, and the Kia’s six-speed dual-clutch transmission should help the hybrid-averse feel more comfortable driving it, though I personally prefer the smoothness of a CVT. The Niro’s dual-clutch transmission is responsive except for full-throttle jabs and times when you go for the gas immediately after coming to a stop, but both situations are likely rare occurrences in a car such as the Niro. If you want to enhance the Niro’s decent 0–60-mph performance with the perception of quickness, drive the car in Sport mode. More often, you’ll be fine with the car’s default Eco mode and appreciate smooth transitions from EV to gas power. Based on a few tests when I was the only one on the road, hypermilers might be impressed by how you can almost accelerate at a normal pace from a stoplight on EV power alone, depending on the charge status of the 1.56-kW-hr lithium-ion polymer battery.
The regenerative brakes require a bit of an adjustment for drivers new to hybrids but no more than any other hybrid. Braking performance at the track, which simulates real-world panic braking, was not good. The 2017 Niro LX stopped from 60 mph in 134 feet, which falls below a 2016 Prius Four Touring’s 115 feet, a 2016 Prius Eco’s 119 feet, and a 2017 Ford Fusion Hybrid’s 123 feet. Most Niros roll on 16-inch wheels and P205/60R16 tires, but it’s possible the Touring’s P225/45R18s might help a bit here.
The tires on the Niro LX are fuel-economy focused, and they don’t hesitate to communicate that and everything else to the driver and passengers on the highway. There’s a decent amount of road noise, but at least the ride is less bouncy than Motor Trend’s long-term 2017 Sportage. Move to the rear seat, and there’s room to stretch out. Like the door panels, the backs of the front seats are hard, but that almost doesn’t matter because there’s so much legroom. The drivetrain hump in the center of the rear footwell is almost flat, which also increases the impression of space, and there’s plenty of headroom. So there’s room inside for passengers, but the NIro’s cargo area can only fit 19.4 cubic feet of stuff. That’s not bad, but the Hyundai Ioniq hybrid comes in at 26.5 cubic feet, the Prius at 24.6–27.4 cubic feet depending on trim, and the Ford C-Max hybrid at 24.5 cubic feet. Sit in the back seat of an Ioniq or Prius, and you’ll see why some might sacrifice a few mpgs for a more hospitable space for rear passengers.
The Niro’s various hybrid displays include a tree whose leaves gradually add or lose color (white and shades of blue) based on your driving habits. There’s also an Energy Flow diagram in the instrument cluster and on the central touchscreen, a minute-by-minute fuel economy graph, and a Charge/Eco/Power meter (and EV light that displays when you’re not using the gas engine), which replaces what would have been a tachometer in the instrument cluster. There’s even a cool mode in the instrument cluster’s 4.2-inch info screen that shows the percentage of your driving in three categories: Economical, Normal, and Aggressive. It’s a good package of info for hybrid owners who want to track their driving, but Ford has the edge in this category in terms of graphics and variety of info displayed.
If you’re considering a Niro hybrid, you should also drive the Prius, the Ford C-Max, and the Hyundai Ioniq, which shares its powertrain with the Niro. If you’re looking to avoid the streamlined hatchback look many associate with hybrids, however, you’re down to the Ford and Kia if the Prius V wagon’s base price of around $27,500 is too much. Both the C-Max and Niro hybrids are quicker than the regular Prius, but the Kia beats the Ford in Real MPG city mileage and costs about $1,000 less, before adding in local incentives, which can completely change that picture. The latest C-Max might be more fun to drive than the Kia, which fights back with a better basic warranty of five years/60,000 miles.
The Niro hybrid isn’t a standout performer, but there is value in its pricing, and there’s lots of room for your Uber or Lyft passengers. When you’re ready to appreciate the Niro’s longer driving range and quiet city operation, Kia finally has something to offer buyers who don’t want the segment’s most popular entry: the Prius.
|2017 Kia Niro (LX)|
|PRICE AS TESTED||$24,095|
|VEHICLE LAYOUT||Front-engine, FWD, 5-pass, 4-door hatchback|
|ENGINE||1.6L/104-hp/109-lb-ft Atkinson cycle DOHC 16-valve I-4, plus 43-hp/125-lb-ft front electric motor, 139-hp/195 lb-ft combined|
|TRANSMISSION||6-speed twin-clutch auto.|
|CURB WEIGHT (F/R DIST)||3,126 lb (61/39%)|
|LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT||171.5 x 71.1 x 60.4 in|
|0-60 MPH||8.7 sec|
|QUARTER MILE||16.8 sec @ 81.3 mph|
|BRAKING, 60-0 MPH||134 ft|
|LATERAL ACCELERATION||0.81 g (avg)|
|MT FIGURE EIGHT||27.9 sec @ 0.61 g (avg)|
|REAL MPG, CITY/HWY/COMB||4.3/43.8/49 mpg|
|EPA CITY/HWY/COMB FUEL ECON||51.0/46.0/49.0 mpg|
|ENERGY CONS, CITY/HWY||66/73 kW-hrs/100 miles|
|CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB||0.40 lb/mile|