San Antonio, Texas. Cars were once simple things: a few doors and a trunk. Trucks were also simple things: a few doors and an open or closed cargo area. However, the last decade or so has blurred the lines to such an extent that most people can’t tell the difference between the two unless they’re staring at a pickup or a 4-door sedan.
Crossovers, or CUVs, are the very embodiment of automotive blurred lines. The beauty here is that there are no set limitations where powertrains, driven wheels, interior space, and capabilities are concerned. They can be anything to anyone.
When it comes to compact CUVs, Kia wants you to think of their all-new Niro as being everything you need, want, and more. The company was so convinced of the idea of this perfect small utility vehicle that it built a dedicated platform and developed a powertrain specifically for the Niro. It’s an impressively aggressive offering, too: At $24,995, the levels of kit and technology are superior to almost everything out there. It’s not a bad drive to boot.
From a distance, it looks like a Kia
The Niro sports the Korean brand’s signature tiger-nose grille, but overall, it sits like a MINI Countryman or even the first Infiniti EX35. The high shoulder line mixed with the low, hunkered body separate it from the Sportage, far more in fact than I initially thought. The Niro looks like a Kia at first glance, but has a fairly distinctive presence. I’m not trying to make it sound any more aggressive than it is (because it isn’t); it’s a Kia, but different.
Part and parcel of the design is the large amount of functional aero that helps lower the Kia Niro’s drag coefficient to 0.29. The short overhangs, long wheelbase, and 18” wheels (in SX trim) give the small CUV quite a bit of stage presence. Despite the top-line model’s extra eye candy, I’d stick to the more basic 16” wheels for a few reasons.
Weight of the world
The curb weight gap between the base L and loaded SX is a whopping 270 kg (600 lbs) and it can be felt almost all the time. All 2017 Kia Niro models depend on a 1.6L Atkinson-cycle 4-cylinder engine that produces 104 horsepower, plus a 42kW electric motor. Total system output is 139 horsepower and 195 lb-ft of torque. To note, 100% of that torque is on tap as of 1,000 rpm and drops off at 2,400 rpm. Max power comes on at a much higher 5,700 rpm, leaving a serious void in the powerband.
Although the Niro is not designed for any kind of performance driving, it still features a 6-speed dual-clutch transmission—a box that’s typically reserved for sportier vehicles. If you’re wondering where it came from, it’s simply the existing 7-speed DCT minus one gear.
The gob of low-end torque explains the deletion of one cog and also why this CUV is a brilliant city slicker. There is no full EV range per say, but if that’s more your thing, Kia will launch a plug-in hybrid version by the end of the year. Let’s hope that this version includes a regenerative braking function that will be useful in extending the EV range as much as possible.
The question of weight is not an issue within urban confines; however, on the highway and country roads, it factors in heavily. The SX is mildly amusing when the transmission is set to Sport mode, while the L is exactly that in simple Drive mode. Engage Sport, and it becomes almost entertaining.
As far as driving manners are concerned, the 2017 Kia Niro is borderline brilliant. The SX rolls on Michelin Primacy tires, which provide better than decent handling and steering feel. The L (and other models that don’t ride on 18” wheels) gets Michelin Energy Saver tires, but the difference in stability and handling is negligible.
The real reason for the swell drive comes from the fact that 53% of the dedicated platform is built using homemade high-strength steel. This ensures a rigid structure with limited NVH levels. The sense that this is a more “premium” vehicle exists, and is amplified by the impressive array of standard amenities.
Equipped to please Canadians
The base 2017 Kia Niro is equipped with a heated steering wheel and heated front seats. If you ask me, this is strategically designed to please us Canadian consumers. The Niro is expected to be a conquest vehicle; if nothing else, it’ll certainly get potential buyers into Kia showrooms.
The hype surrounding this hybrid CUV will be sustained by what shoppers will find once they sit aboard. Kia has done a lovely job, once again, at creating a user-friendly dashboard that positions all the important switchgear (HVAC and others) above the shifter. The standard touchscreen is easy to configure. while the 4.2" colour cluster displays all the desired information including an Eco-driving assistant with the SX—something I doubt most owners will use.
The seats are plenty comfortable with supportive bolstering, and the extra-long wheelbase creates a generous amount of rear legroom. All Niros get UVO3, MP3, satellite radio, and Bluetooth as standard. Higher trims get a 5V USB charger that will reload your phone or tablet very quickly.
Straight to the heart
The 2017 Kia Niro is aimed at everyone and anyone looking for a CUV or a mildly utilitarian vehicle. Kia peeps stated that they have no particular target audience as it can suit most owners’ needs. They went so far as to show us a picture of the trunk, which is roughly three quarters the size of the Sportage’s, with a pair of large golf bags.
The Kia Niro is unique in what it brings to the table for the asking price. It’s good to drive and promises to be extremely frugal. Its only shortcoming could be the lack of AWD, but I suspect that it will do well regardless.
By the way, the name comes from the combination of near-zero emissions and hero, as in an eco-friendly car. It’s fitting in more ways than one; when the Niro goes on sale late next month, it will likely draw a fair amount of foot traffic into showrooms. Kia will now have five products competing for attention in the $20k-$30k price range. The Niro may turn out to be a winner, especially in EX trim.