First times usually aren’t the best times. You get better with more attempts, though the impression of that first attempt can linger the longest. This is the predicament Kia is in with the Niro hybrid.
Kia’s first hybrid-only vehicle has its own dedicated platform expected to help triple its “global green car lineup” to 11 ECO models, Kia said when the Niro debuted at the 2016 Chicago Auto Show.
With a combined 43 mpg (the FE trim gets 50 mpg combined) and black cladding, roof rails and a rear skid plate, the Kia Niro sounds like the offspring of a marriage between the Toyota Prius and Subaru Outback. It looks like a small, sporting crossover, more than the eco-warrior nonsense promoted in its initial marketing campaign. Part of the Niro’s charm is it doesn’t rely on eco-quirk designs like the BMW i3 or the Prius. Kia doesn’t even use “hybrid” in its name. The Niro has a wide stance and low profile with short overhangs that push the axles to the edges. It looks good.
The problem is with the powertrain, which doesn’t seem to know how to balance power from the motor with propulsion from the engine.
There is very little electric-only propulsion, whereas most hybrids under light acceleration can be electric-powered up to about 20 mph. That’s not bad on its own, but the six-speed dual clutch transmission is balky, taking a moment to optimize the power source, it seems, or being unsure of the optimal balance between motor and engine. It’s nothing dangerous or even annoying; it’s simply not smooth.
Most hybrids use something like an electronic continuously variable transmission (eCVT), which essentially uses a motor instead of a gearbox. Keeping the accelerator constant results in a dull droning feel. Instead of “shifting,” there is a modulated balance of motor and engine power based on throttle position.
The Niro relies on a six-speed dual clutch set up to distribute power from the 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine. The 43-horsepower motor is fitted between the engine and transmission, so the transmission optimizes the 139 total horsepower and, more importantly in a crossover, 195 pound-feet of torque to the front wheels. Since the battery is placed beneath the rear seats, there isn’t much room for a second motor on the rear axle for an all-wheel-drive Niro future.
In theory, the Niro should shift like a normal car, quickly and predictably based on how hard you press the pedal. In actuality, it groans as if to ask why you’re pressing the pedal at all, and in our week with the Niro, there was less predictability than a CVT.
Kia designed its hybrid to not act like a hybrid, but the DCT needs a tweak or two to get that seamless power transition touted by the brand.
Otherwise, there’s so much to like about this vehicle. It’s smartly designed, with a blend of high-strength steel and aluminum helping keep weight down in the Kia Soul range (under 3,300 pounds), despite being 5 inches longer. The top-of-the-line Touring trim comes with Kia’s advanced safety and convenience technology, which is easy to use without being too obtrusive. It has ample head and shoulder room, like the Soul, and the 60/40 rear seats can fold flat for an even cargo floor for 54.5 cubic feet of storage, which is more like a large hatchback than a compact crossover. The Prius V has 67.3 cubic feet with the seats down, in comparison, but the Niro gets 46 mpg city, 3 more mpg than the Prius V.
I was really looking forward to this car, so my disappointment with the graceless powertrain might be as much a product of high expectations as rookie mistakes. The first all-new model by most automakers has kinks to work out that can sometimes be as simple as reflashing the six-speed dual clutch transmission, or retuning how the motor and engine work together as to be somewhat less present in the cabin.
The time may be off for hybrid sales, but that gives Kia a chance to tweak what can be a best-seller once gas prices start to rise. By then, firsts won’t matter as much as bests.
2017 Kia Niro Touring
Vehicle type: Small hybrid crossover
Base price: $29,650
As tested: $31,680 (excluding $895 delivery)
EPA MPG: 46 city, 40 highway
Engine: 1.6-liter 4-cylinder with a 43 hp motor
Transmission: 6-speed dual clutch
Parting shot: Balky transmission undermines Kia’s first full-fledged hybrid