It’s not the biggest debut at the 2016 Chicago Motor Show. That prize would go to the size-XXL 2017 Nissan Armada SUV. But the 2017 Kia Niro Hybrid is certainly this Chicago show’s most significant premiere. Here are five reasons why:
1. It’s the first model off Hyundai Motor Group’s new DE dedicated hybrid platform
Kia and Hyundai now have a compact platform exclusive to hybrid and plug-in hybrid powertrains, though Kia says it went out of its way to avoid designing a green car hair shirt. The Niro is a pleasant-looking car that mates a 1.6-liter gas direct-injection Atkinson-cycle four-cylinder engine with a 43-hp electric motor, for 146 hp and 195 lb-ft of torque. Kia expects an EPA combined fuel economy number of more than 50 mpg when it goes on sale early in 2017 (it’s on sale in South Korea late this year).
2. It’s a hatchback-wagon-sport/utility ‘tweener
Kia calls the Niro an SUV, because, why not? That’s all anybody is buying these days. At 171.5 inches overall length, 70.9 inches wide, and just 60.4 inches tall, it’s larger than a Soul, smaller than a Sportage, and it has more interior space than a Toyota Prius or Ford C-Max. As it’s three or four inches lower in height than most small crossovers, its proportions look more like that of a hatchback or wagon, which is a good thing in our mind. Admittedly, step-in height is more like a compact crossover’s, though the Niro will be available only with front-wheel drive, at least for the time being. To distinguish the Kia from Hyundai’s first model off this hybrid architecture, the related Ioniq Hybrid is shaped more like a Prius.
3. Its Predictive Energy Control is trick
PEC uses the navigation system to anticipate topography on your drive. It determines when to recharge the battery on downhill runs, or expend stored energy on uphill runs, in order to optimize efficiency. Kia believes it may be the first system of its kind to anticipate driving uphill as well as downhill, and says this may improve fuel efficiency by as much as 3 percent.
4. It has a dual-clutch transmission
Even though it’s a six-speed dual-dry-clutch transmission, placed between the engine and electric motor, it delivers power very smoothly, and it’s a nice departure from the continuously variable transmissions typical of hybrids. We had a very limited drive of this hybrid car last November, and came away rather impressed with its power transitions and smoothness.
5. A plug-in hybrid version may be worth the wait.
Tantalizing as 50 mpg combined is, the Kia Niro looks like it was designed to be a plug-in you can drive in urban areas under pure electric power. A plug-in hybrid is coming, and if typical of this brand, will be placed on the value end of the segment, but we don’t expect it any earlier than 2019.