SEOUL, South Korea — Would a loyal green-car consumer buy a gas-electric hybrid that looks like a conventional crossover/utility vehicle? Kia is betting that environmentally friendly drivers’ attitudes have shifted with its new Niro Hybrid Utility Vehicle, which will be built on Hyundai Motor Group’s new hybrid-only platform. While no internal combustion engine-only models will use the new platform, the Kia Niro looks like it could be a conventional model slotting in size between the Sportage and Sorento utilities. It’s 176.4 inches overall on a 105.1-inch wheelbase, 1.8 and 1.2 inches longer, respectively, than the Sportage’s overall length and wheelbase.
Power is from a combo of a 103 horsepower, 108 lb-ft 1.6-liter Kappa four-cylinder gas direct-injection engine and a 1.56 killowatt-hour lithium-polymer battery pack hooked up to a 32 killowatt electric motor. Thankfully, Kia and Hyundai eschew the tendency for CVTs with such powertrains; the Niro instead will come with a six-speed dual-clutch transmission between the engine and electric motor. Kia expects an EPA combined fuel economy figure of at least 50 mpg, and a New European Driving Cycle CO2 rating of less than 90 grams per kilometer. Kia says it expects to add a plug-in hybrid powertrain later in the Niro’s lifecycle.
Auto Show Debut Next Year
Kia announced the future product here along with new Optima hybrid and plug-in arriving in U.S. dealerships next year. Kia did not reveal how soon the Niro hybrid will arrive, though plans are to unveil the new model at a “major” auto show next year; likely to be Detroit, Geneva, or New York.
Though Kia has released only renderings of the Niro HUV, an actual, undisguised pre-production model was unveiled to motoring journalists, with a strict “no camera” rule. The Kia Niro HUV has a sporty look and stance to it, with the familiar brand grille, fast D-pillar, and a lower-body crease in the side surfacing. Kia says a wide stance lowers its center of gravity; it also makes it look not quite so tall as many modern CUVs. It is just 60.4 inches tall, a full 4 inches shorter than the Sportage; the two share a 73.0 inch width.
Part of $9.7 billion Clean Car Investment
A long-rumored Hyundai hybrid off a dedicated platform is expected to make its debut some time next year. Spy shots indicate the Hyundai version, no doubt off the same DE dedicated platform, will have a more Prius-like hatchback bodystyle distinguishing itself from the Kia Niro. The two hybrids are part of Hyundai Motor Group’s $9.7 billion, five-year investment in new fuel-efficient technologies and vehicles for global markets. Hyundai Motors hopes to increase the fuel efficiency of its fleet by 25 percent by 2020.
Kia also is working on its next-generation fuel-cell vehicle, one that also will be built on a dedicated platform with a unique body style and which also will be shared with parent company Hyundai Motor Group.
We got a limited (nighttime) test drive in the Kia Niro. Though a CUV bodystyle, the Kia Niro will be offered only with front-wheel drive — no all-wheel-drive option. The no-camera undisguised model revealed none of the off-road styling cues of the Kia Trail’ster concept from last February’s Chicago Auto Show. (It also has nothing to do with Kia’s 2013 Niro concept, other than its name.)
Niro’s hybrid powertrain is notable for its smooth transitions, launching from stoplights from electric stop/start-mode to EV mode, then going full internal-combustion power when giving it full throttle. Its smooth launches belie the fact that its six-speed DCT has a dry clutch. Its Predictive Energy Control system will use information on uphill and downhill grades in the navigation system (when activated) to make better use of the stored battery power and the regenerative braking.
The “HUV,” as Kia calls it, has none of the science-project feel of the outgoing Toyota Prius. Befitting its conventional CUV-style sheetmetal, it has a familiar plastic-y but feature-laden interior and standard Kia center stack touchscreen with manual button controls. The way it drives feels as conventional as the Niro looks. Thanks to the engine kicking in at low speeds instead of at launch, this hybrid makes the transitions more smoothly than most luxury cars with a stop/start feature. Acceleration is reasonably quick but not exceptionally so.
Typical Kia Features
We won’t say anything about ride or handling, because the short drive was conducted on Metro Seoul’s famously un-curvy, well-maintained streets and roads. The driver’s seat is fairly comfortable, with heated and cooled seats and a heated steering wheel in the offer-more-for-less Kia tradition, and the second-row seat has plenty of head- and legroom for average-size adults, though the seat cushion is a bit low despite the fact that it’s right on top of the hybrid battery pack. When folded, the second row is a few inches higher than the cargo floor. It’s a shame that Kia didn’t design it to be flat.
Kia boasts more than 50-percent high-strength steel to keep weight down and to extend the brand’s streak of Top Pick+ Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and Euro NCAP 4/NCAP Dual Rating 5. It will come with seven airbags, including a driver’s knee bag, plus anti-lock brakes, electronic stability control, and vehicle stability management. Autonomous emergency braking, lane-departure warning, and blind-spot detection will be optional, varying by market. Other features will include Google Android Auto and an automated parking assist system.
Kia Optima Hybrid
The 2017 Kia Optima Hybrid, which will be in U.S. dealers by the middle or late second quarter of 2016, distinguishes itself with a smoked plastic upper grille cover and an external air flap, satin chrome exterior accents and door handles, and unique front- and rear lower fascias. It will be offered with 16- or 17-inch wheels, and replaces the current Optima Hybrid’s 2.4-liter gas direct-injection engine with a 2.0-liter gas-direct injection four with a high-voltage electric oil pump, rated 154 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 139 pound-feet at 4,000 rpm. A 38-killowatt electric motor and clutch replaces the torque converter; the combined output is 193 horsepower at 6,000 rpm. Transmission is a six-speed automatic. Kia is targeting an EPA city/highway-combined fuel efficiency figure of 42 mpg.
Kia Optima Plug-in Hybrid
The 2017 Kia Optima Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle is scheduled to arrive in U.S. dealerships about the middle of the third-quarter of 2016, with a 9.8 killowatt-hour electric battery pack delivering about six-times the current car’s energy output and a pure-electric range of 27 miles. The electric motor is rated 50 killowatts and, combined with the 2.0-liter gas direct-injection four, makes a total of 202 horsepower at 6,000 rpm. Top speed in electric-only mode is 75 mph.
Like the Optima Hybrid, the PHEV will use a six-speed automatic transmission.
It will take customers less than three hours to charge the Optima PHEV using a 240-volt source, and less than nine hours from a 120-volt source, Kia says. The company estimates a 40 mpg combined internal combustion engine EPA rating, and a 99 mpge rating.