Kia Niro proves comfortable, quiet midsize hybrid

Mike Torpey was doodling while talking on the phone.

More precisely, the chief exterior designer for the new Kia Niro was making yet another sketch of what that hybrid compact crossover might look like.

He felt a certain freedom as he drew.

“It was a clean slate, no baggage,” he recalled. “We were reimagining a hybrid from the ground up.”

Torpey knew what he wanted — and what he didn’t want. Primarily, he didn’t want to “over-celebrate technology” as was the case with some early hybrids.

“Those first cars wanted to make damn sure people knew what you were driving,” he said.

Clearly, “a Cracker Jack toy that says look at me” was not what Torpey had in mind. Neither was a car that asked: “What is this? Darth Vader’s bathroom?”

What he did want was what market research suggested the customer now wants in a hybrid: something as handsome as it is economical and efficient.

When he finished the Niro doodle, he was a happy man.

“It was the first doodle that made sense,” he said. “It had a real nice stance, and didn’t look like an appliance. … It looked aggressive, but not scary.”

He also joyfully concluded that it didn’t look like a hybrid.

Ultimately, the Niro isn’t a startling style departure. But it is a handsome, engaging design that belongs in Crossoverville’s prettiest neighborhood.

I don’t know, however, that the Niro’s name is as successful as its design. Niro, named for a Kia concept car, sounds like Nero, a Roman emperor who didn’t achieve role-model status.

Nero executed his mother and poisoned his stepbrother. He dipped Christians in oil and then ignited them to provide lighting for his garden. It is believed that he set Rome on fire to clear land for a palace.

Safe to say that Kia will not be embroidering the emperor’s visage on the Niro’s headrests.

After you get past the Niro’s name, its story is rather uplifting. Now making its debut in the showrooms, this comely compact crossover proves affordable, predictably fuel efficient, quite roomy, and endowed with reasonable comfort and performance.

The Niro starts at $22,890, which gets you the base FE model. The LX is $23,200, the EX is $25,700, and the Touring is $29,650.

There is a marked difference in fuel economy between the two cars I tested: the base FE and the top-of-the-line Touring. The FE has EPA mileage ratings of 52 city and 49 highway. The Touring is an appreciably lower 46 and 40. The reason for that, according Orth Hedrick, Kia’s vice president for product planning, is tire size. He said the 18-inch tires on the Touring “dramatically increase” the friction created by the smaller 16s on the FE.

Those wider, lower-aspect 18-inch tires on the Touring, intended to improve cornering, also result in a somewhat firmer ride. Hedrick told me he is lobbying to make the Touring available with both the 18s and the better-riding 16s. Personally, I didn’t find the Touring ride objectionable, or the FE’s much softer.

The one possible sales deterrent for the front-drive Niro in the Philadelphia area is the fact that it isn’t also offered with all-wheel drive.

“This was mainly a packaging issue,” Hedrick said. “We wanted to maximize interior space.”

The Niro’s interior volume, 116 cubic feet, is considerable for a compact. The midsize Kia Optima is only four cubic feet more.

The Niro proved a nice driver. It was comfortable and quiet, with competent handling and reasonable power. The latter is provided by a 1.6-liter gas engine and an electric motor that produce a total of 139 horsepower and a goodly 195 pounds of torque.