Kia Niro offers economy, practicality, fun

The 2017 Kia Niro hybrid has a 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine that produces 104 horsepower, while the synchronous permanent magnet electric motor adds 43.

2017 Kia Niro Touring: Economy, versatility, and fun?

Price: $32,445 as tested ($29,650 for the trim level, plus $1,900 for Advanced Technology Package, which included emergency braking, forward collision warning, lane-departure warning, and 115-volt inverter).

Marketer’s pitch: “A smarter kind of crossover.”

Conventional wisdom: Car and Driver likes that it’s “affordable, practical, efficient, looks nothing like a Toyota Prius,” but not that “it’s slow, powertrain needs more polish, seating position will be too low for some.”

Reality: Economy, some versatility, and definitely fun.

Hybrid: The Kia Niro hybrid has been on my short list of cars to test: A small station wagon that was rumored to hit above 40 mpg definitely catches my attention, plus Kia has been on a roll. (Mr. Driver’s Seat is destined to get reprimanded for not calling it a crossover, but it’s pretty compact, not too tall, and only front-wheel drive.)

The 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine produces 104 horsepower, while the synchronous permanent magnet electric motor adds 43. No plug-in is available for this model, though.

Fuel economy: I averaged 42 mpg in a wide range of highway, country, and city driving. That’s pretty darn good for a rounded-off box with a hybrid powerplant.

Up to speed: Kia could probably venture to call this the “Kia Niros,” because this is really like having two cars.

For the exuberant driver, the Niro has Sport mode. Motor Trend clocked its 0-to-60 time at a fairly rousing (all things considered) 8.7 seconds.

For the feather-foot granola-eater, the car stays in full electric mode to about 35 mph.

The Lovely Mrs. Passenger Seat and I don’t split along those lines; we both appreciate few visits to the pump, but love to drive as if we’re roller-coaster operators.

Not quite Soul-ful: The Lovely Mrs. Passenger Seat loves her 2015 Kia Soul and I’m a fan as well.

The Niro keeps some of the Soul’s worst aspects, but not some of its best.

Inside: Here, the Niro falls short.

The Niro’s uninspired interior leaves a lot to be desired.

The dashboard lacks a certain charm. It’s flat, the heater vents are there, the radio controls are here, and yippee. As a technological-environmental-sporty wonder, wouldn’t a bit of something-something be called for in this case? The Soul has a far more interesting interior.

On the road: The Niro, though, shares one of the downsides of the Soul — it’s really a rough ride. Pennsylvania highways really leave their mark on your behind, and the potholes and road seams feel “Niro” than ever.

But Sport mode can keep your mind off it. The Niro felt as agile as the Volkswagen Golf Alltrack on the country roads, and definitely handled with less roll than the Soul.

Driver’s Seat: The top-of-the-line, dead-cow-covered bucket seats ought to exude, well, something worthy of such a fancy verb, but these feel springy. And, yes, I’m a lumbarphobe, so if lumbar support is your thing, the Niro may also be for you. It’s just never fully off, and so I moaned throughout the week I had it. (No, really, there are weeks I don’t moan.)

Still, those front seats are heated and ventilated, and there’s something to be said for that.

Friends and stuff: The “weight limit 130 pounds” notice on the cargo bay caught my eye. A Kia spokesman says it’s to protect the cargo tray beneath the carpet, but that’s not a great advertisement for packing your station wagon full of stuff.

Cargo space with the seats folded down is 54.5 cubic feet, about 4 fewer than the Soul.

The rear seat offers less room than the Soul, as passengers don’t sit up so tall, but it’s still pretty good. Sturgis Kid 4.0 found space for his long legs, and the center spot is not so bad.

Play some tunes: The upgraded infotainment interface did match the Kia Soul’s, and that’s a bonus. It has a large 8-inch screen, and controls are simple to understand.

Sound quality from the Harman Kardon Premium Audio is B+ or A-; I could hear subtle parts of some songs, but clarity was still not all the way there.

Where it’s built: Hwaseong, South Korea.

How it’s built: Consumer Reports predicts the Niro’s reliability to be about average. The Cadenza is built there as well, and its reliability has been average to excellent, depending on the year.

In the end: The Kia Niro does a whole bunch of things very well. It lacks a whole bunch of important features, though, like all-wheel drive and real cargo-carrying ability. It’s also a little pricey. But I’m pretty sold on it and put it in “must try.”