Perhaps the most interesting thing to come out of the Chicago Auto Show held this month is the Kia Niro Hybrid, a utility vehicle that the Korean automaker claims is designed to achieve an EPA rating of 50 MPG combined.
Kia said the Niro is a key component of its “Green Car Roadmap”, which likely includes the automaker’s future plans to release more hybrid-electric vehicles to complement the high-efficiency gas engines. For instance, the 2017 Kia Optima Plug-In Hybrid debuted at the same auto show.
That said, the Niro could make a big impact in the hot subcompact crossover market, and no competitor in the non-premium subcompact crossover segment has a hybrid or anything that can come close to 50 MPG combined.
In short, this could be a — dare I say it? — game changer for Kia. For a brand who has never really had a serious contender in the hybrid market to come blasting out of the gate with the first 50-MPG small crossover takes guts, and it’s a move that could be richly rewarded, if the Kia Niro Hybrid delivers on all its promises.
Kia notes that the Niro is the first to make use of a dedicated eco-car platform that will enable the automaker to add later a plug-in hybrid option. It doesn’t necessarily have the styling calling cards one might expect of a hybrid, with its shape that seems wide and low. And Kia’s going for sporty, with the long roofline and short overhangs.
Despite having what was described as a “strong” front fascia, Kia says the Niro Hybrid has a coefficient of drag of just 0.29 — on-par with some of the best hybrids and sports cars of the modern era.
The gasoline engine is normally not the star attraction in any hybrid, but the Niro’s is interesting.
It’s a new 1.6-liter four-cylinder gasoline direct injection (GDI) engine rated at 103 horsepower. It’ll be the first gasoline engine in a hybrid to combine Atkinson Cycle, cooled exhaust gas recirculation (EGR), GDI, and long-stroke/narrow-bore configuration to maximize efficiency. The engine also has an exhaust heat recovery system to speed engine warm-up by routing coolant to a heat exchanger in the exhaust system.
Combine that with a 43-horsepower electric motor that Kia calls a “transmission-mounted electric device,” or TMED, and you’re looking at a decent combined power rating of 146 horsepower and 195 lb-ft of torque.
The Niro will have a dual-clutch transmission (DCT) that aims to give a sharper response than the CVTs in some competitors. A compact, lightweight 1.56 kWh lithium ion polymer battery provides motive force for the electric motor and also serves as the Niro’s only battery — Kia said it eliminated the 12-volt battery that traditionally runs accessories and starts the engine in any other car.
As for how Kia aims to achieve that 50 MPG combined EPA score, part of the recipe is the all-new Eco-DAS (Driver Assistance System).
Eco-DAS will feature Kia’s first use of Coasting Guide and Predictive Energy Control systems. Kia saidthat Coasting Guide will coach the driver on when to coast and when to brake, while Predictive Energy Control will use the navigation system and cruise control to anticipate topographical changes on the road ahead and manage energy flow, determining when it’s best to charge the battery and when it’s best to spend that stored energy in the name of overall efficiency.
Other efficiency tricks include Smart Air Intake, which works to reduce aerodynamic drag by managing the intake of outside air for the HVAC system, and an Auto Defog system that seeks to prevent condensation from building on the glass — which sometimes happens when there’s not enough fresh air in the cabin, natch — by monitoring cabin air conditions and sparingly switching on the air conditioner’s compressor.
While not the automaker’s first foray into hybrids or electric vehicles (here’s looking at you, Kia Soul EV), the Niro Hybrid is one that’s set to go big in its subcompact-crossover market.