The Prius has a rival that no one seems to know about, probably because Kia hasn't done much to market its hybrids.
It's the Kia Niro. And if you've seen one, you probably assumed it's yet another mini-crossover SUV. It certainly looks the part. It even has roof racks. But it doesn't offer all-wheel drive.
Instead, there's a hybrid-electric powertrain and the capability to go 50-plus miles on a gallon of gas. You can also go from zero to 60 mph in a little more than eight seconds.
This is all without costing you a fortune.
What It Is
The Niro is that very rare animal: a hybrid crossover SUV that's inexpensive, extremely fuel-efficient and quick.
The base price for the FE trim is $22,890. A loaded touring trim costs a total of $29,650 and includes heated and cooled leather seats, a heated steering wheel, an 8-inch touchscreen and an eight-speaker Harman Kardon audio system.
The Niro is a new model for Kia.
It's as efficient as a Prius.
It's quicker than a Prius.
The extra ground clearance will help when it snows.
What's Not So Good
All-wheel drive is not available.
Inexpensive gas makes it hard to make an economic argument for any hybrid.
Under the Hood
The Niro has a 1.6-liter gas engine supplemented by a high-voltage (240-volt) lithium-ion polymer battery pack/electric motor. The combined output is 139 horsepower.
It has a six-speed dual-clutch automated manual transmission.
Because of its more powerful battery pack/electric motor, the Niro is the quickest hybrid in this class. It can go from zero to 60 mph about three seconds quicker than a Prius C.
It also carries an EPA rating of 51 mpg in the city and 46 mpg on the highway.
On the Road
Pre-Niro, there was a class divide among hybrids. The fuel-efficient and affordable ones -- like the Prius C -- didn't move.
Whatever you saved at the pump you paid for on the road with pedal car acceleration accompanied by lots of unhappy noises coming from the overtaxed engine and straining electric motor. And the ones that could move either cost too much or drank too much.
The Niro is interesting because it bridges this gap.
It is also very quiet. Many hybrids make you very conscious of their hybridness because of the noises made by the hybrid drivetrain or the feel of the drivetrain. The Niro sounds and feels like a normal car.
At the Curb
The Niro's crossover SUV layout allows for 19.4 cubic feet of cargo capacity behind the second row compared with 17.3 cubic feet for the smaller Prius C. With its second row folded, the available space opens up to 54.5 cubic feet, more than the Ford C-Max hybrid's 52.6 cubic feet, which is the same size.
The regular Prius has slightly more space -- 19.4 cubic feet behind its second row and 54.5 cubic feet with the seats folded flat. But it's also a much longer and larger vehicle -- 178.7 inches bumper to bumper versus the Niro's 171.5 inches.
You sit higher up and higher off the ground in the Niro. The Kia has 6.3 inches of ground clearance, an inch-plus more than the Prius C, the regular Prius or the C-Max.
An interesting and cost-saving feature of the Niro is that there is no 12-volt starter battery.
Instead, the hybrid battery pack also starts up the gas engine. This makes great sense and saves you the expense (and hassle) down the road of having to replace the battery every three or so years.
Another neat feature is the driver-only air conditioning setting. Instead of wasting energy to cool the passenger seat when it's empty, you push the button and the system focuses its attention solely on you.
All trims come standard with a 7-inch touchscreen; an 8-inch unit is available and features the latest generation of Kia's excellent UVO interface, an 8 GB music storage hard drive, Wi-Fi and sound-tethering technology.
Word is that Kia will add plug-in capability next year, which will let you drive farther on electricity only and let you recharge the battery pack without running the engine. Depending on how far you're going, you might be able to drive the Niro without burning any gas at all.
And the plug-in should be even stronger, and therefore quicker.
The downside is it will probably costs a few thousand bucks more than the current model.
The Bottom Line
This hybrid doesn't suck gas, suck your wallet dry or suck to drive.
Eric's new book, "Don't Get Taken for a Ride!" will be available soon. To find out more about Eric and read his past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.Copyright 2017 Creators Syndicate, Inc.