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Meet the 2017 Kia Niro hybrid utility vehicle

Even with low gas prices, automakers are still working hard on green cars to meet ever more stringent fuel-economy standards and prepare for the day when fuel prices creep back up again. In Kia's case, it's planning to nearly triple its green car lineup by 2020. One of the new vehicles is the 2017 Niro, which is making its world debut at today's 2016 Chicago Auto Show.

Kia says its goal with the Niro is to provide a vehicle that doesn't behave or look like a typical gas-electric vehicle, and create a new segment by combining hybrid efficiency with a body that boasts crossover traits. The result is what the Korean automaker is calling a hybrid utility vehicle -- simply put, a small hybrid crossover. The Niro is based on a new dedicated eco-car platform, which will also underpin the upcoming Hyundai Ioniq, a Toyota Prius-fighting hatchback. The architecture uses high-strength steel in keys areas like the A- and B-pillars and roof rails, yielding a structure that is both strong and lightweight. In all, 53 percent of the Niro's bones are made from advanced high-strength steel.

A 50 mpg combined fuel economy rating from the hybrid drivetrain is being targeted by Kia. The new gas-electric setup utilizes an Atkinson Cycle 1.6-liter four-cylinder with direct-injection, and a 1.56-kilowatt hour lithium ion polymer battery powering a transmission-mounted electric motor. The gas engine and electric motor combine for a total new output of 146 horsepower and 195 pound-feet of torque.

Andrew Krok/CNET

Updates to Kia's second-generation six-speed dual-clutch transmission deliver quicker shifts, which almost surely will provide better performance traits over the continuously variable transmissions found in the majority of hybrid vehicles. Kia says tuning the drivetrain for smooth power delivery and linear braking behavior was stressed during development to help quash typical hybrid complaints involving jumpy throttle tip-in response, and odd-feeling regenerative brake pedal behavior.

The Niro's design is very un-hybrid-like, with a clean and attractive appearance with wide and low proportions along with Kia's signature Tiger Nose grille up front. While vehicles like the aforementioned Prius and Chevrolet Volt visually scream their green car credentials to the world, the Niro looks like a regular car.

Comfort is at the forefront of the Niro's interior, with a higher seating position providing easy access and denser seat cushion materials providing long-distance support. To keep the cabin quiet from road, wind and hybrid drivetrain noises, Kia piles in stiffer suspension bushings, more sound insulation, an acoustic windshield, special engine mounts and dampers inside the steering wheel hubs to minimum vibration. For maximum cabin and cargo space, the hybrid system's lithium ion battery pack is set under the rear seats.

When it comes to technology, the Niro's hybrid drivetrain isn't the only talking point. Available features such as blind-spot monitoring, rear cross traffic alert, adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning and automatic emergency braking make up the safety story. On the infotainment front, Kia's UVO3 system with a 7-inch touchscreen is here, and offers Apple CarPlay and Android Auto capabilities.

The 2017 Kia Niro will go on sale in the US early next year.

 

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