Forty-five minutes outside of San Antonio, Texas, a yellow sign sits on the side of a country road with a curvy arrow warning of the not-so-straight path ahead. The stretch of pavement proves to be a perfect opportunity to see if the 2017 Kia Niro handles as dynamically as the Korean automaker claims. Nudging the center console shifter to the left summons the hybrid crossover's Sport mode, dialing in tighter steering with more aggressive throttle mapping and transmission shift behavior, proving helpful as I give chase to the Niro driver in front who has the same idea of testing the car's chops.
The road features gradual and tight bends featuring elevation changes that really give the chassis a workout. It doesn't take long to realize the Niro handles nothing like the poster child for hybrid vehicles, the Toyota Prius. Turn in is quick, while the suspension keeps things buckled down, minimizing roll through corners. The drivetrain's ample power of 139 horsepower and 195 pound-feet of torque keeps things entertaining. Under the hood, the Niro boasts a 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine coupled to an electric motor powered by a 1.56-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion polymer battery.
Unlike the Prius, the Niro doesn't immediately understeer when pushed, nor does it make an annoying drone under acceleration, as Kia opts to use a six-speed dual-clutch transmission instead of a continuously variable system. A welcome piece of hardware, the dual clutch gearbox delivers snappy shifts, with a responsive manual shift function. However, its lack of a tachometer made manual shifting most useless.
My range-topping Touring model's 18-inch Michelin Primacy MXM4 tires also help the Niro's reflexes, but the lower profile tires combined with the firm suspension hampers ride quality. You feel impacts from most bumps, but its damping keeps the ride from feeling overly harsh.
The other downside to the big tires is the effect on the Niro's fuel economy, with the EPA rating the Touring model at 46 mpg city and 40 mpg on the highway. Mid-range LX and EX models, shod with 16-inch wheels and tires, receive a 51 mpg city and 46 mpg highway rating. Sitting atop the fuel efficiency mountain in the lineup is a decontented, and thus lighter, FE model, with a 52 mpg city and 49 mpg highway rating.
Niro's fuel economy numbers aren't shabby, but trail the Prius' 54 mpg city and 50 mpg highway, and also its Hyundai Ionic and Ionic Blue cousins, which get between 55 and 59 mpg. However, the Kia does rate better than the Ford C-Max 's 42 mpg city and 38 mpg highway.
When you're not bombing around winding roads, the Niro behaves very much like a regular car. The drivetrain goes about its business smoothly switching between electric, gas power or a combination of the two. The regenerative brakes offer good modulation and the steering feels decent. The engine's idle-stop system quickly kills the gas engine when the car is stationary, and refires when needed. Normally, I'm not a fan of idle-stop systems, but the Niro's is so quick and smooth that I don't mind it.
I do mind the Niro's lazy throttle tip-in from its default Eco mode, delivering too leisurely accelerations from dead stops. At the same time, Sport mode's tip-in is too eager for daily driving. Unfortunately, Eco and Sport are the only options on the car's Drive Mode Select system, meaning you'll have to learn to live with either turtle or rabbit launches for regular commuting.
While the Niro shares a drivetrain and high-strength steel intensive platform with the Ioniq, everything else is exclusive to the Kia. The exterior design doesn't scream "hybrid" like the Toyota, Hyundai or dearly departed Honda Insight. Instead, it looks simple, sleek and normal with the company's trademark tiger nose grille up front. If it wasn't for the eco hybrid badge on the rear tailgate, you would be hard-pressed to tell that it is a hybrid.
Surroundings in the cabin are welcoming, with a center stack layout that's intuitive thanks to clearly marked hard buttons and touchscreen menus. Materials show well with a mixture of soft touch surfaces, gloss black trim and nicely finished hard plastics. Things are also quiet inside, as Kia doesn't skimp on sound insulation, and uses acoustic glass for the windshield.
Kia sets the comfortable front seats high for good visibility out, but the seats themselves could use more side bolstering to hold onto occupants better through corners. The second row seats are spacious enough with adequate leg- and headroom for regular-size adults. Out back, there's a respectable 19.4 cubic feet of cargo space, but the Niro is bettered by the C-Max's 24.5-cubic-feet, Prius' 24.6-cubic-feet and Ioniq's 26.5-cubic-feet trunks.
In Touring trim, my test car boasts lots of standard goodies, like leather, three-stage heated and cooled front seats, heated steering wheel, 8-inch LCD center touchscreen (lower models get a 7-inch unit), navigation, Harman Kardon sound system and a variety of power outlets to keep smart devices juiced up. A wireless phone charger is also available, which kept my Samsung Galaxy S6 happy.
On the safety technology front, the Niro Touring and EX models gets a rearview camera and Blind Spot Detection system standard. Those looking for a few more doodads can get Lane Departure Warning, Smart Cruise Control and an Autonomous Emergency Braking system that automatically engages the brakes to help lessen the severity of a front impact or possibly avoid a collision entirely as options.
When the Niro goes on sale in January, Kia says it will start at less than $23,000 for the FE model, while the fully-optioned Touring trim will punch in at around $32,000, making it competitively priced against the segment ruling Prius that starts at $24,685.
With a drive character hands-down better than any of its competition and attractive styling, the Niro brings things to the table that no other hybrid in its class has done before. Yes, you give up some fuel efficiency and ride comfort with the Kia, but that's a price I'm willing to pay to have a car that's actually a little fun to bounce around town in, and won't be a complete letdown when I find myself on curvy roads in the middle of Texas.