The Niro wears one of three different EPA labels depending on the trim level. The FE model (for Fuel Efficient) is the most frugal at 50 mpg combined, while the Niro Touring registers 43 mpg. The midrange LX and EX trims both carry a 49-mpg combined rating.
These differences are primarily the product of regulatory minutiae in the fuel-economy labeling game. While most cars have one fuel-economy label per powertrain that lumps various trim levels into a single test that reflects the equipment level of the most popular variant, Kia parses the Niro into three separate certifications in order to get a bigger number for the lighter, lower-spec trims. Like we said: regulatory minutiae.
Our real-world findings suggest there is a distinction to be found in the fuel economy between the FE and Touring models, although it’s significantly smaller than the 7-mpg difference on the EPA labels. In our use, the Niro FE averaged 37 mpg, while the Touring model returned 35 mpg. Those figures climbed to 42 mpg for the FE and 39 mpg for the Touring on our 75-mph, 200-mile highway loop.
If 37 mpg seems like a far cry from the advertised 50 mpg, know that it’s still a remarkable figure for a crossover. You won’t find a more practical vehicle that returns better fuel economy, unless you’re willing to drive an electric car. For example, the Ford C-Max hybrid returned 32 mpg in our hands, while the all-wheel-drive Toyota RAV4 hybrid managed 31 mpg, and the Volkswagen Golf Sportwagen with front-wheel drive and an automatic transmission did 26 mpg.
Whether the $30,545 Touring is worth the 2-to-3-mpg fuel-economy hit is a matter of personal priorities. The FE has just enough luxuries to be considered well equipped, with satellite radio, dual-zone automatic climate control, and a 7.0-inch touchscreen with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay compatibility. We spotted only one overt sign of cheapness, and it’s hidden in the cargo area. In the FE, Kia withholds the cargo cover and instead provides a flimsy, ill-fitting panel where the carpeted floor mat would be in the Touring. Of course, the Touring also adds other features such as heated and ventilated front seats, leather upholstery, push-button starting, and a sunroof, but both cars boast comfortable cockpits with stylish materials, intuitive controls, and impressive quality.
Kia’s hybrid powertrain is a relatively simple thing with a single electric motor/generator attached to the input shaft of the six-speed dual-clutch automatic gearbox. There’s also a clutch between the 1.6-liter inline-four engine and the 43-hp motor, which in theory permits electric-only driving, but in our experience the Niro made only momentary overtures at electric-only propulsion, primarily using its 43-hp motor to assist the 1.6-liter four-cylinder. One key advantage of this system is that it behaves similarly to a conventional gasoline-only vehicle, with a predictable correlation between vehicle speed and the engine’s efforts. You won’t find the labored moaning characteristic of Toyota’s complex two-motor, planetary-gear Hybrid Synergy Drive here.
The Niro’s remarkable fuel economy and carlike handling aren’t anomalous, though. They’re made possible by the fact that Kia takes full advantage of the ambiguity in the word crossover. The Niro qualifies as a crossover only in the most superficial interpretation: a two-box wagon shape with a ribbon of black plastic ringing the body’s bottom edge and (on upper trims) a pair of roof-rack rails. All-wheel drive is not available, and ground clearance is comparable to that of most cars.
If it’s a high vantage point you seek, know that the Niro’s seat height is located in the gray area between cars and crossovers. At 23.1 inches, the Niro’s H-point falls between that of the typical car (around 19 to 20 inches) and conventional crossovers (in the 27- to 28-inch range). To our butts, the Niro feels just high enough to make entering and exiting the vehicle easy but not so high as to feel clumsy and stilted in corners. Those coming out of something taller, like a Honda CR-V (with a 5.0-inch-greater seat height) or a Toyota RAV4 (4.0 inches higher), might think otherwise.