One of the opening salvos in Kia's new 5-year going-greener master plan will be the introduction of a slick new dedicated hybrid model: the Niro. Although it won't be on the road here until sometime late next year, we recently travelled to Korea to get a full briefing on what Kia is calling a "Hybrid Utility Vehicle" and slip behind the wheel of a fully disguised prototype for a brief but quite enlightening early check drive. The Niro is based on an all-new dedicated platform specifically optimized for hybrid/plug-in applications which is different from existing Kia products This compact 5-passenger hatch does share several key engineering elements with Hyundai's upcoming dedicated hybrid, including a fully independent suspension, generous 106.3-inch wheelbase and a rigid body structure made from over 50 percent ultra-high-strength steel.

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Crossing over into uncharted territory

As these factory-supplied renderings of the production model show, the new Niro tastefully melds sport wagon, crossover and SUV cues, setting the mix off with purposeful styling flourishes that include a new interpretation of Kia's signature "tiger-nose" grille, LED-enhanced front/lighting, a sculpted hood, aggressive 16-inch/18-inch wheel/tire packages and an innovative rearview camera mounted on the rear wiper pivot. Adding to its wind-cheating prowess which was honed by design teams in California and Korea, the Niro augments clean lines with features like automatic grille shutters and front air curtains as well as a functional roof spoiler. 

One of the keys to the Niro's targeted class-leading 50+ MPGe combined fuel economy rating and ultra-low CO2 emissions is its hybrid powertrain matching Kia's 1.6-liter Kappa GDI 4-cylinder engine that cranks out 104 horsepower and 108 lb-ft of torque with a 43-horse electric motor fed by a 1.56kWh lithium-ion-polymer battery pack. Attached directly to a 6-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission that features Eco and Sport modes, the motor can either supplement the engine or serve as the car's sole drive element, battery charge level permitting.

In addition to on-the-fly replenishment supplied by an impressively transparent and highly efficient regenerative braking system, the Niro features a separate starter/generator unit ahead of the engine capable of recharging the battery pack when the car is stopped. A Niro with navigation can access one more bit of range-boosting magic in the form of Kia's Predictive Energy Control. PEC "reads" the terrain ahead when the vehicle is in Eco mode, it optimizes charge usage on both downhill and uphill runs making Niro the first vehicle in its class with this ability. 

Even though the car's dynamic development remains a work in process and our public road driving venue prevented any max-effort flogging, the Niro still made a very solid first impression. With four adults on board, acceleration was spirited, particularly in Sport mode. Positive steering feel and a well-tuned suspension that blends comfort, control and confidence give the vehicle a fun-to-drive quality that should serve Kia's new HUV well in what promises to be a highly competitive global market segment. 

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Emphasis on comfort, convenience and safety

The Niro's interior merits similar kudos. Overall isolation in its nicely finished and leather-accented cabin is good, instrumentation is legible, soft-touch surfaces bountiful and main controls are arrayed in a user-friendly configuration. We found class-up comfort in the Niro's well-formed front buckets and its 60/40 split rear bench has the head and leg room to easily accommodate six-footers in the outboard spots. The seatbacks fold flat, and despite a modest kickup in the floor the Niro offers generous stow space accessed through a large hatch. Equally notable, standard/available features include premium touches like ventilated front seats, dual-zone climate control, a heated steering wheel, wireless phone-charging, Android Auto and a power sunroof.    

Last but far from least, Kia is aiming for NHTSA 5-Star and IIHS Top Safety Pick+ ratings with the new Niro. To that end, it will come with or offer a comprehensive roster of active/passive safety systems that include Hill Start Assist, Autonomous Emergency Braking, Lane Departure Warning, Blind Spot Detection, Parking Assist, Smart Cruise Control and seven standard airbags. While yet to be officially confirmed, we expect to see the 2017 Kia Niro make its formal debut next April at the New York Auto Show.

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