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Delightful, hybrid-only Kia Niro debuts

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First unveiled at the 2016 Chicago Auto Show, the all-new 2017 Kia Niro makes its official debut in the marketplace as the first crossover SUV offered solely as a hybrid.

The hybrid-only Niro, a subcompact crossover that Kia designed to look and feel like a non-hybrid, promises an impressive 50 mpg for combined city/highway driving.

Exterior styling is quite appealing. Niro’s doors open wide, making its cabin easily accessible for front and rear passengers. There is actually a slight step down getting into Niro, and its cabin offers adequate room for four adults or a family of five.

There is plenty of room for cargo, too. Niro provides a surprising 19.4 cubic feet of space behind the rear seats, which increases to 54.5 cubic feet with the rear seats folded flat.

The 2017 Kia Niro is available in five trim levels: FE ($22,890), LX ($23,200), EX ($25,700), Touring Launch Edition ($28,000) and Touring ($29,650).

The base FE is the lightest and most fuel efficient. The FE is nicely equipped, including full power accessories, dual-zone automatic climate control, 7-inch touchscreen color display, rear-view camera, Kia’s UVO eServices infotainment with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay and more.

Stepping up to the LX adds LED taillights, roof rails, keyless operation, push-button starting, hidden storage tray in cargo area and options to add additional equipment.

The EX adds power folding heated outside mirrors with integrated turn signals, cargo cover, cloth and leather upholstery, heated front seats, rear A/C vent, blind spot detection, lane-change assist, rear cross traffic alert and more.

The limited edition Touring Launch is available in either Snow White Pearl or Aurora Black Pearl finish and adds unique 18-inch wheels, black roof rails, charcoal cloth and leather upholstery, 10-way power driver’s seat, 8-inch touchscreen display and Harman Kardon audio system.

The top-of-the-line Touring trim adds leather upholstery, ventilated front seats, heated steering wheel and front and rear park assist.

I should point out that the upper trim levels are heavier, reducing Niro’s fuel efficiency. Combined fuel economy is 50 for FE models, 49 for LX and EX models, and 43 for Touring Launch and Touring models.

All Niro models feature the same hybrid powertrain that pairs a 104-horsepower, 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine and 43-horsepower electric motor. These two units offer a combined 139 horsepower.

While most other hybrids utilize a continuously variable transmission (CVT), Niro transfers its power to the front wheels through a smooth-shifting six-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission which provides improved performance.

Most of the time, Niro takes off in full electric mode with light acceleration. When pushing the pedal more firmly, or at higher speeds, Niro’s gasoline engine aids in propelling the vehicle.

The engine on/off transitions are fairly smooth, and Niro offers two distinct driving modes: Eco and Sport. In the more fuel-efficient Eco mode, Niro feels somewhat anemic.

Switching to Sport mode provides Niro with much improved acceleration, but fuel efficiency suffers. I wish there were a mode between.

Niro’s cabin is a bit noisy, but overall I was impressed with its versatility, comfort level, performance and fuel economy. A plug-in Niro is scheduled for later this year.