Officially, Montana was nicknamed The Treasure State because of the wealth of precious metals and fossil fuels hidden beneath its soil. The real treasures, however, are found on the surface and sometimes several thousand feet above, in the forms of mountains, prairies and badland canyons.
In Bozeman, the air is fresh despite weeks of nearby forest fires. On the Lower Madison River, trout are so plentiful that even a fly fishing chump such as myself can bring a half dozen to the boat.
Under the state’s aptly named big sky, one could meet the stresses of life with clarity or abandon them altogether. Or, you could do what I did during my time there and contemplate whether the Kia Niro qualifies as a crossover. Too tall and lifted to be a car yet small, even by crossover standards and conspicuously lacking an all-wheel-drive option. It’s a tweener that’s difficult to pin down.
Now, I don’t suppose that’s what the good folks at Kia had in mind when they invited me to Montana for two days of fishing, site seeing and driving in their first ever purpose-built hybrid vehicle. I also realize the distinction between small crossover, lifted hatchback and whatever’s behind door No. 3 is ultimately trivial to someone who enjoys the Niro enough to buy it.
Nonetheless, it speaks to a higher dilemma: the existentialism of the crossover. What are the parameters that define this burgeoning class of vehicle? Can a vehicle qualify if it doesn’t offer all-wheel drive?
It’s like asking if a hot dog is a sandwich. It’s a piece of meat surrounded by bread and sometimes accompanied by condiments. At face value, those ingredients seem to constitute a sandwich. But if the definition is so broad, isn’t a stuffed pita a sandwich? What about a taco? Or a lettuce wrap? At a certain point, the definition of a sandwich becomes so broad, so nebulous that it ceases to have any real meaning. On the other hand, if the term is defined too rigidly, it could lead to further schisms in the already hyper-stratified auto market.
So, what is the Kia Niro? Is it a crossover or is it just a hot dog? That’s what we’re here to find out.
Surprisingly, for a group of ragtag but mostly cosmopolitan journalists driving a set of hybrid vehicles, we didn’t draw too much attention to ourselves on the roads of western Montana. This is primarily because of the state’s influx of outsiders in recent years, primarily in the college towns of Missoula and Bozeman, much to the chagrin of locals like our fishing guide Pete, who had to leave Bozeman because he wanted to feel like he still lived in Montana.
It also helps that the Niro, despite being fashioned as a fuel-sipping hybrid, is a reasonably handsome vehicle, especially for a purpose-built hybrid. No sloping hood like the Toyota Prius or arched back like the Chevrolet Volt. It even managed to do without the preponderance of aerodynamic accent lines that even gas-only vehicles will employ to reduce drag.
The front end is short and bows down enough to cut through the air on the highway and the roof dimples along the headlights paired with the wide, tiger nose grille make it look a bit buggy, but sharp lamp casings and the pointed surrounds near the fog lights give it an aggressive front fascia. In profile, it bears a strong resemblance to the Sportage, a tactical decision, no doubt an effort to keep customers in the Kia family.
The driver isn’t positioned particularly high off the ground and most will still have to duck to get in, which makes the Niro not too different than the Kia Soul, which offers comparable headroom. However, it does offer a more spacious and comfortable ride than similarly priced sedans.
Our test vehicles were dressed in the Niro’s top-of-the-line Touring package, which includes roof rails and 18-inch alloy wheels, which add a touch of bravado and sportiness although at the expense of thriftiness. If I were in the market for the Niro, I’d opt for a less expensive package with the 16-inch, fully covered alloys for better gas mileage and a bit less road noise. Plus, a power driver seat and other technological add-ons bring the Touring edition’s curb weight to 3,274 pounds, 113 pounds more than the LX, EX and Touring Launch editions and 168 pounds more than the base FE, which bring EPA estimated fuel economy from 50 mpg combined to 43 mpg.
For someone like Pete, who couldn’t imagine owning a truck that had fewer than eight cylinders beneath the hood, the idea of a vehicle powered by a 1.6-liter inline-four and a set of electric motors is probably a non-starter. However, for someone looking to dabble in the hybrid world with something less conspicuous than a Prius, the Niro is a suitable substitute.
One motivating factor behind a fly-fishing Kia Niro drive through Montana was to pay homage to the 1992 movie adaptation of “A River Runs Through It,” which premiered nearly 25 years ago to the day. Starring Brad Pitt and Craig Sheffer as a pair of fly-fishing brothers from rural Montana, many of the film’s most iconic scenes were filmed along the roads on which we drove and rivers on which we fished.
Tucked away along the continental divide, our drive route took us through the Gallatin Canyon and across a sliver of highway in the northwest corner of Yellowstone National Park. Although we stayed on the well paved and sparsely populated highways near the nexus of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, rolling hills and winding roads kept the course challenging.
Uphill portions of the drive were difficult for the Niro, which struggled to reach the state’s 80 mph speed limit on flat, wide open stretches with its gas pedal held firmly to the floor. A sport mode helped keep engine revs high (although I can’t tell you exactly how high because Kia’s hybrid vehicles don’t have a traditional tach display) and the suspension a bit tauter, though not quite enough to avoid a touch of body roll on the sweeping curves. In this sense, it drove very much like a crossover.
Even with the undulating roads, the Niro held steady at its projected gas mileage, remaining in the 43 to 45 mpg range for most of the trip. As Kia’s press team will readily tell you, Wayne Gerdes, a well-regarded hyper-miler (as well-regarded as a hyper-miler can be) was able to execute a 3,715-mile drive from Los Angeles City Hall to New York City Hall in a Niro EX with an average fuel economy of 76.6 mpg.
My drive partner and I spent close to four hours in the Niro during the first day of driving and about three hours in it on the second, switching off primarily between the two front seats. I found the headrest to be well positioned and even though the vehicle is not particularly tall, I was able to sit upright without feeling claustrophobic. For reference, I’ve got a fairly lean, six-foot-two frame. There was also enough room in the back seat for me to sit behind myself but my knees had very little clearance, so I imagine I would have gotten cramped after an hour or two.
Comfort and fuel economy are good and great, respectively, when compared to other true small crossovers. This leaves one last thing as the final battleground on which the Niro must compete for its road trip mettle and its crossover status: cargo capacity.
When I opened the rear liftgate, I was not blown away by what the trunk space but, then again, I can’t say that many subcompact SUVs impressed me in that category. Measuring 19.4 cubic feet behind the second row and 54.4 cubic feet with the seats folded, the Niro actually measures up favorably to class leaders such as the Honda HR-V, Mazda CX-3 and even the highly capable Jeep Renegade. Only the Subaru Crosstrek and Nissan Rogue Sport can hold more stuff.
However, it’s worth noting that no small crossover is particularly adept at moving stuff compared to larger SUVs, or even certain sedans, for that matter. Take, for example, the Toyota Prius, which offers an EPA-rated 27.4 cubic feet of trunk space. For shoppers who prioritize cargo room above all else, the Kia Soul is the best option out there with 24.2 cubic feet with the seats up and 61.3 cubic feet with them down. It too is a “crossover” without all-wheel drive.
About that all-wheel-drive thing, Kia’s official stance on its omission from the Niro is one of practicality. With a little more than six inches of ground clearance, an all-wheel-drive system isn’t going to be good for much in the way of off-roading or snow-treading. It’s just going to add more weight, reduce fuel economy and muddy the waters of who Kia is trying to appeal to; it’s not taking on Jeep so much as its providing an alternative to the Prius.
I’ll buy that explanation.
When it comes to the smallest class of crossover, few actually have the capabilities of true sport utility vehicle. Among that elite group, I’d count the Crosstrek, the Renegade and that’s it. All the rest, the HR-V, CX-3, Rogue Sport, Buick Encore/Chevrolet Trax, they’re all basically cars that have been lifted a bit and puffed up. Heck, even the Crosstrek is a glorified Impreza hatchback. As far as the EPA is concerned, half of these vehicles are actually small station wagons and therein lies the problem.
Automakers have been hitting car buyers with the Kansas City Shuffle for years, getting them hooked on SUVs, gradually making them smaller, referring to them as crossovers then, eventually, introducing station wagons that look like SUVs. This allows them to recycle an old formula without having to use a term that has fallen out of fashion. The Kia Niro is not an SUV and many of its closest competitors are not either, including some that offer all-wheel drive. Ultimately, a crossover isn’t anything more than a buzzword car companies use to sell vehicles.
The rough definition is a tall-bodied vehicle on a car platform with a liftback cargo area. By that standard, the Niro qualifies as a crossover, just as the hot dog can be a sandwich because a sandwich isn’t really a thing.