Prius Fighter? The 2017 Kia Niro FE

Front 3/4 view of 2017 Kia Niro
The 2017 Kia Niro.
Traditionally, fuel economy has not been enough to make a car competitive with the Toyota Prius.  The sales charts are littered with failures that got close to the Toyota hybrid's vaunted fuel economy, but didn't sell ---because they didn't look like a hybrid.  People who bought the Prius over much of its 20-year history have wanted other people to know they were driving a fuel-saving hybrid just by looking at it.

Well, in its current generation, Toyota appears to have taken the "different" way too far.  The radically re-styled Prius is selling in fractions of the numbers of its ancestors.

So is the time right for a car that delivers the mileage but looks like a conventional car?

Rear 3/4 view of 2017 Kia Niro
2017 Kia Niro.
Kia is betting that it is with the new 2017 Kia Niro.  The only controversy about this car is whether it's a small crossover, a hatchback or a wagon.  And our answer to that is...um...yes.

The Niro follows Kia's tried-and-true formula of offering a lot of features for a low price.  Our tester was the base FE, priced at $22,890.  Zero options.  And it felt like any other manufacturer's middle trim level.  For $23,785, when the $895 inland freight and handling is factored in.

Interior view of 2017 Kia Niro
2017 Kia Niro interior.
For that money, you get a 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine with a 43-horsepower electric motor and a 6-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission system.  There's also regenerative braking and an idle stop and go system, all of which contribute to a very solid EPA fuel economy estimate of 52 city/49 highway.  That's not quite the Prius' 54/50, but it's very close.  

Take into account that the Niro FE is $1,300 less than the base Prius Two, is (subjectively) better looking, more versatile when it comes to carrying people and cargo, and offers dual-zone automatic climate control, power windows, door locks and outside mirrors, a solid audio system with a 7-inch touchscreen and rear camera, Android Auto and Apple CarPlay integration, Bluetooth, a free three-month SiriusXM Satellite Radio subscription, remote keyless entry, projector beam headlamps with LED positioning lamps, rear privacy glass and Kia's legendary 10 year/100,000 mile warranty and it's clear that Kia has made a compelling case for choosing a Niro over a Prius.

The only question is whether the people who would buy Priuses if Priuses didn't look so weird will buy a hybrid that doesn't look weird at all.  And for that, we'll have to wait and see.

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