2017 Kia Niro hybrid: first drive report

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According to its maker, the 2017 Kia Niro is the first "crossover hybrid vehicle" sold in the U.S.—but what does that really mean?

We drove150 miles in two different versions of the top-of-the-line Niro Touring model two weeks ago, and concluded that the Niro represents an interesting package with some pluses and minuses.

Our drive at the launch event was broken into three segments of 50 to 60 miles apiece, each with a different mix of hills, country roads, and highway travel.

DON'T MISS: 2017 Kia Niro - full review

At the end of the day, we decided that the Niro is really an old-style wagon, not a crossover utility vehicle, because it offers neither all-wheel drive nor SUV-like ground clearance.

We also concluded that while it could be very fuel-efficient, the Niro is far more enjoyable to drive in the peppier Sport mode rather than the default Eco setting.

Using Sport mode is likely to cut real-world gas mileage to some degree—and perhaps a lot.

2017 Kia Niro, San Antonio, Texas, Dec 2016

2017 Kia Niro, San Antonio, Texas, Dec 2016

Numbers first: there are actually three different sets of EPA fuel-economy ratings for the Niro, depending on which trim level you choose.

The stripped-down Niro FE model is rated at 52 mpg city, 49 highway, and 50 combined. It's basically a Niro LX minus its roof rails, keyless ignition, rear-seat center armrest, and LED taillights—dropping just enough weight to squeak it over that crucial 50-mpg combined rating.

The LX and EX models, which are likely to be the volume sellers, come in just below that, at 51 city, 46 highway, and 49 mpg combined. But fuel efficiency takes a drop for the high-end Touring models that we tested, at 46 city, 40 highway, and 43 mpg combined.

ALSO WATCH: 2017 Kia Optima Hybrids: Details On 27-Mile Plug-In Hybrid (Video)

On our three test-drive legs around a surprisingly chilly San Antonio—all using a mix of Eco and Sport modes—we recorded fuel-economy figures of 34.7 mpg, 41.7 mpg, and 45.7 mpg in models with a 43-mpg combined rating.

The first of those is considerably lower than the 10 or 12 percent variance from the combined rating that most hybrid owners will accept. To be fair, though, it included climbing into the mountains around the city.

The third number was descending back down those same mountains, and corresponding higher than the combined rating.

2017 Kia Niro, San Antonio, Texas, Dec 2016

2017 Kia Niro, San Antonio, Texas, Dec 2016

Visually, the Niro blends crossover design cues—black wheel-well and sill accents, a skid plate on the rear bumper—with a shape that would be a perfectly conventional wagon, if there were a Niro sedan to spawn it (there isn't).

Inside, the cabin is wide for a car based on underpinnings from a subcompact, and four adults will fit with ease, though rear-seat riders may find the seat-back reclined at more of an angle than those in taller, more upright crossovers.

The cabin fittings are Kia's usual stylish but restrained mix of good-looking materials and sensible, easy-to-navigate controls.

CHECK OUT: 2017 Kia Niro Hybrid Crossover Utility Vehicle Debuts At Chicago Auto Show

On the road, the Niro combines a driver's seat about 2 inches higher than a passenger car with the lower ground clearance of a regular wagon, so it holds the road like a car, not a taller utility vehicle.

Kia says the front-seat frames used in the Niro are based on those from the pricier Optima mid-size sedan. We found them comfortable and sufficiently adjustable to handle drivers up to 6-foot-6.

Load space, at 19.4 cubic feet with the rear seat up and 54.5 cubic feet folded down, is slightly less than in the tall, boxy Kia Soul or the larger Kia Sportage crossover.

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