Does Kia know something other carmakers don’t? The introductions at the Chicago Auto Show are in line with the market — trucks and SUVs ruled, reflecting plunging fuel prices. But Kia marches to its own drummer, and its introduction of an all-new Kia Niro all-wheel-drive hybrid (with a plug-in version to come, and possibly a pure battery car later) was in line with its plan to be the world’s No. 2 green carmaker (after Toyota).
And don’t forget the Kia Optima hybrid and plug-in hybrid, because they were introduced, too. The plan is to increase the lineup’s fuel efficiency by 25 percent by 2020. The two Kias were pretty much the only green introductions in Chicago.
Around the U.S., hybrid sales are anemic. Just 20,967 were sold in January, which adds up to a “take rate” of 1.84 percent. Toyota, with the Prius family, had 75 percent of the hybrid market; Ford 11.9 and Kia/Hyundai 6.8 percent. So getting to second isn’t that big a stretch. And when the most common thing is offering hybrid versions of existing cars, having a dedicated green-only car is a bold move. But it's necessary if Hyundai/Kia is to reach the 54.5 mpg fleet average the feds are targeting for 2025.
Ford offers the C-MAX only as a hybrid and plug-in hybrid, so Kia’s on that page. The car seems promising, even though it’s not much of a looker (generic SUV; it’s going to be hard to find in a parking lot). The concept version was wilder, with gullwing doors. But beneath the ho-hum skin of the production car a lot is happening.
Hybrids can achieve all-wheel drive by putting the electric motor on one axle and the internal-combustion power plant on the other. As Green Car Reports noted, such an AWD set-up is on the Kia-Soul-based Trail’ster concept, with the electric motor powering the back wheels. If they have a system like that, it makes sense to put it on the Niro.
The Niro, which will be on sale later this year (with the plug-in version to follow), has a relatively small 1.6-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery. The gas motor is a direct-injection 1.6-liter Atkinson-cycle four, making 103 horsepower, and it’s combined with a 43-horsepower electric motor. So combined, that’s 146 horsepower (and 195 foot pounds of torque). Not enough to make it a barn burner, but in the Prius’ league. The company claims it's sporty on the road. Expect 50 mpg combined, again on par with the Prius.
Also in Chicago, Kia showed off the much-anticipated plug-in hybrid Optima. It’s got a two-liter direct-injection engine with 154 horsepower, coupled to a six-speed automatic and a 50-kilowatt (67 horsepower) electric motor mounted on the transmission. The motor has a 42 percent power gain over that of Optima Hybrid.
I love this about plug-in hybrids — insane cruising range, in this case 600 miles. You’ll thumb your nose at gas stations. And, of course, you have 27 miles of all-electric range, courtesy of the 9.8 kilowatt-hour lithium polymer battery pack. A regenerative braking system, improved 10 percent from the Optima Hybrid, also increases efficiency, as does the slippery 0.24 coefficient of drag (same as the Tesla Model S).
All the safety stuff you’d expect is on-board: autonomous emergency braking, blind spot detection, advanced smart cruise control, lane departure and front collision warning.
The Optima Hybrid uses the same two-liter, 154-horsepower four, but in this case it has a smaller 38-kilowatt (51 horsepower) electric motor and a 1.62-kilowatt-hour lithium polymer battery. The whole shebang puts out 193 horsepower, and offers a 10 percent fuel-efficiency improvement over the earlier Optima Hybrid.
The drivetrain is shared with the Hyundai Sonata Hybrid, a car that much impressed me on a recent weeklong test. The $26,000 introductory price is one of the best things about it, and I’d expect the new Optima hybrid to be comparable.
Three new green Kias, debuting in the fierce environment of sub-$2 gas. That’s impressive. Here's the Niro introduction in Chicago on video: