Ever since Toyota launched the 2004 Prius with an unmistakably unique shape, fuel savings have been associated with unique looks. Subsequent generations of Toyota’s best-selling gas-electric hybrid have followed that mold, as have a number of competitors.
But two tall hatchbacks that are all new for 2017 promise impressive fuel savings without styling that telegraphs anything special under the hood: the Kia Niro hybrid and the Chevrolet Bolt EV all-electric car.
The Niro boasts an EPA rating of up to 50 miles per gallon in mixed driving and a base price of just $23,785 – not bad for any five-passenger vehicle with respectable cargo space and decent refinement. The Niro has both. Sized and shaped roughly like a Honda HR-V or Mazda CX-3 subcompact crossover, it has a slightly higher seating position than a standard passenger car, though the Kia doesn’t offer all-wheel-drive.
Inside, the Niro continues to be visually pleasant but unassuming. The dashboard is well-finished and ergonomically sound, but its straightforward design has neither the pizzazz nor the potentially confusing controls of a Prius. Meanwhile, its wagon body style is closer to a Prius v or a Ford C-Max than the standard Prius hatchback; a Prius-shaped version of the Niro is hitting the market now as the Hyundai Ioniq.
On the road, driving the Niro is like driving a normal car, albeit a fairly slow one. Like other hybrids, an electric battery recharges while you drive and can help power the car to reduce fuel usage. But composed ride and handling, and an overall solid feel, help it feel respectably upscale for its price point – a big step up from the aging Prius v, a model derived from the previous-generation Prius hatchback.
Where the Niro is less impressive, is its gas mileage. While it’s excellent by nearly every standard, the Kia’s fuel economy falls short of the Prius’s, especially in the real world. When you add features to the Niro, its EPA rating quickly falls from 50 mpg to 49 on most versions – and on the fully-loaded Touring, it plummets to 43 mpg. During a weeklong test around the D.C. region, the tested Niro Touring did beat its EPA rating with a 48-mpg average – but a Prius tested last year crushed it by returning a whopping 69 mpg.
The difference is that the light, aerodynamic Toyota is able to stay frequently in all-electric mode. The Niro, meanwhile, needed more frequent assistance from its gas engine even for gentle acceleration. Not only does that leave the Kia burning more fuel, but it also makes it less rewarding to drive than the Prius for a hybrid enthusiast. If you’d like to save some gas without paying scrupulous attention to the throttle, though, the Niro is still a good fit – especially if you appreciate its space, value, refinement and relative normalcy.
Meanwhile, the Chevrolet Bolt EV’s normalcy stops with the car’s exterior. Not to be confused with the brand’s Volt plug-in hybrid, whose gasoline engine can charge the batteries once its electric range is used up, the all-new Bolt is entirely electric. And like the best all-electric cars, it delivers blastoff acceleration right off the line – strong and nearly silent power that leaves most hybrids, ordinary economy cars, and such electric competitors as the Nissan Leaf in the dust. Based on a quick drive at Sport Chevrolet in Silver Spring, the Bolt EV also has commendable ride and handling poise and an airy, spacious cabin.
Inside, the Bolt EV features bright customizable displays intended to help drivers maximize their electric range – which is class-leading at an EPA-estimated 238 miles per charge. Only Tesla’s luxury cars beat that figure; other competitors are at merely half that range or less. Prices are higher than a Leaf’s, though – a base MSRP of $37,495 (before a $7,500 federal tax credit). And although the Bolt has a long all-electric range, it does need to be plugged in after those 238 miles – there isn’t a gasoline engine to recharge it on the go, like the Volt or some other competitors.
Still, the Bolt EV is overall a premium-feeling eco-friendly vehicle that goes a long way toward easing concerns about electric cars’ range. Plus, like other electric cars, you can drive it solo in Maryland’s HOV lanes.