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Hybrid cars: 2017 Kia Niro Crossover debuts at Chicago Auto Show

Hybrid cars have traditionally been hatchbacks--think Honda Insight, Toyota Prius, even the plug-in hybrid Chevrolet Volt--  but teh Kia Niro is among the first to be  designed as a crossover utility vehicle.

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    The 2017 Kia Niro sits on display at the Chicago Auto Show Feb. 11, 2016.
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The 2017 Kia Niro "hybrid utility vehicle" revealed this morning at the Chicago AutoShow marks the South Korean brand's ambitious entry into dedicated hybrids.

While dedicated hybrids have traditionally been hatchbacks--think Honda Insight, Toyota Prius, even the plug-in hybrid Chevrolet Volt--none have yet been designed as crossover utility vehicles.

Even better, Kia promises that there's a Niro plug-in hybrid version coming after the conventional hybrid launches late this year.

Given that the larger, heavier Kia Optima Plug-In Hybrid also launched today is close to the top of its class in all-electric range, at 27 miles, that leads to interesting speculation about the future plug-in version of the smaller Niro.

But here's what we know as of today's launch: Much of Kia's presentation centered on differentiating the Niro from "typical" hybrids.

The company focused on its driving pleasure and "normal" character, versus some of the stereotypical hybrid attributes that set them apart visually from other cars, as well as behind the wheel. The Niro is said to offer quick responses and low, sporty roadholding for the category.

Kia is targeting an EPA rating of 50 mpg combined, an aggressive figure for a vehicle with more crossover looks and capabilities than your average hatchback.

Still, the Niro isn't quite a full crossover utility vehicle. Kia hasn't specified whether all-wheel drive will be available, usually a requirement in cold-weather states--although we expect an electric AWD system to be offered in the future, likely based on the system shown in Kia Soul-based Trail'ster concept shown at last year's Chicago Show.

That AWD system used a separate electric motor on the rear axle to supplement the hybrid powertrain driving the front wheels. The added weight would likely cut the combined fuel economy rating to less than the benchmark 50 mpg, but if AWD proves to be a market necessity, we predict Kia will add it.

The Kia Niro is powered by a 103-horsepower direct-injected 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine, running on the ultra-efficient Atkinson cycle, combined with the company's own six-speed dual-clutch transmission.

In between those two components, a 32-kilowatt (43-hp) electric motor contributes its own torque and can propel the car on its own under some driving conditions. Kia quotes combined power output at 146 hp and 195 lb-ft of torque.

A 1.6-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery sits under the rear seat, sending energy to the motor to power the Niro--whether by itself or in combination with the engine--as well as storing otherwise wasted energy captured through regenerative braking.

The shape of the Niro isn't as tall, bluff, and slab-sided as the very popular Kia Soul tall wagon, which occupies roughly the same footprint.

Its lines split the difference between those of a conventional wagon and a genuine utility vehicle. It's thick enough through the cowl and front end to qualify as a sleek crossover, led off by the characteristic Kia grille and etched in smoothly rounded lines.

Design cues to underscore its crossover credentials include large wheel arches, cladding on the rocker panels, roof rails, and a rear skid plate.

Kia says the "strong and confident" look of the Niro is atypical of dedicated hybrids. Indeed, nothing in its lines indicates that there's any kind of advanced powertrain underneath.

Despite the utility shape, though, Kia says careful aerodynamic work has reduced the drag coefficient to 0.29--low for any kind of SUV or crossover vehicle.

More details on the specifications, features, and pricing of the 2017 Kia Niro will be released closer to its on-sale date late in 2016.

The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best auto bloggers out there. Our guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. To contact us about a blogger, click here. To add or view a comment on a guest blog, please go to the blogger's own site by clicking on the link in the blog description box above.

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