Kia Aims to Be Korea’s Performance Brand, With Hybrids

2017 Kia Niro

Kia, as we know it, is distinguishing itself from its Hyundai parent by becoming Korea’s performance brand. Its introductions at the Chicago Auto Show further indicate where the brand is heading.

But wait, you might protest. Didn’t Kia introduce two hybrids at the Chicago Auto Show? Yes, but hybrid no longer means dowdy. Have you seen the Toyota Prius Super Bowl commercial? It’s not that far off the mark.

Developments for fuel efficiency can easily translate to performance enhancements. Kia’s two introductions demonstrate that.

Kia hosted the global debut of the all-new 2017 Niro hybrid utility vehicle. The Niro is the first Kia to make use of an all-new, dedicated eco-car platform.

The Niro was designed with aerodynamics in mind, with its bodywork design contributing to a relatively slippery coefficient of drag of 0.29. Sure, that’s a fuel-efficiency goal, but it’s also one easily applied to performance design.

Kia says weight reduction was a critical aspect of Niro development. (Granted, every vehicle introduced in the last 10 years seems to be somehow lighter than its predecessors.) In addition to the body, advanced high-strength steel was also used to engineer other elements, including novel lightweight seat frames.

That last little tidbit was buried somewhat in the announcement. After all, you don’t sell hybrids with news about lightweight seat frames. But you know what other vehicle is hyping its lightweight seats? The 2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata‘s seats are more than a third thinner than the previous generation’s, because Mazda is using a canvas net and urethane seat material instead of traditional springs and foam.

The Niro also has a newly developed, second-generation 6-speed dual-clutch transmission. As Kia points out, it not only boosts efficiency but is also a key factor in the Niro’s driving experience, mainly because it’s not the continuously variable transmission found in most other hybrids.

2017 Optima HybridKia also introduced the 2017 Kia Optima Plug-in Hybrid at the Chicago Auto Show. Its main selling point is 10 percent greater fuel efficiency than the model it replaces.

It will use a compact 2.0-liter gasoline direct-injection 4-cylinder – estimated at 154 horsepower – coupled with a hybrid starter generator. A 38kW electric motor and clutch replace the traditional torque converter to provide strong off-the-line acceleration and power assistance to the engine. Together, the two work to provide 193 hp at 6,000 rpm.

Sure, that’s not earth-shattering horsepower, but it’s pretty good. Imagine, though, if Kia starts mating this electric motor to other engines in its lineup. The attendant boost in power, while helping fuel economy, could be another nod in the direction of performance.

Okay, maybe this has nothing to do with performance, but why couldn’t it? The new Kia Optima Plug-in Hybrid features an all-new Eco-DAS (driver assistance system). It features Kia’s first application of coasting guide. This feature aims to maximize fuel economy by essentially coaching the driver on when to coast and brake via an icon in the instrument panel that blinks for 4 seconds and sounds a one-time audible alert.

What if you tweaked it and instead allowed it to instruct you on how to get the best performance out of your engine? That’s probably only a pipe dream in a safety-conscious world, though.

-Keith Griffin

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