Kia has proven stellar fuel economy doesn’t have to come at the expense of our eyeballs.
It’s an inescapable truth; the automotive industry is transforming into a wasteland of efficient hybrids and boring crossovers. Gearheads are losing out to drivers content with settling for a continuously variable transmission and dreadful steering feel. When Kia dropped off a 2018 Kia Niro Plug-In Hybrid (PHEV) on our doorstep, we feared the end had finally come. But there is a glimmer of hope; crossovers and hybrids don’t have to suck. Not if Kia has anything to say about it.
The Niro is Kia’s attempt to dethrone the Toyota Prius as the most dominant seller in the hybrid car segment. Kia's approach is to put its hybrid technology in the one package modern car buyers cannot pass up: an SUV.
The Niro is a competitor for larger Toyota hybrid models, such as the RAV4 and Prius v. These are fair comparisons based on the Niro’s size, but based on its level of fuel economy, it can go toe-to-toe with the more efficient Prius. We tested the standard Niro Hybrid last year and found it extremely competent aside from a few small hiccups with Kia’s dual-clutch transmission. This Niro Plug-In is a new addition for 2018, designed to be competitive with other PHEV models such as the Prius Prime. To make the best use of its newly added plug, the Niro PHEV houses a larger battery than its non-plug counterpart, resulting in an EPA-rated all-electric driving range of 26 miles.
As with the standard Niro, the PHEV model is powered by a 1.6-liter four-cylinder with direct injection and variable valve timing. The engine alone is good for 104 horsepower and 109 lb-ft of torque. In the PHEV model, an 8.9-kWh battery adds 60 hp compared to 43 hp in the standard hybrid. Unfortunately, the added power doesn’t affect performance because total output is identical at 139 hp and 195 lb-ft. Power is still sent to the front wheels only through a six-speed dual-clutch transmission. Most hybrid models use continuously variable transmissions (CVT) that can cause engines to emit an annoying drone during acceleration. Not so in the Niro.
Kia has chosen to use a dual-clutch automated manual transmission, a gearbox that has typically been reserved for sportier models in the past but has become more widely used on mainstream vehicles. Our 2017 Kia Niro Review noted rough shifts at lower speeds with this transmission, though we have no such complaints with the Niro Plug-In. The shifts are not what we’d call sporty, but smooth enough to be nearly imperceptible. The 26-mile electric range is the most important factor to differentiate the plug-in model. The 8.9-kWh battery can be charged up in around 2.5 hours on a Level 2 charger or around nine hours on a household wall charger.
We suggest owners who plan to charge at home without a Level 2 charger do so overnight to make the nine-hour wait time more tolerable. Throughout our week with the Niro PHEV, we were able to complete our commute without engaging the gas engine, which isn't possible in a standard Niro. The Niro PHEV never made us feel like a nuisance to other drivers, even in EV mode. The electric motor has enough power to reach and exceed 75 mph highway speeds. While it can't weave in and out of traffic at a moment’s notice in EV mode, it can still overtake slower traffic without engaging the engine.
Our commute was less than 26 miles, but buyers with longer commutes will be forced to rely on the Niro PHEV’s gas engine. Owners will still be able to make use of the car's hybrid mode, which cycles between the gas engine and electric motor based on driving conditions. We averaged around 52 mpg when running in hybrid mode, beating EPA estimates of 48/44/46 (city/highway/combined). The Niro’s biggest competitor, the Toyota Prius Prime, is rated at 54 mpg combined and is also $800 cheaper at $27,100. Kia sent us a top-of-the-line EX Premium trim, which starts at $34,500 plus a $940 destination charge.
Our Platinum Graphite model had no additional options. Still, the EX Premium trim came loaded with interior convenience features, including an 8-inch navigation system, Harman Kardon audio, dual-zone climate control with rear vents, heated and ventilated front seats, leather steering wheel and a power driver seat with two memory positions. The EX Premium trim also comes filled to the brim with safety features such as autonomous emergency braking, forward collision warning, lane keep assist, blind spot detection with rear cross traffic alert and adaptive cruise control.
Much to our dismay, the Niro’s adaptive cruise control shuts off after coming to a full stop, forcing the driver to touch the brake pedal. Higher priced Kia models, such as the Stinger and K900, are able to hold the car in position with the adaptive cruise control system. We wish Kia would program its less expensive models to do the same. On the exterior, there isn’t much that screams, “look at me, I’m driving a hybrid.” Unlike the Toyota Prius or Nissan Leaf, the Niro forges its own path of looking like a “normal” car. We see influences of the Jeep Cherokee in the rear while the front adopts Kia’s corporate grill with LED headlights and daytime running lights.
The only elements that set the PHEV apart from the standard Niro are blue accents on the front and rear bumpers and an ECO plug-in badge on the rear tailgate. Kia markets the Niro as an SUV, but it only feels marginally taller than an average hatchback. Luckily, the lower center of gravity works wonders for the Niro’s driving dynamics. It isn't as sporty as the Kia Soul Turbo, but the Niro runs circles around the Prius in terms of driving feel. The steering is light, but not completely devoid of feel. Maneuvering the Niro into tight spots is a breeze, but it won't make the driver fall asleep at the wheel when the road gets twisty.
The Niro didn’t roll around too much when we wanted to have some fun, though its energy saving tires would let out a squeal of distress when we pushed it too hard through the turns. Kia also engineered a genuine sport mode to completely change the Niro PHEV’s driving characteristics. Toss it into sport mode and the steering becomes significantly heavier. This mode also sharpens up the throttle and tells the gas engine to kick in earlier. The throttle is mapped so the driver needs less pedal input to make the car go faster, which is a massive placebo in a slower car. Flat out, the Niro will hit 60 mph in under 9 seconds, which is over a second faster than a Prius.
In addition to the heavier steering and increased throttle response, sport mode has the added effect of charging the battery. We decided to forgo all sensibilities and drive the Niro the way we’d drive a sports car: with heavy throttle and intense braking. When we drove it like lunatics, we were able to bring the battery close to a full charge in as little as 45 minutes. If you don’t have time to plug in, sport mode is the way to go. The Niro holds also a huge advantage over other hybrids in terms of brake pedal feel. In other hybrids, the pedal feel changes when energy regeneration kicks on.
Kia has somehow mastered hybrid brake feel by keeping a smooth and even pedal feel even when the Niro is recapturing energy from the brakes. Some automakers still haven’t perfected brake feel on cars costing twice as much. Much like the standard Niro, the plug-in model sets out with the goal of offering Prius-level fuel efficiency with an appearance that won't make infants cry. Aside from the ECO plug-in plaque and a few buttons and infotainment settings that relate to the battery modes, the PHEV model is nearly identical to the standard car. Kia doesn’t even bother giving the Niro an electronic shifter that looks like the severed head of a Telletubbie.
Instead, the Niro uses a traditional PRND shifter with a kick to the left for sport mode and manual shifts. The 2018 Kia Niro PHEV combines everything that we loved about the standard Niro with the added benefit of a usable electric driving range. The PHEV version commands around $4,000 over the standard car, but federal tax credits almost eliminate that difference. We'd recommend the PHEV version for anyone who has a commute shorter than 26 miles. Even those with longer daily drives will still benefit from part of their journey being on electric power alone.
The Niro exhibited more noise on the highway than we would have preferred, but Kia likely had to save weight on sound deadening in order to hit those impressive fuel economy figures. Highway comfort isn’t the Niro’s forte, but it still has a massive driving range of 560 miles with a full tank and a full charge. Toyota has built up a reputation for dependability, but Kia is quickly catching up with improved build quality and one of the best warranties in the business. If we were to recommend an affordable plug-in model, the Niro would be our first choice. If CVT transmissions and looks only a mother could love are more your speed, by all means buy the Prius. We’ll be tootling around in perfect electric silence in the Kia Niro PHEV.