The beauty of the Kia Niro plug-in hybrid sneaks up on you. It’s not in its function-over-form body but in how easily this compact-class crossover wagon-hatchback fits into a busy lifestyle.
With around 26 miles of battery driving, it is quick to dispense with errand-running and with engine assist there are more than 500 miles of total driving range; it is an EV that doesn’t fiddle around.
The Niro PHEV is an urban runabout and a comfortable commuter — and it does both jobs well.
The Niro is a family of electrified cars under Kia’s EcoDynamics sub-brand of alternative-fuel vehicles. It is now available as a gasoline-electric hybrid, a plug-in hybrid or battery electric.
Today’s tester is the Niro PHEV, sold in three trim levels with starting prices of $28,840-$35,440, including the freight charge from Hwasung, Korea. The top-line EX Premium tester had just one factory option of carpeted floor mats ($135) for a total of $35,575.
The Niro PHEV qualifies for a $4,543 federal tax rebate, $1,500 from the state’s Clean Vehicle Rebate and San Diego Gas & Electric offers an annual credit of $200 to those who own or lease a plug-in vehicle. The credit is available to qualified customers through 2020. (Details at Cleanvehiclerebate.org.)
In case you’d not known, Kia has earned the No. 1 ranking by J.D. Power among non-premium auto brands in its 2018 Initial Quality Study. The Korea-based carmaker has claimed the top spot in this category for the last four years and last year’s scoring was the same for 2018, a reported 72 problems per 100 vehicles. The Sorento midsize SUV and Rio small car are in the lead positions with the Optima midsize sedan, Sportage small SUV and Sedona minivan placing second and the Forte compact
car in third, for their segments.
Kia has a safe niche for Niro, so far, in the non-premium segment of small PHEVs. There is only about one true competitor in the Ford C-Max hybrid and PHEV and it is on its way out of production. There are luxury-class offerings in the Mercedes-Benz GLC350e, XC40,
A3 e-tron and Maserati Levante.
The body styling has some compact cuteness that wraps around an upright format as tidy and functional as an American Tourister roller bag — ready to travel with a hard shell that feels secure and refined.
The Niro is a sturdy vehicle weighing 4,409 pounds (about a hundred pounds heavier than Kia’s midsize Sorento 4WD SUV), which makes its battery driving range all the more impressive. But there were many weight-saving tricks applied, such as using advanced high strength steel in more than half of the structure with aluminum for the hood, tailgate, brake calipers and many suspension pieces.
You can ID the Niro PHEV by its slightly modified front grille, hybrid blue exterior accents and the charge-port door on the left front fender.
The performance is adequate for daily driving and there is a Sport mode that dips quicker into engine power. The hybrid powertrain is comprised of a 104-horsepower, 1.6-liter Atkinson-cycle four-cylinder engine, a 360-volt (60-hp) electric motor and a 59-kW lithium ion polymer battery with a six-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission. The system has a total of 139 hp with fuel economy ratings of 48 mpg city, 44 highway and 46 mpg combined on 87 octane. The EPA gives the mileage a 105 mpg-e rating. The 11.4-gallon fuel tank is large for a plug-in and should allow 560 miles of range, but some drivers will get far more range.
A full charge takes about 2.5 hours using a 240-volt (Level 2) charger or around nine hours with the onboard 120-volt (Level 1) charger. I was able to drive mostly on battery power in a week of testing because I’d top off whenever I got home. Shame on me for not using off-peak electricity, but every time I got back into the car, the driving range was 500 miles. About the only time the engine kicked in is when I floored it for merging or evasive power.
Stopping force felt confident to control the weight with the four-wheel-disc regenerative brakes; 11-inch vented front rotors and 11.2-inch solid rotors rear.
The interior plastics have an appealing appearance and are free of rough edges. The contemporary décor uses contrasting hues of shale and black plastics with (reserved) piano black accents and the blue stitching (on the door trim, seats, steering wheel and shift boot.
The driver area is smartly designed as an intuitive command center with a tall 40 inches of front headroom. Cabin controls are neatly arranged in two tiers for audio and AC-vent-fan with an 8-inch touch screen for navigation, phone, radio, apps and a custom button to preset a special direct access for phone or Kia’s UVO subscription e-services.
The front seats have firm comfort but will be a little shy on thigh support for the big-and-tall driver. The EX Premium includes a six-way power driver’s seat with lumbar (but no separate seat-cushion tilt) and a four-way manual front passenger seat with height adjustment. Other useful features are a large driver’s footrest and large sliding visors with covered and lighted mirrors.
Sightlines are basically unimpeded but drivers will want to take a second look right where the wide base of the windshield pillar meets the broad base of the side mirror. The wide rearview camera with guidance is quite helpful.
The shifter console is large with a charging bin that includes a charging pad, USB port, aux-in and two 180-watt 12-volt plugs. And there is another USB charging port in the armrest-console box.
The only low-tech oddity in this very electrified vehicle is the mechanical foot-pumper parking brake.
There are no apparent budget cuts to the back seat and no weirdly tall seat height, even with the batteries below. The space is made roomier by a low exhaust tunnel, which will ease the occasional crunch of three-across seating. The center seat has a head restraint that can be lowered when not needed.
The cargo area does have a tall floor (because of the batteries), which lowers the load-in ceiling height to about 27 ½ inches. But fold the 60/40 back seats (nearly flat) and there is 5 1/2 feet of length by 39 inches wide. The aluminum liftgate is about the lightest I’ve experienced for one-handed opening and closing.
Kia’s detailed engineering of Niro has created a plug-and-play device that makes our daily lives a little easier, a little quieter and a little more efficient.
2018 Kia Niro PHEV EX Premium
- Body style: compact, 5-seat, front-wheel drive 5-door crossover
- Engine: 104-hp, 1.6-liter Atkinson-cycle 4-cylinder with auto stop-start at idle; 109 lb.-ft. torque at 4,000 rpm
- Electric motor: AC synchronous permanent magnet with 360-volts, 60-hp, 129 lb.-ft. torque
- Battery: Lithium-ion polymer; 8.9 kWh, 59 kW, 24.7-amp hours
- Total system power: 139-hp, 195 lb.-ft. torque
- Transmission: 6-speed dual-clutch automatic
- Electric driving range: up to 26 miles
- Fuel economy: 48/44/46 mpg city/hwy/combined or 105 mpg-e; 87 octane
- Total driving range: 560 miles
- Fuel tank: 11.4 gal.
- Cargo space: 19.4-54.5 cu. ft.
- Front head/leg room: 40.1/41.7 in.
- Rear head/leg room: 39.1/37.4 in.
- Length/wheelbase: 171.5/106.3 in.
- Curb weight: 4,409 lbs.
- Turning circle: 34.8 ft.
- Standard equipment includes: keyless entry and push-button ignition, navigation system with 8-inch touchscreen, rearview camera, UVO infotainment, Android Auto or Apple CarPlay, heated and ventilated front seats, heated steering wheel, LED headlights, LED running lights and front fog lights, power folding (heated) side mirrors with turn signals, 16-inch alloy wheels with 205/60 all-season tires
- Safety features include: 7 air bags, hill-start assist, stability and traction controls, autonomous emergency braking, forward collision warning, lane-keep assist, smart cruise control, blind-spot detection, rear cross-traffic alert
- EX Premium base price: $35,440, including $940 freight charge; price as tested $35,575
- Options on test vehicle: carpeted floor mats $135
- Where assembled: Hwasung, Korea
- Warranty: 10-years/100,000-miles lithium-ion battery and powertrain; 5-years/60,000-miles bumper to bumper with roadside assistance