2018 Kia Niro Plug-In Hybrid First Drive | Edmunds

2018 Kia Niro Plug-In Hybrid First Drive

Compact, Useful, Versatile — Just Don't Call It a Hatchback

With steady first-year sales of the Kia Niro Hybrid, it's no surprise to see the automaker quickly following up with a plug-in hybrid. To the eye, the two models look almost identical; only some badging, blue trim bits and a charge port door distinguish the 2018 Kia Niro Plug-In Hybrid from its counterpart. The key difference, however, lies in the plug-in's rechargeable battery and an extended range of battery-powered miles, which should appeal to buyers looking for a middle ground between a regular hybrid and a fully electric car.

But aside from the Niro's keen use of alternative energy, it's the car's utility that elevates it beyond simply a commuting strategy. The Niro is compact enough to squeeze into tight parking spots, its roomy interior comfortably carries four adults, and its cargo space is generous enough to handle home improvement hauls and gear for outdoor activities.

On a recent test drive from Southern California to San Francisco, one with a handful of detours that highlighted the Niro's efficiency and utility, we found it almost versatile enough to be considered an SUV. Almost.

2018 Kia Niro Plug-In Hybrid

What's in a Name?
The Niro Plug-In Hybrid, like its regular hybrid counterpart, is no crossover. Kia would like you to think so, mostly because Americans buy cars called "crossovers" and generally avoid cars called "hatchbacks." But for all intents and purposes, the Niro is a hatchback. It offers a marginally higher road view (although not substantially more than, say, a Volkswagen Golf) but not much else for off-road or foul weather driving.

Ground clearance is decent at 6.3 inches, and that's better than the Ford C-Max Energi or Toyota Prius Prime, but still an inch short of the Honda HR-V, a car we consider a subcompact SUV due to its taller ride height and optional all-wheel drive. The Niro doesn't offer the latter.

Semantics aside, the Niro Plug-In Hybrid makes a fine hatchback. Luggage space behind the rear seats (19.4 cubic feet) lags what the Prius offers, but folding the rear seats yields an expansive 54.5 cubic feet of rear space. The Niro Plug-In's rear seats don't fold as neatly flat as the regular hybrid's (there's a larger battery pack under those seats, after all). But that didn't hinder loading a run of donation supplies during our L.A.-to-San Francisco drive — 11 cases of bottled water, multiple rolls of disinfectant wipes, bottles of detergent, and sundries — to Ventura, California, for victims of the area's recent wildfires.

2018 Kia Niro Plug-In Hybrid

Electrons Are Everything
The advantage of the 2018 Kia Niro Plug-In Hybrid over the regular hybrid is, of course, a rechargeable battery that can store an EPA-estimated 26 miles of electric-only range. With a full tank of fuel and topped-up battery, Kia estimates a total range of 560 miles. Under hypercontrolled and aggressively hypermiled conditions you might achieve that, but it's a fanciful notion in real-word driving, in which the gas engine is eager to kick on and crash the electrons-only party.

We started our test drive with two adults up front and supplies loaded to the ceiling in back. We managed 16 electric miles in city driving before getting onto a highway. Whatever juice remained quickly evaporated in our dash to merge with traffic, but still a handy result for what you might consider an extreme, or at the very least occasional, cargo scenario.

A driver-selectable switch can toggle between EV-only and hybrid modes, thus conserving electric miles. If your route takes you on the highway, for example, you can run in hybrid mode — that is, almost exclusively on gasoline — to bank those electric miles for when you're off the highway and on roads with slower traffic or speed limits.

2018 Kia Niro Plug-In Hybrid

To maximize those electric miles, however, you'll need to tread lightly on the accelerator pedal and keep the 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine dormant. The 104-hp engine is eager to fire up with even modest pressing of the gas pedal, although it's easy to get a feel for the threshold of the electric motor's capability. Together, the engine and electric motor make 139 horsepower and 195 pound-feet of torque, delivered to the ground through a six-speed, dual-clutch automatic transmission.

It's not a particularly quick combination — we previously tested the Niro Hybrid at 8.9 seconds from 0 to 60 mph, and the Niro Plug-In Hybrid is about 300 pounds heavier — but it does the job. There's decent enough low-end torque, but the only way to really unlock it is to drive the car in Sport mode and make gear changes yourself. This is also a guaranteed way to never achieve that 560 miles of estimated range.

The Niro Plug-In does have an impressive ability to replenish its charge, however. On one particularly long, jammed stretch of highway descending into a valley floor, we were able to regenerate nearly 20 miles of electric-only range. At least that's what the car told us; those miles disappeared quickly once traffic picked up and the car transitioned between gas and electric modes.

On our test drive, with mostly heavy-footed highway driving along our particular test route, much of it in Sport mode, we still achieved nearly 39 mpg. But we're pretty certain most drivers should be able to match the Niro Plug-In's EPA-estimated 46 mpg combined rating (48 city/44 highway). The Niro Hybrid that Edmunds previously tested actually exceeded its EPA rating in our mixed-driving test.

Lost among some of the Niro's efficiency charm is that it's actually a lively little utility player. Despite steering that feels light and not particularly connected to anything (a familiar feeling throughout Kia and parent company Hyundai lineups), the Niro moves and handles nicely. It carries its weight lower thanks to battery placement, which contributes to unexpected stability, grip and fun, in turns.

2018 Kia Niro Plug-In Hybrid

In and Out With Ease
Like the Niro Hybrid, the plug-in model offers plenty of room for four passengers, and maybe even an additional large, furry one. Three adults in the back seat would be pushing it, and the middle passenger will appreciate the flat floor, but three children would fit with some elbow room to spare. Getting in and out is easy, with doors that open to almost 90 degrees, although the Niro's shorter ride height compared to that of many small SUVs and crossovers means you still sit down into the seats rather than slide onto them. Unless you prefer stepping up and into a car, the Niro should get most passengers in and out without effort.

The seats offer good padding and lumbar support. Although we found that back and lower body fatigue set in after just a few hours behind the wheel, both creeping in traffic and driving at speed on an open highway. Seat heaters help in the interim, but soon even shifting and squirming won't help and you'll need to stop and stretch or switch drivers.

One distinguishing detail that plug-in owners might appreciate is the blue, almost turquoise, interior stitching around the seats, door panels and steering wheel. Even the vent inlays are trimmed in the same pleasing blue hue as the exterior badging.

2018 Kia Niro Plug-In Hybrid

Trims and Top-Ups
The 2018 Kia Niro Plug-In Hybrid is offered in three trim levels: LX, EX and EX Premium. The base LX comes equipped with essentials (power-adjustable driver seat, Bluetooth, 7-inch touchscreen display, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto) and nice extras (auto-dimming rearview mirror, rear USB port). Moving up to the EX brings cloth upholstery with leather accents and heated seats among other upgrades, while the EX Premium adds leather upholstery, cooled seats and an 8-inch touchscreen.

Adaptive cruise, automatic emergency braking, forward collision warning, and lane keeping assist come on all three trims, while blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert are reserved for EX and EX Premium trims. (The latter also comes with front and rear parking sensors.)

Kia says the plug-in hybrid's battery can top up in nine hours on a standard household outlet. Use a 240-volt power source and that time drops to 2.5 hours.

With useful cargo space and utility, a battery that can top up in the time it takes for dinner and a movie, and the ability to serve as marathon support vehicle on electric power alone, the 2018 Kia Niro Plug-In Hybrid gives American buyers a new reason to like hatchbacks.

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