– Detroit, Michigan
Plug-in cars are still a very small part of the market, even though more manufacturers than ever are offering them. From Kia, the new Niro Plug-In Hybrid is an easy way to convince shoppers of the virtues of electricity: with a larger battery and more powerful motor than the non-plug-in hybrid Niro, it can travel up to 26 miles on electricity alone and still returns 46 miles per gallon combined when the battery is exhausted. Just like the standard Niro, this plug-in hybrid hatchback eschews the weird tropes of other eco-focused cars, packing its thrifty drivetrain in a fun and useful package.
With a starting price before destination and options of $27,900, the Kia Niro PHEV compares favorably to the sticker prices of its key rivals: The $24,950 Hyundai Ioniq PHEV, $27,100 Toyota Prius Prime, $33,220 Chevrolet Volt, and the $33,400 Honda Clarity PHEV. (Of course, the Niro’s score here suffers because it’s relatively pricey as hatchbacks in general go.) Yet it’s quite easy to add a lot to the car’s price if you move up the trim level walk; this tester, the top-tier EX Premium trim level, is $35,440. However, the Niro PHEV is eligible for a federal tax credit for plug-in cars of $4,543, which can help offset that cost. (Find out what tax breaks rival PHEVs are eligible for at this website.)
The Niro scores big points here for looking more like a normal hatchback than most of its rivals; there are very few eco-car styling cues, which is a positive. Like most new Kia designs, it’s a fun and funky look, with lots of rounded corners and a squat stance from having the wheels pushed out to the corners. Yet as much as I like the look of the Niro, it doesn’t do a lot to stand out from the crowd. Especially in this tester’s subdued Gravity Blue paint on its nondescript 16-inch wheels, the Niro looks stylish but somewhat anonymous.
The materials are pleasant to look at and touch, with clearly legible gauges and switches. But there’s not a lot of visual flair here to draw your attention. Still, driver and passengers will be comfortable, with lots of headroom afforded by the Niro’s tall-box design. Cargo space with the back seat raised is about on par with other hatchbacks, like a Volkswagen Golf, though in this tester the 120-volt charging kit did take up a backpack’s worth of space. Still, I had no issue fitting a carry-on suitcase and backpack for a trip from Detroit to Chicago, and the rear seatbacks fold down easily if you need more room.
Urban motoring on electric power is nice and quiet, with almost zero noise coming from the drivetrain. When the gasoline engine is running, you’ll know it: the 1.6-liter is gruff and loud, especially under hard acceleration or highway cruising. The Niro’s cabin also admits more road and wind noise than the segment average.
Both versions of the Kia Niro PHEV’s touchscreen infotainment system are excellent, and both come with Apple CarPlay/Android Auto support standard. On LX and EX trims it’s a 7-inch screen, while this EX Premium tester has an 8-inch display that adds built-in navigation. The on-screen menus and graphics are crisp and fleet to respond to the touch. Being a plug-in car, the Niro also has myriad displays for monitoring your energy usage, scheduling charging times, and so on. LX and EX models receive a 4.2-inch color trip computer, while this EX Premium upgrades to a 7-inch display with even more room for music, fuel efficiency, and navigation information. The EX Premium also packs wireless phone charging, conveniently in a rubber-lined compartment ahead of the shifter that perfectly holds my phone.
Zippy off the line, thanks to the swell of low-end torque from its electric motor, the Niro’s acceleration diminishes notably above urban speeds. Response from the accelerator pedal is direct and responsive, but with just 139 horsepower combined, the car is not especially brisk for highway passing. On the other hand, its very car-like driving experience is a welcome change from some other plug-ins. The steering has a solid heft to it, and the brake pedal is remarkably firm and consistent whether the regenerative or friction brakes are at work. The ride is a little choppy over broken pavement and the Niro can wander a little on longer highway drives, though.
Kia generously equips every Niro PHEV with pre-collision warning and braking, lane-keep assist, and adaptive cruise control. It’s necessary to move up to the mid-grade EX level to add blind-spot warning and rear cross-traffic alert, while the EX Premium I tested builds on those with front and rear parking sensors. Overall, that’s a healthy list of safety features available for modest prices.
Visibility is quite good in all directions. The rear window is short in height, though, so the wiper is small and does not clear the farthest sides of the glass; you’ll find that a frustration when driving in snow or rain.
Plug-in hybrid technology will save buyers plenty at the pump. EPA estimates say the Niro PHEV should travel 26 miles on a fully charged battery. Even when the battery charge is depleted and it’s driven as a normal hybrid, the Niro should still return 46 miles per gallon combined, with 48 mpg in the city and 44 mpg highway. Juicing up the lithium-ion polymer battery at a 240-volt (Level 2) charger, as is commonly found at public charging places, will take just two and a half hours.
That all-electric range, by the way, is good but not quite class-leading. The Ioniq manages 29 miles of EV motoring on a single charge, the Clarity PHEV is rated for 48 miles, and the Chevy Volt is EPA-rated at 53 miles of range. Kia is ahead of the Prius Prime, however, which can only do 25 miles.
Photos: Jake Holmes / Motor1.com