As an auto journalist, I, and I’m assuming the majority of others in the industry, try to go into a review without any preconceptions. Not judging a book and all of that good jazz your mom told you not to do in elementary school. As someone that loves small cars and diesels, the 2018 Kia Niro PHEV represents everything that enthusiasts are supposed to hate. So, putting everything out into the open here, I wasn’t in the Niro PHEV’s corner when the kind gentlemen dropped the car off at my apartment.
Over the course of a couple of days, I racked up in excess of 600 miles in the electrified crossover-wagon thing and really liked it. Not only that, but I also understood why someone would buy it, even with the extra costs, over the regular hybrid Niro model. Who knew mom was right all this time?
Driving Impressions/Fuel Economy
The main reason for even considering the Niro PHEV is saving money at the pumps and saving cute little fuzzy animals before they go extinct, by using a much cleaner source of energy to get around – electricity. In that regard, the PHEV doesn’t disappoint. The EPA claims the Niro PHEV is good for 46 mpg combined on gas (we averaged over 50 mpg during our time) and 105 MPGe combined when running on electricity. Sure, there are cars out there, most notably the Toyota Prius Prime, that can get better numbers, but they’re not as spacious. That’s getting a little ahead of ourselves, though.
Just like the hybrid variant, the Niro PHEV features a 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine and an electric motor. Combined output for the components is rated at 139 horsepower and 195 pound-feet of torque, just like the hybrid. Where the PHEV differs from the hybrid is the size of its lithium-ion battery pack – 8.9 kWh versus 1.6 kWh. This little differentiation allows the PHEV to run on electricity for 26 miles.
While that doesn’t sound like a lot, I found it to be more than adequate for running errands around town. We’d use up a couple of EV miles getting somewhere, try to drive carefully, regenerate a few miles somewhere else, and before you know it, you’ve only used a miles of EV power driving around all day in near silence with instant acceleration. It’s really pretty cool in a city. You can force the vehicle to stay in EV mode with a push of a button, too, but a quick jab of the throttle or turning the automatic climate control on brings the engine to life.
Another fun difference between the two is the Niro PHEV is quicker to 60 mph. The plug-in hybrid may tip the scales at 177 pounds more than the hybrid, but in Car & Driver’s testing, the PHEV was 0.6 seconds quicker to 60 mph than the regular Niro. Zero to 60 mph times don’t matter much with cars like the Niro PHEV, but it does feel quicker than the regular hybrid.
When the time came to charge the vehicle, it couldn’t have been easier, but that also depends on where you live. There were numerous charging stations in Baltimore, the closest of which was in a park. There, we could hook the Niro PHEV up to a 7.2 kWh charger for free. It wasn’t the quickest form of charging (the display said we’d have to wait 2 and a half hours to get a full charge from 17 percent), but it was free and the beauty of the PHEV is that you don’t have to wait until it’s fully charged because the gas engine has a range of roughly 530 miles.
On the open highway, the vehicle acts like any other hybrid, switching between running on electricity when coasting and in bumper-to-bumper traffic to utilizing the gasoline engine when passing or under constant load.
The Niro PHEV has an interesting design, as the majority of plug-in hybrids on the road are either sedans or small hatchbacks. The blueprint incorporates everything consumers want at the moment in a handsome package – there’s a decent amount of ground clearance, a crossover-esque look, and plastic body cladding for extra ruggedness. Its size also makes it easy to park and get around tight roads, a necessity for urbanites.
To help owners from mistaking their PHEV from the regular hybrid, Kia has added a few blue elements on the exterior that can be found on the rear and front bumpers, similar to what BMW does with the i3 and i8. Other than the blue bits and the charging flap at the front, the hybrid and the PHEV look identical.
Personally, I think that’s a good thing, because the Niro’s a handsome vehicle. It’s got plenty of smooth lines. And while the rear end may not be the prettiest part of the vehicle, it’s better looking than a lot of other PHEVs on the market. Try comparing the Niro PHEV with the Prius Prime and it’s like looking at Newton – the Brussels Griffon that won Best in Show for 2017’s National Dog Show – and Zsa Zsa, who was recently named the ugliest dog in the world.
Once again, the Niro PHEV shares the same interior as the hybrid, except for blue trim pieces on the dashboard and blue stitching on the seats and steering wheel. The cabin is where the vehicle’s crossover body style really makes the Niro PHEV unique. The crossover can seat up to five comfortably and that’s not like, wink-wink, you’ll be comfortable in the back for 10 minutes. We had three adults sitting in the back and went on a 300-mile round-trip journey from Fairfax, Va. to Lynchburg, Va. and no one complained. There was plenty of room for all of our bags, too. Say what you will about crossovers, but there’s a reason why they’re so popular.
Everything else about the Niro PHEV is typical Kia. There’s simplicity to the way the buttons in the center console are arranged and everything is easy to use. Material quality isn’t stellar and the seats aren’t exactly luxurious, but there’s little else to complain about.
The base Niro PHEV costs $28,840 (including destination) and that’s not a lot of money for a car that comes with adaptive cruise control, lane keeping assist, a 7-inch touchscreen, Andorid Auto and Apple CarPlay integration, and dual-zone automatic temperature control as standard. But it is $4,560 more than the regular Niro, which is a large jump. Its not like the regular Niro hates the planet either. The regular hybrid can get up to 52/49/50 mpg (city/highway/combined).
So while I can say that I enjoyed driving the Niro PHEV a lot more than I expected to, there are a few caveats that I feel compelled to point out for those thinking about getting a plug-in hybrid. One, you have to see yourself traveling up to 26 miles on electricity. This car won’t make a lot of sense if you drive 40 miles on the highway to get to work, but it will make sense if you’re in a similar position to my wife, who only drives 2 miles to work at roughly 25 mph the whole time.
Second, you have to have access to a charger. My apartment complex in Baltimore didn’t have an EV charger I could use, which was extremely frustrating, but I had quite a few options close by. If you have to drive 10 miles to get to an electric charger, going with a PHEV doesn’t make a lot of sense. You’re going to deplete the majority your EV range during the round trip, and that doesn’t even include the few hours of waiting that’s required to gain those precious miles back.
Other than those two things, your wallet and Tian Tian, Mei Xiang, and Bei Bei, the trio of cuddly pandas that are at the Smithsonian National Zoo (I’m still heartbroken over Bao Bao’s departure), will thank you for going with the Niro PHEV.