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Kia Niro PHEV: First Drive Review

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ADDITIONAL MODEL INFORMATION

author photo by Mark Elias December 2017

With the 2018 Kia Niro PHEV, Kia hopes to provide fence-riders with the knowledge that they can have their proverbial cake and eat it, too. A 5-passenger compact crossover utility vehicle, it allows owners to experience the best of both the hybrid and all-electric worlds.

To demonstrate the versatility of both systems, Kia arranged a road trip from their U.S. corporate headquarters in Irvine, California to San Francisco. It's a ride that is more than 420 miles in distance and the perfect chance to become acquainted with the Niro, and all of its personalities.

First introduced as the Kia Niro Hybrid in 2017, our Kia Niro Plug-in Hybrid (PHEV) expands the lineup. A totally electric Kia Niro EV will be introduced later in 2018.

Powerplay

The Kia Niro PHEV is available in three trim levels but with one power package. All are equipped with Kia's 1.6-liter Kappa direct-injection gasoline engine producing 104 horsepower and 109 lb-ft of torque under Atkinson cycle protocols.

The 4-cylinder engine is mated to a Kia hybrid power control unit that is smaller than before with a 20-percent increase in performance. This is what enables the extended all-electric drive range. Producing 60 hp, it combines with the gasoline engine to yield 139 hp and 195 lb-ft of torque.

The Niro gets its DC power from a series of Lithium-ion polymer batteries that are stored under the rear seats and beneath the rear cargo hold. With a battery capacity of 24.7Ah, they produce 8.9 kWh of energy. Power is ultimately delivered to the front wheels via a 6-speed dual-clutch transmission (DCT).

Competition for the Kia Niro comes in the form of Ford's C-Max Hybrid, the Toyota RAV4 Hybrid and the Toyota Prius.

By Design

Originally, there seemed to be a school of thought that if a car was an alternative-fuel vehicle, it needed to be of an alternative design, as well. Through the years, though, we have noticed a trend that is bringing the electric car, and its various iterations (Hybrid, PHEV and EV) back into the mainstream. Witness the Niro: A traditional 2-box design, it is actually smaller, but nearly as capable, as most crossovers. All the traditional Kia design cues are here from the Tiger Grille rearward. It deviates with its Eco Plug-In badging, a left-front fender charge door, available LED head lamps and hybrid-blue accents on the front and rear bumpers.

Inside the Niro, the driver's focal point is the all-new 7-inch meter cluster. Here, drivers will find important information needed to get the most out of their vehicle. The fuel gauge, E-meter, vehicle range and mileage yardsticks are all in the mix. Putting the shift lever into sport mode reveals a digital tachometer in the central portion of the display. Battery-indicator lights help the driver monitor charge status. A cloth interior is standard on the base LX model, although the EX and EX Premium come with leather seating surfaces. A 120-volt charging cable is included with each Niro. An optional 240 Volt (Level 2) charging cable is also available. Charge times are 9 hours and 2.5 hours, respectively.

In an effort towards decorum and etiquette, the Niro is equipped with an auto-disconnect button. While most EVs and PHEVs have a plug lock while charging, the Kia Niro goes a step further. When completely charged, it will unlock the charge cord, allowing someone else to use it to charge his or her vehicle. It, according to a Kia official, is about charging etiquette.

An ECO switch on the center console changes the system from Hybrid, ECO and EV to prioritize drive modes. While cruising the interstates, changing from EV to hybrid will hold battery power in reserve until you are back to driving around in the city.

From the charge port door, the electricity will enter to charge the under-seat Hybrid battery, while the under-cargo-area batteries aid in the new PHEV functions. Cleverly hidden, it does not intrude on the rear cargo area of the Niro the way batteries do in the Toyota Prius Prime or the Ford C-MAX Energi.

Tech-heads can order a safety suite that includes Lane-keep assist, smart cruise control, forward-collision warning, automatic braking, blind spot detection, rear cross-traffic alert and finally, front- and rear-park assist. The 8-in central console display shows battery status, total range, electric range and eco ratings, as well as complete control of the Harman/Kardon Sound System with Clari-Fi, and Kia's UVO eco infotainment system with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay.

Users of the Niro's UVO Eco telematics smartphone app can check the status of the vehicle's charge, find it in the parking lot, honk its horn and even precondition the air conditioning. They can even schedule vehicle charge times using the app for off-peak hours.

Drive Impressions

The great thing about the Kia Niro is that it is so normal. It rides lower than an average CUV and offers easy access and egress as a result. That lower ride can hinder its off-road prowess, but let's be serious here: You won't find this vehicle running the Baja 1000 off-road race. Acceleration is suitable for most situations, although the 1.6-liter 4-cylinder engine and power unit will perform under protest when trying to accelerate into high-speed traffic.

At times, we noticed a peculiar hesitation from the DCT that seemed to pop up occasionally from a standing start.

Our trip from Kia Motors America headquarters in Irvine to San Francisco, California featured a mix of backroads, city driving, highway traffic jams on Interstate 405 ("the 405") and California 101. We started with a partial charge of our battery pack that at first depleted it after approximately six miles, only to regenerate almost 20 of 26 miles of battery charge through regenerative braking and conservative driving styles. Once off the highway, we cruised through the town of San Luis Obispo in silent ECO (electric) mode.

Lane-keep assist worked well in most situations except when a car straddled a lane in front of our Niro. Apparently, the Kia's sensors have a tough time reading faded lines, thinking it has a clear path ahead. On extreme curves, it tended to hug the lane stripe, which may be problematic when another car is hugging that same stripe from the next lane.

Smart cruise control works well when the following distance is extended out to its maximum setting. Doing so had us never having to apply the brakes. Switching to shorter following distances did require additional pedal application to avoid a shunt. Finally, if the Niro were moving at speeds lower than 3 mph, the Smart Cruise Control would disengage entirely, requiring immediate driver attention to avoid hitting the car in front.

The Niro's quietness surprised us, in a positive way, clearly showing that the car was capable of around-town driving stints good for most tasks. We're talking short runs to the grocery store, pharmacy and so on. Heading north on California 101, we were fully ladened with more than 400 bottles of drinking water to be delivered to the Channel Islands Masonic Lodge for Ventura County residents who were left homeless following the recent wildfires in the area. At that point, the Lithium-Ion batteries were depleted, forcing the gas engine to kick in.

The 2018 Kia Niro Plug-in Hybrid boasts an EPA rating of 105 miles per gallon equivalent. Standard EPA ratings are 48 mpg city/44 mpg hwy/46 mpg combined. Kia claims the combined mileage is good for up to 560 miles, although your mileage may vary. Ours did, suffering from our full load of supplies and heavy-right-foot driving, resulting in approximately a 400-mile range at 39 mpg. Hybrid or not, there aren't many CUVs capable of numbers like that. Estimated price is to be determined, but we expect it to be between $29,000-$35,000. A $4,500 federal tax rebate is available, along with other state and local incentives that range from charging to parking and other benefits.

To gain access to this information, Autotrader attended an event sponsored by the vehicle's manufacturer.

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Kia Niro PHEV: First Drive Review - Autotrader