2018 Kia Niro Plug-In Hybrid first drive: Open-world environment

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The 2018 Kia Niro Plug-In joins the Niro Hybrid compact crossover in the company’s new electrified lineup. It has a range of 26 miles on electricity alone before the gasoline engine takes over, with a total gas/electric driving range of 560 miles. It takes just 2.5 hours to charge fully on a level 2 plug, and Kia claims that driving one would cut the average commuter’s fuel costs by half, as long as he or she charged it daily.

That’s all well and good when you’re trying to save the planet. But when you’re slogging through mud more than ten miles from a paved road, and hundreds of miles from a charging station, you’ll be glad this Niro is a plug-in hybrid, and not an EV.  Then again, there’s no spare in the Niro, just a “tire mobility kit.” Fortunately you have more ground clearance than a Prius Prime in this front-wheel drive, non-off-roader, and it turns out that’s all we need for clearing deep ruts and muddy puddles in the backwoods of Northern California.

One of the main knocks on EVs is that you can’t do a road trip. Tesla aside, if you need to stop every couple hours for an hour to charge, your 20-hour trek to Florida from the Mitten is as good as doubled. Not so with the plug-in, which can go to work and back silently and electrically, yet still handle a spur-of-the-moment trip to Reno, the biggest little city in the world.

The Niro Plug-In doesn’t scream EV — it just has little blue aero accents in front and an eco/plug-in badge on the back. The 60-series tires that look tall (which helped off road) look even taller next to other cars on the road. The side profile of the vehicle is cool, but the front end looks a little plain, especially compared to the rest of the handsome SUV/crossover sheetmetal coming out of Kia designer Peter Schreyer’s shop.

Front-wheel drive is standard across the lineup. The top EX Premium trim we drove comes with LED headlights, heated and cooled seats, an 8-inch touchscreen display and front and rear park assist. The Niro also has an “auto unlock charger” that allows the plug to be pulled out when the car is charged full. That’s an etiquette thing for EV drivers, who sometimes have to jockey for plugs at local businesses.

The Execution

I put almost 800 miles on our Niro PHEV’s odometer over two days and averaged an indicated 39.6 mpg, without charging at all. Granted, I was able to get back a handful of miles coasting down the Sierra Nevada mountain range between Reno and San Francisco, but I never gained more than a quarter of the battery life back. It also struggled a bit on some of those steep climbs, but felt semi-quick from a standstill thanks to that electric power.

The EX Premium trim comes with adaptive cruise control, called “smart cruise” here, and you can almost judge the incline of the road just by watching the eco/charge/power gauge in the center cluster. I had it set at 81mph, a fair amount above the posted 65 mph, but as those hills grew into mountains, I had to switch the Niro to sport mode to keep the speed.

Unlike many hybrids, the Niro HEV and PHEV use a six-speed dual-clutch transmission to send power. That makes for a slightly more entertaining drive than the usual continuously variable transmission (CVT), but with output pegged at 139 hp and 195 lb-ft, it was never thrilling. No reason to expect thrills with an mpge rating of 105 mpge and a combined rating of 46 mpg. And like I said, the range is 560 miles and the tank is only 11 gallons and change. I never put more than eight gallons in on my 757-mile road trip, and that was only twice. A car, in particular a hybrid car, is still the cheapest way to travel.


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Kia’s infotainment screen has two knobs, one for tuning another for volume, always a plus. The seats have enough adjustment to get into a comfortable spot. Base seat height is low, which leaves enough headroom for a helmet, or perhaps another head. And with a six-footer up front there was plenty of kneeroom in back.

My journey started from Kia’s headquarters in Irvine, California and went west to avoid any inkling of Los Angeles’ horrendous traffic. In the search for cool road trip stops, I found a Thai temple resort on route 395 and, shortly after, a creepy airplane graveyard. It wasn’t the first “do not enter” sign I passed, and I’m glad I did.

One weird thing: the lane keeping system, which mostly worked well, got a little funky over hill crests. At the point when the car gets light, it sort of moves the wheel, maybe centering it in the lane or pulling towards a side. I’m not sure if it was sensing the distance change from the line to the sensor or what, but it almost felt like I was losing traction, a scary feeling when combined with that lightness.

I landed at the Atlantis Hotel in Reno, Nevada at about 10 pm after some treacherous night mountain driving. Unfortunately the free charging stations were full. After some light gambling at the craps table (yo eleven!), I turned in and luckily got a few minutes of electricity in the morning. Though the number of charging spots is growing exponentially, you still need a level 2 home charger if you want to make your money back, or at least one at work.

Day two took me through the Donner Pass (7,056 ft.) and on to Donner Lake, made famous by the group of American pioneers who ran into trouble there, before I took off into the aforementioned forest pass with signs that read: “private property,” “enter at your own risk” and “four-wheel drive recommended” sign. The Kia hybrid is not four-wheel drive.

Airplane graveyard in California

This airplane graveyard/chop shop is one of the many oddities you’ll find on a road trip.

I may have taken the Niro further off-road than a hybrid car has ever been. West of Canyon Creek, off the I80 freeway there’s a road named Culberson, though I’d hesitate to call it a “road.” It’s more like a logging trail. Thankfully with 6.3 inches of ground clearance I stayed above the ruts, mud, rocks and stumps. I will say it was peaceful up there, spotting for my co-driver, just listening to the whirr of the electric motor and birds chirping, while also keeping an ear out for bears. “Keep the window open in case I need to dive in!”

And that’s the key. Road trips are a great American tradition, and something that no one wants give up. With a plug-in hybrid like the Niro you don’t have to. Even the Tesla, which charges 80 percent in 40 minutes, still tacks on a good bit of travel time if you’re going 600 miles or more. Is that a sacrifice people are willing to make? Maybe. There’s also the thought that a Tesla or a Chevy Bolt could be a family’s second car, with a more standard ride for long trips. That does make sense. Either way, with something like this Niro, or Volt, you don’t need to make that choice.

Donner Pass

Our sojourn through Donner Pass turned out better than that of the original exploring party.

The Takeaway

The Niro doesn’t have a ton of straight competitors at the moment — the Toyota Rav4 Hybrid and Prius Prime are probably closest, and they all start in the high $20K range. This Niro is better looking than those two, and it comes with 54 cubic feet of storage space to boot. If you have a charger close by, and live less than 25 miles from work, it could be exactly what you need to jump into EV ownership.


Jake Lingeman


Jake Lingeman

– Jake Lingeman is Road Test Editor at Autoweek, reviewing cars, reporting on car news, car tech and the world at large.

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On Sale: January

Base Price: $29,000 (mfg. est.)

Powertrain: 1.6-liter direct-injection I4, FWD, 6-speed DCT; electric motor

Output: 104 hp @ 5,700, 109 lb-ft @ 4,000 (engine); 60 hp, 125 lb-ft (electric); 139 hp, 195 lb-ft (total)

Curb Weight: 3,391 lb

Fuel Economy: 48/44/46 mpg(EPA City/Hwy/Combined)

Pros: Comfy seats for a road trip, same cargo space as non-plug-in

Cons: Struggles on steep grades, not as handsome as other Kias

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