If you haven’t heard of the Kia Niro, it’s a new subcompact wagon/hatchback with a hybrid gas-electric powertrain that was introduced last year. Kia says it’s a crossover, but since it isn’t offered with all-wheel drive, we’ll classify it in the hatch and wagon category. Either way, it’s a smart new entry with a lower stance than a typical crossover. It offers five-door utility and the vertical liftgate makes it feel like a wagon.
This week we drove the 2018 Kia Niro PHEV EX Premium.
The new Niro Plug-in Hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV) adds lane keeping assist, replacing the previous lane departure warning system. It’s included in the Advanced Technology package available on LX and EX trims, and it’s standard on the top Touring trim.
Features & Options
The 2018 Kia Niro PHEV EX trim ($34,500) comes standard with power-folding and heated side mirrors, leather upholstery, heated front seats, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, rear air conditioning vents, an additional USB charge port, and a blind-spot monitoring system with rear cross-traffic alert.
The EX Premium trim adds a 10-way power driver’s seat, xenon headlights, a gloss black front grille with chrome trim, ventilated front seats, driver-seat memory function, and a heated steering wheel. There’s also an eight-inch touchscreen display, navigation, and an eight-speaker premium Harmon Kardon sound system. LED map lights, the front and rear parking system, wireless phone charging, and a 110-volt power outlet round out the list of add-ons.
Safety features include Kia’s Forward Collision Braking, Lane Keep Assist, Smart Cruise Control, Blind Spot Detection, and Rear Cross Traffic Alert systems. Total MSRP including destination: $35,575.
Stepping inside the cabin of the Niro EX Premium reveals an all-black interior with light colored stitching on the door panels, seats, and center console. The quality of the materials is good and most of the surfaces soft. There are no real clues to it being a hybrid inside, except for an Eco badge on the dash and the EV mode gauge showing battery usage.
This tester came with soft leather seats, a heated steering wheel, and heated and ventilated front seats for all-weather comfort. The front seats were comfortable and well bolstered for our more spirited driving this week. The back seats are canted backward offering plenty of room for taller adults making headroom generous.
The new Niro offers a fair amount of cargo space, but not as much as a Toyota Prius. It comes with 19.4 cubic feet with the rear seat up, and 54.5 cubic feet with the seats down. The rear hatch offers greater utility with a charging cord included, along with a handy storage compartment below the rear deck.
Engine & Fuel Mileage Specs
The new Kia Niro PHEV is powered by a 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine with direct fuel injection, making 104 horsepower and 109 lb-ft. of torque. It’s coupled with an AC Synchronous Permanent Magnet Motor that creates another 60 horsepower and 125 lb-ft. of torque. Kia says total system output is 139 horsepower and 195 lb-ft. of torque.
Both are mated to a Kia-built six-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission. The electric motor acts as a generator, getting its energy from braking and deceleration, and charging a 8.9 kWh lithium-ion polymer battery. The Niro can run on electric power for 26 miles of all-electric driving range.
EPA fuel mileage estimates come in at 105 MPGe combined (city/highway) mpg. Overall, the Niro PHEV offers an estimated 560 miles of total range with a 48/44/46 rating (city/highway/combined).
The Kia Niro hybrid is one of the best we’ve tested, partly because it offers a 6-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission, rather than a continuously variable transmission (CVT). Once we got underway, the Niro hybrid felt like a typical gas-only vehicle, mainly because it doesn’t have the annoying characteristics of the CVTs usually found in hybrids like the Toyota Prius.
As we drove the Niro this week, it was fun to see how much electric battery power we could generate by using the regenerative braking technology. Because we tested the vehicle in the mountains west of Denver, we had plenty of steep declines to help get more battery power. The Eco EV mode gauge showed us when we were charging the battery and when it was draining. We never had to use the cord to recharge because we had recharged with our driving alone. We were able to drive all week commuting to Denver on just slightly more than 1/2 tank of gas.
The shift from all-electric to the gas engine is seamless and virtually unnoticeable. The only thing that allows you to tell it’s a hybrid is the slight whine of the brakes when it’s recharging the battery. For those wanting a sporty driving experience, the dual-clutch transmission can be manually shifted in Sport mode. It offers a more dynamic driving experience, but fuel mileage suffers. Eco mode is where we got the best mileage, but power is much less too. If you do need extra power, you just slide the gear shifter to the left for Sport, and the small hatchback comes alive, and easily keeps up with traffic on the freeway.
The Kia Niro offers a smooth and comfortable ride on the highway. It’s light with a low center of gravity largely giving it excellent handling. It stayed flat in the tight mountain curves for us.
The 2018 Kia Niro is a new hybrid that could change the way we view fuel-efficient technology. We think it’s better than the Toyota Prius with its six-speed transmission and superior handling and driving dynamics. You even get a Sport mode if you are a driving enthusiast.
Denis Flierl has invested over 25 years in the automotive industry in a variety of roles. Follow his work on Twitter: @CarReviewGuy