It was waiting for me at the Orlando, Florida airport. I wasn’t terribly sure that I wanted to review a plug-in hybrid, but once I realized that there was an Atkinson-cycle 1.6-liter inline, directly-injected four cylinder engine to carry me to Sarasota that evening (and to St Petersburg for the weekend), all was good.
The Platinum Graphite 2018 Kia Niro PHEV EX Premium hybrid isn’t an unfamiliar vehicle, as I drove a standard hybrid Niro during last year’s Sonoma NHRA race. But this was different: a plug-in hybrid that drives on electricity before power goes directly to the Atkinson-cycle four-banger, this Niro PHEV was an easy car to drive and like. Unexpectedly so.
While the gasoline engine produces only 104 horsepower at 5,700 rpm and 109 lb-ft of torque at 4,000, the AC synchronous permanent magnet motor adds another 60 horsepower into the mix. Although it doesn’t add correctly, Kia claims a total 139 horsepower for the PHEV Niro and 195 lb-ft of torque. The latter spec feels spot on.
Kia fits a 6-speed dual clutch transmission rather than a CVT, making for synergy between engine, motor and transmission. Shifting is direct and smooth with this installation, thanks to the dry, multi-plate hydraulically actuated clutch in the system. Independent MacPherson struts and multi-link suspensions keep the Michelin Energy Saver 205/60R rubber on the ground, loaded on 16-inch five-spoke polished and black alloy rims.
Like many hybrid vehicles, this Kia Niro PHEV uses a motor-driven power steering; this unit has 2.66 turns lock-to-lock and a turning circle of 17.4 feet, really good for a front-wheel-drive hatchback. Ventilated front and solid rear disc brakes bring this 3,450-pound five-door hatch to an easy stop, even when the driver is fully on the cams. Regenerative motor polarity reversal braking helps slow the car as well.
Although Kia claims all-electric range of 0 to 26 miles, this driver was able to eke nearly 40 miles on pure electricity. It took about 3-1/2 hours of household electricity to get the Niro juiced from 17% at plug-in to 70% capacity; it should be quicker with dedicated wattage. With judicious driving, it shouldn’t be difficult to get total driving range of Kia’s claimed 560 miles from the Niro’s 11.4-gallon tank. Ratings are 105 combined MPGe, with gasoline-only mileage of 48/44/46 mpg. Kia’s idle stop and go system that stops the engine from running at a stoplight, contributes to the efficiency.
Once upon a time, plug-in hybrids were stripped models devoid of creature comforts. Not this Kia, which has only carpeted floor mats ($135) as an option. List price of this hatch is $35,575 and, for that amount of money, Kia doesn’t scrimp on the luxuries. There’s dual zone climate control with rear vents; Harman Kardon premium audio with SiriusXM®, 8-inch navigation, Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, heated and ventilated front seats, heated steering wheel, LED headlights and daytime running lights, fog lights, power-folding heated outside mirrors with turn signals, roof rails, rear spoiler and rear privacy glass.
One of the best innovations on this Kia Niro PHEV EX Premium isn’t listed. At the base of the central stack, below the pair of 12-volt, single auxiliary and USB plugs lies a pad for wireless charging of your phone; there’s also a USB plug in the central, closed storage area. Many more expensive vehicles don’t have this feature, although most phones on the market accept wireless charging.
I really enjoyed cavorting across the western coast of Florida in this vehicle; it was very easy to live with it. I especially enjoyed the fact that there is 115V access for the rear seats, cup holders all around, that the hard container for the power cord is easily accessed in the 19.4-cubic-foot hatch (54.5 cu. ft. with rear seats folded) and has velcro closures so it doesn’t rattle around in the rear. The charger is easy to connect and disconnect, making a fill-up of electricity an easy thing to do.
In this vehicle the steering wheel is a command center for audio and phone controls on the left and the radar-type cruise control and trip info on the right side. The gauge display features a speedometer on the right and an electricity gauge on the left, with outside temp, range and mileage atop the central area, a driver-selected info screen below that and the final array of battery and fuel mileage range along with gear selected at its base.
The integrated 8-inch navigation system’s screen gives excellent directions and the voice is clear and understandable, recalling the past several usages. All screens integrate well together and the color contents always accentuate efficiency in an aqua blue. When electricity is depleted, that area of the display has a white color. Throughout the cabin there are many shades of gray on the seating areas and on the soft-touch-plastic dash – but not 50 shades, that’s for sure.
As I drove around the central Florida area, not giving care to keep up my mpg, I was still able to secure 52mpg on my second tank load. That kind of efficiency is what anyone looking at this car is hoping to see, and should appreciate, along with the car’s very practical packaging, its capable driving dynamics – and the fact that it’s actually a bit quicker than the standard Kia Niro hybrid. While the pure electric driving doesn’t last terribly long on the 2018 Kia Niro PHEV EX Premium, it’s still good for those with a short commute who lack viable public transportation.
By Anne Proffit