Every time we get to drive one of the Kia Niro family, it seems like we fall in love. At the beginning of 2017, our UK offshoot tested the regular Niro hybrid (and its Hyundai Ioniq cousin) and came away with the impression that Nissan, Toyota, and the rest of the competition should worry. Later that year, I got slightly lost on the shores of the Chesapeake in a Niro, an enjoyable experience that was replicated in 2018 when I spent a week with one on the streets of Washington, DC. Soon, it will be time to try out the battery electric version—uncomplicatedly named the Niro EV—when it arrives on these shores. But today, it's the turn of the middle child: the Kia Niro PHEV plug-in hybrid.
The Niro PHEV shares an awful lot with its not-pluggable hybrid sibling. It looks virtually identical, save for some badges and a charger port behind the left front wheel. It's exactly the same length (171.5 inches/4,356mm), height (60.8 inches/1,544mm), width (71.1 inches/1,805mm), and wheelbase (106.3 inches/2,700mm), and all the interior dimensions are identical, too, so you don't sacrifice any legroom, headroom, or cargo capacity. It has exactly the same suspension set-up—MacPherson struts up front, independent multilink at the rear. The transmission is the same six-speed dual clutch gearbox. It even uses an identical aluminum 1.6L, four-cylinder, 16 valve direct-injection gasoline engine, which provides 104hp (78kW) and 109lb-ft (148Nm) via the Atkinson cycle. (If these details leave you wanting more information, please refer to the aforementioned prior coverage on the Niro.)
Where things differ is in the hybrid system. Obviously. The motor is still an AC synchronous permanent magnet affair, but it operates at 360V, not 240V. Peak power from the electric motor is now 60hp/45kW (vs 43hp/32kW for the not-PHEV Niro), although in both instances it offers 125lb-ft (170Nm) of torque. The lithium-ion battery pack is obviously larger—8.9kWh versus 1.56kWh—and it weighs more (258lbs/117kg) compared to 85lbs/39kg). But when the internal combustion and electric motor-generator unit are working together, both Niro PHEV and not-PHEV Niro bring the same 139hp (104kW) and 195lb-ft (264Nm) to the party.
The added PHEV gubbins does mean the Niro PHEV tips the scales about 8 percent heavier than the non-plug-in Niro, with a curb weight of 3,450lbs (1,565kg) versus 3,199lbs (1,451kg) (both weights are for the EX Premium trim). With the same amount of power and torque under your right foot (and a couple of hundred extra pounds to carry), that means the Niro PHEV will be the slightly slower of the two when it comes to acceleration. Kia lists a 0.1mph (0.16km/h) difference in top speeds.
Those 8.9kWh give the Niro PHEV a 26-mile (42km) range on battery power alone, according to the EPA. Recharging takes about 2.5 hours with a level 2 charger, or about nine hours on a plain-old 110v socket. With a full battery and a full tank of gas, that should give the little PHEV a range of 560 miles (901km), which is certainly more miles than I like to cover in a single go without a break to stretch my legs. The agency rated the Niro PHEV at 105mpge or 46mpg on gas alone.
Most of my week with the Niro PHEV involved short urban errands, and in this the car absolutely excelled. In fact, it wasn't until day four that the internal combustion engine even sparked into life. For these kinds of trips, the Niro PHEV is even more of a joy than the one I tested last year, since you can travel in silence. I always find this a calming experience, even in stop-go traffic, and the Niro PHEV's seats are more than comfortable. It also provided an opportunity to test out the "driver-only" air conditioning, which saves some energy by not blowing air toward the empty passenger seat.
The calming effect was strengthened by the somewhat glacial acceleration of the Niro PHEV. After three days, I realized this could be ameliorated by switching the transmission from Normal to Sport. This keeps the internal combustion engine turning over all the time, and the car becomes peppier. But it also feels like it defeats the point of an abstemious fuel-sipping, errand-running conveyance. So I left it in Normal and travelled around the District at or below the 25mph speed limit with a satisfied smile and little sense of urgency.
I even rather like Kia's UVO infotainment system. The UI is cleaner and more responsive than you'd find in many a competitor car, for one thing. Android Auto and Apple CarPlay are included as standard, with a 7-inch touchscreen for the LX and EX trims and an 8-inch touchscreen for the EX Premium cars.
If I had any complaints, they would be that the black interior of this particular Niro PHEV had less of a calming aura than the white interior of the Niro I drove previously and that the brake feel isn't the world's best. It definitely feels like you can tell when the braking system switches from regenerative to friction braking, but since this isn't a race car, that really is a very minor thing to note.
The Niro PHEV starts at $28,200 for the LX trim, which includes things like adaptive cruise control, automatic emergency braking, and lane-keeping assist as standard. If you want a few more bells and whistles, the EX trim starts at $31,800, and the top of the line EX Premium Niro PHEV has an MSRP of $34,900. All three are eligible for a $4,543 IRS tax credit (which is based on battery size).
I wonder if I'll like the Niro EV as much...
Listing image by Jonathan Gitlin