The 2018 Kia Niro is a must-try subcompact crossover if you’re in the market for a small car. It comes as a hybrid or plug-in hybrid. They are roomy for their size and both get good fuel economy, nearly 50 mpg. The dashboard and instrument are especially well laid out, and upper trim lines are chock full of technology and driver assists. Not many other subcompacts offer a head-up display.
While Kia calls Niro a crossover, this is not an SUV and not an off-roader. Think of it as a front-drive station wagon with a half-inch more ground clearance than the wagon-like Toyota Prius V multi-purpose vehicle. The PHEV Niro gets 26 miles on battery power, but that comes at a base price $4,000 more than the comparable hybrid. It price delta is offset by an an available tax credit and qualifying as an HOV lane vehicle.
I drove the Niro plug-in on one of the Northeast’s many snowstorm weeks, making a hockey fan’s pilgrimage through New York State to Clarkson College near St. Lawrence, through Lake Placid (“Miracle on Ice” Olympic hockey) and home. The Niro was capable in snow up to five inches deep on highways — and made me wish for an even-more capable all-wheel-drive version. Toyota and Lexus have taken front-drive hybrids and made them all-wheel-drive with the simple expedient of putting an electric motor at the rear of the vehicle.
Driving much of the weekend around 40 mph and plowing through snow, stopping frequently to clean the windows and sensors, I averaged only in the low 40s on fuel economy. Still, I traveled 900 miles on about 20 gallons of fuel plus two battery charges.
On dry highway pavement, riding for hours on end, the car was a little choppy at times — less the fault of Kia engineering, more a result of being a vehicle only 172 inches long with a 106-inch wheelbase. The longer the wheelbase, the better the car resists pitching. Kia’s limo-like K900 has a 120-inch wheelbase in comparison.
Kia Niro PHEV Trim Walk
The Kia Niro plug-in hybrid comes in three trim lines: LX, EX, and EX Premium. Adaptive cruise control, automatic emergency braking, forward collision warning, and lane keeping assist are on all three trim lines. The EX and EX Premium have blind-spot detection, rear cross-traffic alert, a rear camera, and front and rear parking sonar. The LX matches what Honda provides standard with Honda Sensing and Toyota offers with TSS-P. Kia just doesn’t have a catchy name for it yet, like KiaKare.
The Niro PHEV LX, $27,900 plus $940 shipping, total $28,840, with cloth upholstery, smart key with push-button start, a 4-inch multi-information display in the instrument panel, a 7-inch center stack touch screen, AM/FM/satellite radio, Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, a USB jack and two 12-volt jacks, mood lighting, a four-way driver’s seat, a laminated acoustic windshield, and roof rails. There are no options, other than pearl white or pearl black paint for $395. This is a car that Kia can advertise for less than $28,000 and for once, “well-equipped” is not an exaggeration.
The Niro PHEV EX, $32,440 total, completes the safety set (BSD, LKA, RCTA), adds a rear USB jack (charge only), improves the driver’s seat significantly with 10-way adjustment and lumbar support, puts leather accents on the cloth seats, and adds rear HVAC vents. The seats are heated, as is the outside mirror.
The Niro PHEV EX Premium, $35,440 total, gets a 7-inch instrument panel MID, LED headlamps, fuller leather upholstery, cooled as well as heated seats, a heated steering wheel, an 8-inch touch screen, navigation, Harman/Kardon premium audio with Clari-Fi (improves low-bit-rate digital audio), and a 110-volt AC socket.
The hybrid version of the Kia Niro includes a stripper model, the FE, that is light on content but comes in with a $24,280 list price (with shipping). The LX runs $24,590 plus $1,450 for an advanced tech package that provides the safety features the PHEV has standard. The EX is $27,090 plus $1,950 for the advanced tech package or $5,300 for a premium package that adds in every safety, audio, and comfort option. The Niro Touring rolls in every option of the EX for a total of $32,940.
The subcompact category is typically seen as vehicles 170-180 inches long. The Niro measures 172 inches long, 71 inches wide, and 61 inches high, with 6.3 inches ground clearance.
139 hp Is Enough for the City, Okay for Highways
Kia’s 26 miles of EV range comes from a 258-pound, 360-volt lithium-ion polymer battery under the rear seats, and an energy rating of 8.9 kWh. The AC synchronous permanent magnet motor is rated at 60 hp. It’s mated to a 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine and dual clutch six-speed automated gearbox. Total horsepower combined is 139, not a lot for 3,400-pound car, about 400 more than the hybrid version. Zero to 60 mph takes about 10 seconds, one more than with the hybrid. That isn’t quick, but it’s certainly peppy in urban driving thanks to the torque of the electric motor, and it’s enough for getting up to speed on highway ramps. It’s not the car for confident passing on two-lane highways.
Using a Kia phone app, you can program the Niro to charge at off-peak rates. The car comes with a 110-volt charger cable; it takes nine hours. A 240-volt charger does the job in 2.5 hours.
I did not see 26 miles of EV range in testing, but I was driving in miserable conditions and my Adirondacks motel barely had AC power inside, let alone outside, for an overnight fill-up. I did get a nice charge near the Clarkson student center and hockey rink one evening. With parking lots packed for a showdown between Cornell and Clarkson, two top ten teams, the campus police guided me to an open charging station close to the rink. That is one of the informal benefits of having a plug-in hybrid: preferred parking.
EPA ratings are 48 mpg city, 44 mpg highway, 46 mpg overall. MPG ratings are 110/99/105; that measures the EV portion of driving using 33.7 kWh as the equivalent of one gallon of gasoline. With a full tank and full charge, you can go as far as 560 miles, Kia says. Other testers (in good weather) have found highway mpg pushing 50 mpg.
Should You Buy?
The Kia Niro PHEV is an excellent little vehicle with plenty of safety features, nice exterior lines, and classy trim inside with touches such as contrasting light blue stitching. The base model is well-equipped. You get virtually all the safety you want with the middle trim line, the EX, while the EX Premium adds more features that are nice to have. All three are easy to buy because the features are baked into the trim line, much as Honda does, and the only option is $395 for premium paint.
The hybrid/PHEV subcompact market is still shaking out. One close competitor (on specs) is the Ford C-Max Energi PHEV, but it’s barely selling in the US and Ford is pulling the plug this year. (It may be Ford dealers aren’t well-equipped to sell plug-ins, and it may be $2.50 gasoline is hurting Ford.) Toyota’s Prius V is a foot longer than the Niro and hybrid-only.
The Honda H-RV is roughly the same size, but not hybridized; it does offer all-wheel-drive, has one more inch of ground clearance, and fuel economy is lower at 27/31/29. The champ among subcompact crossovers/hatchbacks/tall wagons for bad-weather driving is the gasoline-only Subaru Crosstrek with 8.7 inches ground clearance and rated at 27/33/29 mpg.
If you’re looking for an urban-centered driving experience, and off-roading to you means driving a mile on the ski area’s plowed gravel access road, the Kia Niro PHEV should be fine, especially if you add winter tires. We’d recommend the mid-level Niro EX PHEV at $32,440. The biggest competitor to the Niro PHEV is probably the Niro Hybrid with the tech package at $29,040, which comes in $3,400 less than the Niro EX PHEV. Except for one thing: The plug-in is currently eligible for a $4,543 federal credit. Your neighbors’ tax dollars at work.
If you drive 10-15 miles to work each way, the PHEV might be the way to go, ditto if you live in an area with HOV lanes. The Kia Niro is a fun car to drive, it’s usable on long trips, Kia has a reputation for solid workmanship, and the standard safety suite is as good as anyone’s.
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