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2018 Kia Niro Plug-In Hybrid first drive: A fantastic gas alternative

by Danny Zepeda | January 1, 2018January 1, 2018 10:00 am PST

As someone who’s driven gas cars his entire life, I’ve seldom worried myself about eco-friendly options. Sure, I understand difference between an EV and a hybrid, but that’s the extent of my knowledge. That changed real quickly when Kia invited me to drive its new 2018 Niro Plug-In Hybrid (PHEV) from Orange County to San Francisco.

Kia has been slowly dipping its foot in the electric/hybrid market over the past couple years, but that is changing quickly. It has invested $10.2 billion into eco dynamic development. That means you can expect more non-gas cars in the near future.

Right now, Kia offers four options: the Optima Hybrid and Plug-In Hybrid, the Soul EV, and the Niro Hybrid. You can now throw in the Niro Plug-In Hybrid.

In 2016, Kia introduced the Niro Hybrid to much acclaim. It took all the elements of gas-powered Niro and threw in a hybrid engine, making it more efficient. A year later, it took the next step in this evolution with the Niro Plug-In Hybrid, a very impressive follow-up, that puts much more emphasis on electric driving.

Plug-ins are the bridge to an electric future

The 2018 Kia Niro Plug-In Hybrid has 1.6-liter gasoline direct injection engine (carried over from the Hybrid) with a 8.9kWh lithium ion battery and 60HP electric motor. This will deliver 105 miles per gallon equivalent (MPGe) or 44 miles per gallon on the highway and 48 miles per gallon in the city.

In total, combining both the gas and electric engine will deliver a max range of 560 miles. Hence the idea of driving from the OC to San Francisco, which straight up is 424 miles, give or take a few detours.

You can drive the Niro PHEV in four modes: Eco (default), EV, Hybrid and Sport. EV will solely use the electric battery, which at full capacity, will get you 26 miles of pure electric driving. Once that’s gone, it shifts back to Eco. To maximize electric driving, Kia included the usual number of eco driver assistance systems such as coasting, regenerative braking and predictive energy-guide features.

Driving in EV mode, acceleration is instant and the torque is palpable. Switching over to Eco or Hybrid, you get more of standard experience. The car will pick up when you hit the pedal, making that low hum hybrids are known for. Sport mode takes full advantage of the gas motor. I didn’t put the car in Sport mode that often because I wanted to maximize my efficiency, but when I want to have a little extra fun, this was my mode of choice.

It’s quite easy to charge the Niro PHEV. On the front right fender lives the charge door and back right fender lives the gas door. On Level 1 120V charging, which is any AC outlet, you can charge up the battery in 9 hours. If you move up to Level 2 240V, the battery will be topped off in a brisk 2.5 hours. To the left side of the dashboard are three buttons that let you control your charging habits, such as scheduling charging or turning off charging.

Since the point of a Plug-In Hybrid is to be as efficient as possible, the power numbers won’t send shivers down your spine. The Niro Plug-In Hybrid delivers a combined 139 horsepower and 195-pound-feet of torque. That’s enough for everyday driving.

Kia’s goal with its long drive event was to test out the range capabilities of the Plug-In Hybrid and I definitely did that. Range is the major advantage PHEVs have over EVs. Compare the Niro PHEV’s 560-mile range to the Soul EV’s 111-mile all-electric range, and the difference is night and day.

It is a full-featured crossover

Looks wise, the Plug-In Hybrid looks just like the Hybrid and gas Niro variants except for a few new blue accents along the front and back bumpers. It’s still the same roomy four-door design with the rear hatch cargo compartment providing 19.4 cubic feet of space and 54.5 cubic feet of space when the back seats are put down.

Outside, the car looks spectacularly normal. Unless you check out the Niro PHEV with eagle eyes, it’d be hard to notice it’s not the normal gas variant. That’s a very good thing because car manufacturers got into the habit of making EVs, hybrids or PHEVs different just for the sake of it, and what you got was design atrocities like the Toyota Prius. Thankfully, the Niro PHEV is just like every other car you’ll find on the road.

There are three available trims for the Niro PHEV: LX, EX and EX Premium. The first two trims come with a standard 7-inch center console display and the high end version bumps that up to 8 inches that supports Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. Interestingly enough, only the low-end LX comes with cloth seats, which means if you wanted to go full eco friendly with non-leather seats, you’re going to have to sacrifice a lot of features. Kia doesn’t have any plans to offer this with this generation, but it may be an option that is added with next year’s model.

Having the option to use Android Auto and CarPlay is a big deal, because I wasn’t the biggest fan of Kia’s center console user interface. It was clunky and difficult to get around. There are a number of times I got lost using the navigation system because I wasn’t used to its direction delivery. That was my fault, but I’ve never had trouble taking directions from Google Maps.

I drove the EX Premium that comes with all the bells and whistles, including leather seats, wireless charger, Harmon/Kardon sound system and center digital display on the instrument cluster. Throughout my trip, mostly used it to display fuel and battery consumption.

As most cars tend to do, the Niro PHEV has a slew of available driving assist options, and the EX Premium is outfitted with every single one. The list includes Blind Spot Detection, Lane Change Assist, Rear Cross Traffic Alert, Forward Collision Warning System, Autonomous Emergency Braking and Smart Cruise Control.

I turned on every safety feature I could have on, in particular, the Forward Collision Warning System, during my drive to make sure I didn’t get into an unwanted accident. It’s easy to lose your focus when you’ve been driving for hours on end.

12 hours and 572.1 miles later…

So how did my long trip go you may ask? It went great; a thoroughly comfortable ride. I started my drive in Irvine, made a pit stop at Zuma Beach along the scenic Malibu before hitting a ton of traffic on my way up the 101 highway to San Luis Obispo, 250 miles later. The next day, I made my way up to Salinas, the cut towards the coast to Monterey, afterwards heading up north on the Pacific Coast Highway narrowly missing Santa Cruz before finally making my way to San Francisco for good.

Along the way, I made a few pit stops to charge the battery. Using the Chargepoint app made this super easy, but you can also locate the charge stations through the built-in navigation system. This is imperative if you are looking for Level 2 chargers to quickly top off the battery.

In total, I spent 12 hours and 33 minutes driving, averaged 43.0 miles per gallon and drove 572.1 miles.

I wish I had more time with Kia Niro PHEV, because I wanted to put more miles on it. It is a fantastic long-distance vehicle. The leather seats I was in for twelve hours never once got uncomfortable, but in case you get stuck in the rear seats, there’s plenty of legroom to stretch out. Taking that into account, along with the impressive distance, means you cant hit the open road for a cross country trip without any worries.

Plug-In Hybrids offer the best of both worlds: you can drive knowing you are being eco conscious, but you also get the range you can’t get from an EV at the moment. As the bridge between gas and EVs is slowly met (in terms of range), these Plug-In Hybrids are the perfect in-between.

The 2018 Niro Plug-In Hybrid offers everything you’d look for in a crossover with plenty of space, solid looks, fantastic features and great efficiency. 

Disclaimer: Kia invited TechnoBuffalo to participate in a three-day drive event in California. Meal and hotel accommodations were provided.


Danny Zepeda

Born and raised in Southern California, Danny grew up on a steady diet Pixar, Star Wars and Steven Spielberg movies. Unbeknownst to him, this was...

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