Test Drive: 2018 Kia Niro Plug-in Hybrid
Kia took a big risk when it released the 2018 Niro PHEV, its first plug-in hybrid. But it may succeed because of an coincidence — gas prices are finally beginning to increase again.
At first glace, the Niro PHEV would seem to have three strikes against it. First, it's a small wagon, which American consumers have repeatedly shown they don't like. Second, it's a hybrid, which are all still more expensive than equivilent gas-only vehicles because of the costly battery packs. And third, it's a plug-in hybrid, which is even more expensive because of its larger battery pack, and which many consumers don't seem to understand.
The confusion over plug-in hybrids (or Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehilces, PHEVs) is puzzling to me because the concept is relatively simple. Hybrids are driven by both a gas engine and diesel motor, which switch off to produce the highest mileage, and which work together for maximum power. The same is true for plug-in hybrids, but they also have an additional battery pack that is charged up by plugging them in. It allows the first set of miles to be driven on electricity alone, before switching over to convention hybrid power when the charge runs out.
I've explained this to many curious people who always look confused and ask me to explain it again. You'd think with everyone owning smart phones, the concept of charging a battery that runs down during use would be pretty well understood. The problem seems to be understanding that a large battery pack can serve two functions, pure electric power for a time and combined gas and electric power after that.
Of course, there's been little incentive for most consumers to figure this out when gas prices are cheap. Why pay more for additional technology when it doesn't cost all that much to fill the tank. That's why, despite government incentives and a ton of reporting on electrified vehicles, they only accounted for around 1 percent of all automotive sales in the country last years. Instead, buyers have gone for SUVs and trucks, even prompting Ford to announce it is ceasing production of all cars except the popular Mustang.
But now gas prices are increasing again. The year started with the highest prices since 2014 and they've only gone up since then. In the first quarter of 2018, motorists paid an average of 25 cents more per gallon than the same time last year. And it predicts they will be just as high — if not higher — this summer.
The length of the increases suggests they are not being caused by a temporary blip in the market, like a hurricane stopping some off-shore drilling or a few refineries temporarily shutting down for repairs. OPEC may have finally succeeded in getting its members to work together long enough to eliminate the worldwide oil glut and driving down prices.
And if the prospect of continued high gas prices prompts potential buyers to rethink the wisdom of buying an SUV or pickup, the 2018 Niro PHEV has a chance to succeed. Although other plug-in hybrids do some things better, it is a well-balanced package that can meet a lot of needs.
For starters, the Niro — which is also offered as a conventional hybrid — doesn't look weird. The Toyota Prius was completely redesigned last year and still calls attention to itself. But the Niro looks like a conventional small crossover, even though it's not available with all-wheel-drive. The interior design is bread-and-butter Kia, too, which means easy to understand and use.
On a full change, the Niro will go up to 26 miles on electricity alone before switching over to conventional hybrid power. While that may not sound like a lot, it's actually close to the average people actually drive every day, allowing it to be recharged overnight. And because it switches to hybrid when the initial charge runs out, there's not range anxiety. It will run forever as long as there is gas in the tank, getting an EPA estimated 46 average miles per gallon.
In addition, in a week of daily driving, we found the 2018 Kia Niro PHEV to be a pleasant, comfortable, competent vehicle, suitable for both commuting and running errands, including shopping trips where the extra cargo space of the wagon design proved handy. It was very quiet, especially when running on electric power, but even when the 1.6-liter gas engine was helping. The only real noise happened during heavy acceleration when the tiny engine was straining to contribute its share of the combined 125 horsepower and 195 foot pounds of torque.
Although Americans love their big SUVs and trucks now, that relationship is going to be tested as gas prices continue to increase. Electrified vehicles may not be for everyone, especially all-electric ones where range anxiety is a genuine issue. But a plug-in hybrid like the 2018 Kia Niro PHEV eliminates that concern while delivering better mileage than a conventional hybrid. And the current federal and state financial incentives make it even more appealing for those thinking about the future.
2018 Kia Niro Plug-in Hybrid
Base price: $28,840
Price as tested: $35,575
Type: Compact wagon
Engine: 1.6-liter inline 4/electric motor (125 hp, 195 lb-ft)
Transmission: 6-speed dual clutch automatic manual shift mode
EPA estimated mileage: 105 MPGe/46 combined
Overall length: 171.5 inches
Curb weight: 3,441 pounds
Final assembly: Hwasung, Korea
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