2018 Kia Niro Review

2018 Kia Niro - Niro is now plugged in and ready to roll.


South Korean automaker Kia chose the 2016 Chicago Auto Show to debut a Trio of alternative-powered vehicles, all sharing the Niro nameplate. The compact vehicle's pleasant exterior (shared by all three versions) resembles a small hatchback wagon or five-door crossover that blends in nicely with the conventional car crowd rather than standing out in geeky fashion.

Kia built Niro from scratch as an alternative-powered selection rather than shoehorning fuel-saving technology into an existing platform.  In time, consumers get to choose from three distinct alternative power methods: a gas-electric hybrid (HEV), a plug-in hybrid electric (PHEV) or an all-electric version (EV).

First out the gate was the self-charging gas-electric hybrid (requiring no nightly plug in) debuting in the 2017 model year.  The current 2018 model year welcomes this week's tester, the Niro PHEV (plug-in hybrid electric vehicle) combining both longer-range electric driving and gas-electric hybrid technologies.  The zero-emission Niro EV sans any internal combustion engine assistance comes online in the 2019 model year.  Besides the near identical exterior silhouette, similar interior layouts adorn all three.

According to the EPA and Kia's own press materials, the PHEV travels up to 26 miles on a full charge (condition dependent) before the gas-electric hybrid system takes hold.  The hybrid engine averages an impressive 46 miles per gallon (combined city, highway travel) once the EV charge expires. Expect an impressive range of 560 miles when fully charged and the 11.4-gallon tank topped off with regular, unleaded 87-octane fuel.  

Weather conditions heavily impact plug-in hybrids so if outside temperatures exceed 90 degrees  with 75-percent humidity and the A/C finds itself working overtime, the gas engine provides periodic assists during the first 26 miles of primarily electric travel, same goes for below zero days when heaters heat up.  

Our tester charged up in less than nine hours utilizing a standard 120-volt (also known as a 'level one') wall socket; an easy overnight charge.  Visually, a small dome atop the dashboard glows bright green (easily viewable from outside the vehicle) when charging, fading off when complete. During shorter plug-in durations, expect an average of about three miles of charge per hour utilizing a 120-volt outlet.

For quicker charging, households may tap into more potent 'Level 2' 240-volt outlets (used for powering conventional washing machines) shortening charge times to about two-and-a-half hours from a depleted state. Aftermarket companies install Level 2 charges in homes or garages (for a price), but with PHEVs, a common 120v outlet suffices in most situations.  All-electric EVs, providing longer drive range and requiring longer charge times, make stronger cases for Level 2 station installation.

A port receptor behind a small square, spring-loaded release door on the driver's side front fender helps completes the charge circuit.  The end-of-cord device connecting up with the vehicle's receptor resembles the shape and size of a hand-held hair dryer and plugs in quite effortlessly.

With the 26 miles of battery power spent, a 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine coupled with a 60 horsepower electric motor takes charge (so to speak) for a combined gas-electric hybrid horsepower of 139. For those new to PHEV driving, muscle memory is no different from that of a conventional car; it's easily adaptable.

Three trims include LX, EX and EX Premium.  The lowest-priced Niro, an LX trim, starts at $27,900. Other than the exterior color palate, factory options remain minimal.

Our tester, a well-equipped EX Premium came in with a $34,500 price tag.  The only extra, aftermarket carpet floor mats ($135) and a $940 destination charge brought the bottom line to $35,575. Remember, Niro qualifies for a sizeable clean-energy rebate cutting the bottom line by thousands.

The federal government offers a $4,543 clean car rebate for the Niro PHEV redeemable when filling personal income taxes (a-la April 15).  The Prairie State quietly suspended its own alternative-power vehicle incentives (up to $4,000 depending upon the technology purchased) four years ago, but funding could return depending upon prevailing political winds. Illinois was an earlier adaptor of high-mileage vehicle rebates, beginning a program back in 1998 at the dawn of gas-electric hybrid mass availability. Many states continue offering these enticing incentives.

Although sporting wagon-like styling, Niro maximizes fuel economy over off-roading capabilities and should spend little time traversing dusty trails. However, crossover-like creature comforts including an upright seating position deliver decent sight lines in multiple directions.

All trims position the 8.9kWh, 258-pound rechargeable battery pack neatly beneath the rear bench seat, leaving ample storage behind second-row 60/40-split backrests for cargo and stuff. Two adults fit comfortably in row two while three pre-teens could also occupy the region. Need more room? Seat backs fold down amping up cargo capacity to a useable 54.5 cubic feet.

An eight-inch in-dash four-color monitor centers the dashboard (a seven-inch size adorns LX and EX trims). This touch screen monitors a number of selectable screen themes, including AM/FM/XM satellite presets,  map, maintenance reminders and navigation. Also standard, Apple Car Play and Android Auto allowing seamless interaction with Smartphone apps within the color screen. Also selectable; a PHEV screen with graphics and visuals detailing electric battery range, nearest public electric charging stations, average fuel economy per trip and nearest gas stations.

A pair of familiar, old-school circular dials below the screen, monitor volume and station selections with two rows of screen interactive push buttons in between.  Just beneath, the ventilation system employs a similar arrangement of small twist dials (controlling dual temperatures) flanking fan direction and speed along with front and back window defrosters. Electronic push-button start comes standard and locates just left of HVAC controls

The nicely arranged instrument panel also adds useful tidbits without overloading pilots. A left-side circular gauge where a tachometer would historically reside in a conventional IC (internal combustion) vehicle has swiped in an analog gauge visually detailing 'charge', 'eco' or 'power' usage largely dependent upon how aggressively the accelerator pedal is pushed and pulsed.  Two always present quarter gauges provide pure-electric driving range and conventional miles-to-empty readout.

All trims include popular radar-enhanced safety/convenience features once the domain of luxury vehicles.  Smart cruise control automatically speeds and slows Niro at highways speeds depending upon the distance of the vehicle a head. Lane keep assist warns drivers when Niro drifts out of its designated lane.  Both EX trims add rear cross traffic alert, useful in detecting unseen vehicles moving perpendicular when Niro finds itself entrenched in mall parking lots.

The majority of alternative-powered cars introduced during the past 17 years embraced continually variable transmissions (CVTs), a fuel-friendly design with unlimited forward gear ratios, but delivering ho-hum driving excitement.  Niro takes a different path, with a perkier dual clutch transmission.

Both dual clutch and CVTs require no foot clutch and operate, as far as the driver is concerned, like a traditional automatic transmission.

2018 Kia Niro PHEV
Price as tested:
Gas engine: 1.6-liter four cylinder
Combined horsepower: 139
All electric range: 26 miles
Wheelbase: 106.3 inches
Overall Length: 171.5 inches
Overall Height: 60.8 inches
Overall Width: 71.1 inches
Battery warranty: 10-year/100,000 miles
Assembly:  South Korea

Dave Boe

Dave Boe, a lifetime Chicago area resident, worked at the Daily Herald, Illinois' third-largest daily newspaper, for 24 years. In 1989, the Daily Herald began a weekly Saturday Auto Section and he was shortly appointed editor. The product quickly grew into one of the largest weekend sections in the paper thanks to his locally-written auto reviews, the introduction of a local automotive question-and-answer column, a new colorful format and news happenings from Chicago area new-car dealerships.

Five years later, a second weekly auto section debuted on Mondays with Boe adding an industry insight column and introducing a "Love Affair with Your Car" column where readers sent in their own automotive memories for publication. During the next 10 years, the number of weekly auto sections Boe edited and coordinated grew to five and featured expanded NASCAR racing coverage, a dealer spotlight/profile feature and a Car Club Calendar where grass-roots automobile clubs could publish upcoming events for free. Boe also introduced more local automotive columnists into the pages of the sections, all of whom were seasoned members of the well respected Midwest Automotive Media Association. In 1997, Boe earned the Employee of the Year award from the Daily Herald.

Boe is a founding member and current president of the Midwest Automotive Media Association. He has degrees in Journalism and Business Administration from Northern Illinois University.