by Tony West and Sommer Thornton
This year Kia adds a new Niro PHEV to it superbly efficient plug-in lineup that includes a base LX, EX and EX Premium. As part of its mission to triple their alternative fuel vehicles by 2020, Kia’s Niro PHEV is the fourth vehicle produced under Kia Motors’ Eco Dynamics brand alongside the Optima PHEV and the Soul EV.
We reviewed both the gas-powered Niro and the Niro Plug-in. While no one here is hatin on plug-ins we couldn’t help but wonder, does the already-efficient Niro needed a plug-in companion with less sauce?
Kia’s production of stylish eco-friendly vehicles is commendable. In fact, nearly all of Kia’s vehicles have high efficiency, from the Sorento to the Stinger. Specifically, the Kia Niro Touring we reviewed earlier this year has a trendy design, comfy leather-clad interior w/ advanced technology and a highly efficient drivetrain that includes regenerative braking.
The 2018 Kia Niro PHEV keeps many of the convenience features present in the gas-powered Niro. The plug-in Kia PHEV looks good on paper, but we can’t understand why anyone would buy it instead of the easy-to-maintain, better performing gas-powered Niro or Niro Hybrid, which are both more useful in the harsh Midwest winter.
Kia Niro Touring Elevated Style and Advanced Tech
The 2018 Kia Niro Touring looks unassuming, but the compact crossover has a lot of fresh style. The crossover is actually pretty big with a 106 inch wheelbase. The 2018 Kia Niro boasts cool 18 inch alloy wheels and standard LED lighting all around. Gloss-black grille, black wheel arches, side sills and belt line molding along with body-color door handles add athletic flair. It also looks great matched with its softer colored interior design.
The Kia Niro Touring Graphite edition offers a platinum graphite paint job, gloss black 18 inch wheels and metallic trim in its grille.
The Kia Niro Touring is attractive for young professionals because it offers a lot of space and style inside and out. Other sporty enhancements include a rear spoiler, shark-fin antenna and a roof rails.
Everything in the Niro cabin layout seems well thought out – from the storage, to the placement of the center stack buttons for audio and climate, the steering wheel controls for infotainment, and a charging area in the center stack.
Heated and ventilated leather perforated seats and a leather steering wheel is standard on the Niro Touring along with satin door handles and high gloss garnish on the doors and dash.
The high-comfort Kia Niro Touring cabin is pretty big. Even though the Niro sits low, it offers 40 inches of front headroom and 41 inches of legroom, plus 39 inches of rear headroom and 37 inches of legroom. With the rear seats folded, the Niro Touring boasts 54 cu-ft of cargo space and 19 cu-ft with the rear seats up. Storage is abundant in the Niro Touring with a big center console, a hidden storage tray in the cargo area, and subtle stash pockets in the sides.
Kia Niro PHEV, Diluted Style and Hybrid Enhancements
The Kia Niro PHEV is barely recognizable as a plug-in hybrid, which could be a good or bad thing. Ice blue accents trim the exterior lighting, lower bumper and front fascia.
The 2018 Niro PHEV EX Premium we reviewed has standard 16-inch alloy wheels, LED lighting and body color power folding outside mirrors. Both the Niro Touring and the Niro PHEV EX Premium boast leather and gloss trimmed cabins with standard heated and ventilated front seats and satin chrome door handles. Both models offer driver seat memory, 60/40 split-folding second row seats and a standard 8 inch center touchscreen with navigation and UVO infotainment. The Niro PHEV navigation is also enhanced showing a ton of details like landmarks, tunnels, even a countdown to highway tolls.
The gas-powered top-of-the-line Kia Niro Touring has a 4.2 inch TFT dash display while the Niro PHEV EX Premium has a standard 7 inch TFT LCD display with a wealth of info including settings for lighting, sound and safety features. The PHEV’s instrument cluster can be customized to “simple,” “normal” or a “detailed” display. And an eco-gauge shows power delivery and regenerative braking.
Both the Niro Touring and the Niro PHEV get major style points in a saturated crossover market. And both vehicles offer class-leading efficiency. But the Niro Touring offers a balanced performance while the PHEV a lackluster one.
Head-to-Head Performance Matchup the Niro PHEV Falls Short
Neither the performance of the gas-powered Niro nor the PHEV is sporty. But pitted against each other the PHEV isn’t justifiable. The entire Niro line has the same 1.6 liter 4-cylinder engine matched to a 6-speed automatic transmission. All the Niro models boast a total output of 139 horsepower and 195 lb-ft of torque. But the Niro PHEV boasts a more powerful synchronous magnet motor with 360 volts and 60 horsepower, while the gas-powered Niro’s 240-volt motor boast just 43 horsepower.
Naturally the Niro PHEV has a heavier more powerful lithium ion battery than the Niro Touring. Of course this leads to a much higher electric EPA for the PHEV at a combined 105 mpge than the Niro Touring with just 43 mpg combined. But without the additional battery power, the Niro PHEV would have almost the exact same fuel economy as the Niro Touring at 46 mpg combined.
So what’s the true benefit of the PHEV over the gas-powered Niro? The PHEV EX retails for $34k, eight-thousand more than Kia Niro EX. And a full charge takes 9 hours with a traditional 120-volt home charger (2-hours with 240V charger). It’s great that it offers nearly 560 miles of total driving range, but the gas powered Niro EX boasts a 583 mile driving range, and the Niro Touring we reviewed – a 511 mile driving range. Sommer was Ray Charles passing the pump.
On the road when it really mattered, like in the rain or pushing through stop-and-go street traffic the PHEV ran out of steam. Pulling off at a green light, the PHEV drags even when punching the gas. Whipping a plug-in Prius or Outlander PHEV is more dynamic.
The Niro PHEV offers an EV mode, Hybrid EV mode, Sport mode and Eco mode, which functions like a “normal” or “comfort” mode. However, it all felt like an EV mode, huffy and hesitant with acceleration. The assumption is the active eco system is always on. In snow and ice the PHEV without AWD leaves drivers with less confidence.
And when in EV mode, the battery drains faster, so running the heat in the winter in Chicago would waste more power running climate and comfort features like the heated seats.
Idle Stop and Go and regenerative braking would normally enhance a hybrid drivetrain. But stop and go engages to early, in the Niro PHEV powering down the engine when attempting to park or easing into an intersection to make a left turn. Regenerative braking saves a ton of gas, as it does in the gas-powered Niro and other hybrids.
The Niro gas and PHEV line all have the same independent MacPherson strut front and independent multi-link rear suspension systems as well as the same motor driven power steering and 11 inch front ventilated disc and 10 inch ventilated solid rear brakes.
The Niro Touring isn’t the most athletic SUV in the pack, but it has a solid performance, balanced acceleration and the suspension feels more secure. Twin-tube rear shock absorbers performed great over bumps and craters in Chicago, even over train tracks keeping things steady with drinks in the cup holders.
Even better, the Niro Touring is actually fun in sport mode. The throttle opens up, the trans more reactive and steering and suspension is tighter.
The Niro PHEV offers much of the same safety technology as the gas-powered Niro, but they don’t work as well. Furthermore, convenience features like the heated seats, power-folding mirrors and safety technology like the blind spot monitor seem to work against the e-powertrain. Why does a small plug-in SUV like the Niro PHEV need an Easy Out Seat? Features like that drain the lithium ion battery faster. And the blind spot detection system seemed to be OCD, beeping for cars moving two lanes away.
The Niro offers standard safety features that include electronic stability control, hill-start assist, and the vehicle stability management system. While it will cost around $2k to add the blind spot detection system, forward collision alert, lane keep assist, lane change assist, smart cruise control and park assist and include autonomous emergency braking, HID headlights and a wireless charger to the Niro Touring. These same features are standard with Niro PHEV’s Premium trim. Yet, even fully-loaded the top-of-the-line Kia Niro Touring is nearly $3k less than the Niro PHEV.
That said, again we ask, why would someone want to buy the Kia Niro PHEV for three-thousand dollars more over its gas-powered cousin, the Niro EX that offers a higher total driving range, better performance and more effective safety and comfort features? As we close out the seventh month of winter in Chicago I can’t find one good reason.