First Drive: 2018 Kia Niro Plug-In Hybrid EX

Feisty PHEV is poised to lead the daily charge

Ed TahaneyWriter, photos

DONNER PASS, California — It's about 20 degrees, the sun is shining, and we're driving a 2018 Kia Niro Plug-In Hybrid (PHEV) high in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Old Lincoln Highway/U.S. Route 40 leads us to the legendary pass that's 7,135 feet above sea level. The steep pass was used by early California pioneers and is named after the survivors of the tragic Donner-Reed party of 1846.

Our journey started the day before at the Kia Motors America HQ in Irvine more than 500 miles to the south. It will end in San Francisco after a few hundred more miles—if we can get through the back roads of the Tahoe National Forest without a spare tire—just a "tire mobility kit" and no plug-in charging options for mucho miles.

Much of the trip from the day before took place on and off of scenic U.S. 395. The highway squeezes for many miles between the flats of Death Valley and peaks of Yosemite and Mammoth Mountain.

Our adventure so far has included miles of sand, a deserted temple complex, an aircraft graveyard, a very tired snowman, and a night of gambling in Reno. Fortunately, Kia generously supplied us with $600 worth of credit and a ChargePoint card to cover our expenses for our three-day excursion. Thanks, Kia!

The PHEV has a 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine paired with an 8.9-kWh lithium-polymer battery pack and a 60-hp (44.5-kW) electric motor. Niro's engine/motor combined output is 139 hp and 195 lb-ft of torque.

It has a six-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission with front-wheel drive and offers four driving modes—EV, Hybrid, Eco, and Sport.

The Niro Plug-In performed admirably despite having only 26 miles of all-electric range. It's a far cry from the Chevrolet Volt's touted range of 53 miles, but it is still better than most of its competitors.

Also, the Chevy Volt has a total range of 420 miles versus the Niro's 560-mile range, which we easily met and surpassed. Still, a plug-in that offers less than 30 miles of range is much better suited for urban commuters than U.S road trippers.

For example, good luck finding plentiful or convenient charging locations in the Sierra Nevada Mountains unless you're driving a Tesla. We passed many Superchargers along the way.

We found a few stations but didn't have adequate time to stop; the PHEV requires a 2.5-hour recharge time if you use a 240V Level 2 charger—or approximately a nine-hour one with a conventional charge via 120V outlet.

Kia says the Niro PHEV has 7.34 kWh more battery capacity than Niro hybrid. The carmaker also says the PHEV's gas tank is 4/10ths smaller than that of the non-plug-in version at 11.4 gallons, and the car is 230 pounds heavier than its sibling, weighing in at 3,391 pounds.

After a series of right turns several miles from the pass, we ended up on a dirt road similar to ones you find around the rural outskirts of Tamarindo, Costa Rica.

We had a little charge left over thanks to a free ChargePoint charger—one of two at the Atlantis Casino we used earlier in the morning in freezing 15-degree weather.

Luckily, our tank is nearly full, there's about four hours left of daylight, we have a bottle of water, and a bag of beef jerky.

My driving partner feels optimistic, believing that the road we're on will lead us back to the Interstate, while I remind him that nearly half of the ill-fated Donner Party had died and some had turned to cannibalism in order to survive.

The slight whirl in EV mode distracted us as the PHEV crawled down another steep, dusty back road. We are rolling on fresh P205/60R-16 Michelin tires, which help keep us from slipping off the dirt road. Outside it is cool, the air is fresh, and there's not a cloud in sight, so we continue driving.

If one had to spend the night in the Niro, it offers plenty of leg, head, and shoulder room thanks to its 106.3-inch wheelbase and 97.1 cu-ft of total interior volume. Luggage capacity is 19.4 cu-ft with the rear seats up and 54.5 cu-ft with the seats down.

Kia says its PHEV averages 48 mpg in the city and 44 mpg on the highway. We drove 757.3 miles and averaged 39.7 mpg for the entire trip.

This involved a combination of spirited Eco- and Sport-mode driving, and like most cars of its class it struggled over some of the higher elevations during mountain driving. Driving above 8,000 feet on a 5 percent road incline, the Niro sounded like it was stuck in low gear for much of our ascent.

According to data from the Niro's dash computer, our driving style broke down as follows: 25 percent economical, 36 percent normal, and 39 percent aggressive—so your mileage will definitely differ.

The Plug-in Hybrid offers everything you get from the Niro Hybrid except it sports a front grille insert, blue exterior accents, a charge port door, and ECO/Plug-In badges.

We drove the non-plug-in version of the compact crossover earlier this year and can recommend it over the plug-in version if you are on a budget thanks to its lower price and stellar gas millage.

If you don't have a dedicated charger at home or work, it seems the choice between the two variants is obvious. If you are an EV pioneer and have time on your hands to wait for a charge—more power to you.

Thankfully we survived Donner Pass and made our way through the winding roads of Sonoma and Napa Valley before finally arriving at our destination in San Francisco.

Niro PHEV seats five and is offered in three trim levels—LX, EX, and EX Premium. Smart cruise control, autonomous emergency braking, forward collision warning, and lane-keep assist are standard.

Additional tech goodies include blind-spot detection with rear cross traffic alert, lane-change assist, and front and rear parking sensors.

Pricing hasn't been announced yet, but Kia estimates it will retail in the $29,000 to $35,000 range depending in the trim level. We're told it goes on sale before the new year.

2018 Kia Niro Hybrid Plug-In EX Specifications

On Sale: January 2018
Price: $29,000-$35,000 (est)
Engine/Motor: 1.6L DOHC 16-valve I-4/104-hp, 109 lb-ft; 360V electric motor/60-hp; 139 hp, 125 lb-ft combined
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Layout: 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, FWD SUV
EPA Mileage: 48/44 mpg city/highway
L x W x H: 171.5 x 71.1 x 60.8 in
Wheelbase: 106.3 in
Weight: 3,391-3,450 lb
0-60 MPH: N/A
Top Speed: 106 mph
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