It’s a smoggy afternoon in Ventura Country, California. The marine layer is hanging low, coupled with smoke from forest fires fueled by nearby Santa Ana Winds. Visibility goes from normal to restricted in a short span of time. Our 2018 Kia Niro PHEV doesn’t really care as it has work to do.

It’s just another day for the Kia Niro PHEV. The hybrid-derived Plug-in version of Kia’s newest crossover, it is carrying 400 bottles of drinking water and supplies to the Channel Islands Masonic Lodge which serves as a distribution center for those who were unfortunate enough to have lost homes and businesses in the fires which at this point have consumed nearly 275,000 acres.

With the 2018 Kia Niro PHEV, the company hopes to push its green cred forward, by providing a hybrid CUV capable of 26 miles on an electric charge. A 5-passenger compact crossover, it provides silent running in town and electric power assist on the highways for the best of both worlds.

Kia arranged for KBB and others to participate in a road trip from their U.S. corporate headquarters in Irvine to San Francisco, California. The 420-mile long route allowed for a couple of days of quality time in the vehicle.

Not entirely a newcomer, the brand’s latest model was introduced in 2017 as the Kia Niro Hybrid. The plug-in version bridges the gap between the conventional hybrid and the fully electric Kia Niro EV, which will be introduced later in 2018.

Power play         

A singular powertrain is used in all three flavors, er, trim levels of the Niro. Prime power comes from Kia’s 1.6-liter Kappa direct-injection Atkinson-cycle gasoline engine producing 104 horsepower and 109 lb-ft of torque.

The inline 4-cylinder is connected to a hybrid electric motor 20-percent more potent than before and is shared with its cousin, the Hyundai Ioniq. Producing 60 horsepower, it combines with the gasoline engine to yield 139 horsepower and 195 lb-ft of torque.

DC power for the Niro comes from a series of lithium-ion polymer batteries that are stored under the rear seat with a second set beneath the cargo hold at the back of the vehicle. With a battery capacity of 24.7Ah, the cells produce 8.9 kWh of energy. Output is delivered to the front wheels via a six-speed automatic dual clutch transmission (DCT). The added batteries and increased efficiency of the power unit combine for the increase to 26 miles in all-electric mode. There are currently no plans for all-wheel-drive.

Competitors of the Kia Niro include Ford’s C-Max Hybrid, the Toyota RAV4 Hybrid, and the Toyota Prius.

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Looks matter

While some manufacturers felt the need to make their alternative vehicles really stand out, Kia and others are reeling their design teams back in for a look that might be considered more mainstream. In the case of the Niro PHEV, it resides within a 2-box design, and is smaller, but nearly as capable as most other compact crossovers. This traditional design is enhanced by subtle blue ECO-style badging and accents that set off the front and rear fascia of the vehicle. Other than the left fender-mounted charging door it is almost identical to the standard Niro Hybrid.

Inside our Niro EX Premium is a 7-inch gauge cluster that shows how to get the most from your plug-in. A 4.2-inch meter cluster is standard in the LX and EX models. Here, fuel gauge, E-meter, a vehicle range meter, mileage yardsticks and charging status are all visible.

Speaking of charging status, Kia product planner Garrett Ono said, “charging the battery everyday will maximize your all-electric range and save the most money in fuel costs.” According to Kia estimates, recharging daily could potentially cut your gas bill in half. “But customers can choose how much they recharge, and Niro will still be a high MPG Hybrid. It’s both a daily short-range EV and long-range road trip car in one,” he said.

The center console houses an ECO switch that changes the drive characteristics according to your needs. With choices ranging from ECO, Hybrid and EV, we found the Hybrid most engaging, and even more so when it was changed from regular Hybrid to Sport mode--complete with digital tachometer in the center of the gauge binnacle. We discovered while cruising California101 that we could save the Niro’s all-EV range by restricting it to conventional hybrid mode until we were back on surface streets, where the EV mode could really strut its stuff.

A woven cloth interior is standard on the base LX model. The EX features leather trim, while the EX Premium’s interior is all leather. A 120 Volt, 9-hour charging cable is included with each Niro, while an optional 240 Volt 2.5-hour (Level 2) charging cable is available at added cost.

Typically, plug-in vehicles are equipped with charging cables that set off an alarm if they are disconnected. The Niro is equipped with an auto-disconnect button that unlocks itself when fully charged so that another driver may remove it to charge their vehicle. To Kia’s Ono, “it’s all about charging etiquette.”

Sitting in the Kia Niro PHEV, we found improved cushion comfort, which to date has not been one of the Kia/Hyundai strong suits. Thoughtful features abound including a driver-only setting that restrict, via a push button control on the center console, climate control operations to the driver’s side only to maximize the Niro’s operational efficiency.

By storing the batteries below the rear seat and back floor, the Niro PHEV’s pack does not intrude on the rear cargo area the way it does in the Toyota Prius Prime or Ford C-MAX Energi. Still not as large as a moving van, the Niro has 19.4 cubic feet of storage with the seats up, and 54.5 cubic feet with the seats down.

The Kia Niro EX Premium comes standard with a full array of safety features that include Lane Keep Assist, Smart Cruise Control, Forward Collision Warning, Automatic Braking, Blind Spot Detection, Rear Cross Traffic Alert, and finally, Front and Rear Park Assist. An 8-inch display sits at the head of the center console to show battery status, total range, electric range, and eco ratings, as well as offering complete control of the Harman/Kardon Premium audio, and Kia’s UVO infotainment system with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay.

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Drive impressions

In a word, we would call the Kia Niro PHEV normal. Sure, it doesn’t have the ground clearance or all-wheel drive capability expected in off-roading. Nor does it have the room for third row seating, but what it does have in is a personality that enabled us to enjoy our drive without feeling range anxiety that comes from pure EVs. Under acceleration we found a vehicle that enabled us merge onto the interstate knowing we wouldn’t end up as the hood ornament on a big rig. Still, it did let us know just how hard the 1.6-liter 4-cylinder was working to get us there.

The dual clutch transmission (DCT) performed flawlessly while underway although we did feel some hesitation while starting from stop in ECO mode. While on a mix of city streets, highways and Interstates, we started with a partial charge as evidenced by the Niro’s E-meter. Throughout our first day behind the wheel, we recouped 20 of 26 miles of battery charge through regenerative braking and conservative driving styles. Once we arrived in the town of San Luis Obispo, completed the final part of our journey in pure EV mode.

In traffic jams, we enjoyed the use of the Niro’s Smart Cruise Control when we extended our following distance to the maximum setting. That had us hardly applying the brakes at all for a less stressful and more enjoyable drive. But driver attention is still required: If the vehicle was slowed to less than three mph, the Smart Cruise Control is disengaged, requiring driver involvement to bring the Niro to a complete stop.

The 2018 Kia Niro Plug-in Hybrid (PHEV) boasts an EPA rating of 105 miles per gallon equivalent (MPGe). Standard EPA ratings are 48 city/44 highway and 46 combined. Kia claims the combined mileage is good for a range of up to 560 miles, although your mileage may vary. Ours did, suffering from our full load of supplies, and occasional heavy-footed driving resulted in a 400-mile range averaging 39 mpg. Hybrid or not, there aren’t many vehicles in this class capable of those type of results.

Kia hasn’t announced pricing yet on the Niro PHEV, but it’s expected to fall between $29,000 to $35,000. A $4,500 Federal Tax Rebate is available, along with other state and local incentives that range from free charging and parking to other benefits.

Starting Price: (est.) $29,000

Power Unit:  104-horsepower 4-cylinder gas engine

                        60-horsepower electric power unit

                        139-horsepower, 109 lb-ft torque combined.

Battery:       Lithium-ion Polymer

Curb Weight:  3,450-pounds

Fuel Economy:  48-City /44-highway /46-combined. 105 MPGe.

All-Electric Range:  26-miles.

Similar:  Ford C-Max Energi, Toyota RAV4 Hybrid, Toyota Prius.

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