2018 Kia Niro PHEV is the Ideal Mix of Electric, Hybrid

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【Summary】Plug-in hybrids are relatively new on the market, but for the majority of consumers, they strike the perfect balance between efficiency and usability.

Original Vineeth Joel Patel    Oct 01, 2018 9:00 AM PT
2018 Kia Niro PHEV is the Ideal Mix of Electric, Hybrid

This may be hard to believe, as the majority of individuals associate the word hybrid with the Toyota Prius, but electrified vehicles can be traced back to the 1800s. Some even believe that the base hybrid setup can be traced back even further. While there's some room for argument on what came first, the majority of people believe that Dr. Ferdinand Porsche came out with the first actual vehicle that combined electricity and gasoline power sources. 

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The Long, Difficult Path Of EVs

As CarsDirect claims, Porsche came out with a vehicle that was called the System Lohner-Porsche Mixte. It had a gasoline engine that directed power to an electric motor that was routed through the front wheels. Apparently, the vehicle did relatively well, accounting for approximately 300 total units. Understandably, demand for hybrids died down shortly after Henry Ford introduced the first assembly line in 1904. 

Despite the decreasing interest in electrified vehicles, the United States government attempted to give hybrids and electric vehicles a helping push into mass adoption, as it attempted to reduce air pollution in the country. Electrified cars wouldn't become popular until the Arab oil embargo of 1973 states the outlet. 

Over the next few decades, automakers continued to spend billions developing hybrid technology. It wouldn't be until the late ‘90s until we saw some modern prototypes of what electric and hybrids vehicles could actually look like. Some of the most notable prototypes included the General Motors EV1 and Toyota RAV-4 EV.

Then, things really started to look up for hybrids, as Toyota introduced the original Prius in 1997, which was followed by the Honda Insight in 1999. Now entering its 21st year of production, the Prius continues to be one of the more popular hybrids on the road. 

A lot has changed since the introduction of the first Prius. Air pollution continues to be a problem, the price of gas has gone up, and analysts have confirmed that there's only so much oil left to use. With everything that's going on, hybrids have become more popular than ever. But for automakers and manufacturers that are trying to make cars even more efficient, it's not enough. That's where cars like plug-in hybrids come into scene. 

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What Are The Differences Between A PHEV And A Hybrid?

I recently got to spend some time in a Kia Niro PHEV and found it to be the ultimate hybrid, and one of the more ideal vehicles for consumers looking to get the best of both the electric and hybrid worlds. I've also spent a large amount of time in the regular Niro – and by regular I mean just a hybrid – before and found that to be a fantastic vehicle. With its plug-in hybrid layout, the Niro PHEV is an even more attractive option. 

The Niro and Niro PHEV share a lot of the same components. Both come with a 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine and an electric motor. Both have a dual-clutch six-speed automatic transmission. Where the regular Niro and Niro PHEV differ is in the size of their battery packs and electric motors. The Niro hybrid has a 1.56 kWh, while the PHEV variant features an 8.9 kWh pack. The Niro PHEV's electric motor is more potent than the one found in the regular hybrid, too, cranking out 60 hp instead of 43 hp.

That little difference is what gives the Niro PHEV its ability to act as an electric vehicle. When the battery pack is fully charged, the crossover can travel up to 26 miles on nothing but electricity. When that figure is tacked onto the gasoline engine's range, the Niro PHEV has a total range of 560 miles. While the electric range is impressive, it's the total range that really won me over. 

In addition to being able to travel 26 miles without using gas, the Niro PHEV can also be charged using an electric charger, technically classifying it as an EV. Our test car, a fully-loaded EX Premium trim that tipped the scales at $35,575, came with a Level 1 (120-volt) charger. From empty, plugging the vehicle into a charger with that much juice would take approximately nine hours to fill up. The vehicle can also be plugged into a Level 2 240-volt charger that can fill up the battery in just 2.5 hours. 

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What About Charging?

As long as you live in a major city, finding a charging station shouldn't be a problem. Here in Baltimore, I had access to approximately 10 chargers within 10 minutes of my apartment. The majority of chargers are located in parking garages and parking lots, as well as large areas, like parks. They're usually Level 2 chargers, making charging an affair that doesn't have to take all day. 

Out of convenience, I regularly visited my local park, which had two charging options. Despite being in a major city, my apartment complex doesn't have an electric-car charging station. Oddly enough, the Electric Vehicle Institute's (EVI) Level 2 charger at my local park didn't have the right plug for the Niro PHEV. EVI's charger had SAE Combo and CHAdeMO connections, neither of which fit into the Niro PHEV's charging plug. That meant that I was forced to use a smaller 7.2 kWh charger, but it was free to use. 

When hooked up to the charger, the vehicle could get a full charge in a little over three hours. While that wasn't exactly helpful in a pinch, convenience and location made it the prime spot for me to get some juice, regardless of how long I was planning to get a charge. Plus, you can't beat free charging. 

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A 26-Mile EV Range Is More Than Enough

Another thing that I found to be helpful was the 26-mile EV range. While that's dwarfed by what vehicles like the Chevrolet Volt and the Hyundai Ioniq Plug-in Hybrid can achieve – the Volt can travel 53 miles on electricity, while the Ioniq Plug-in Hybrid has an electric range of 29 miles – it's more usable than you would expect. Baltimore is a massive city and getting from one part of town to the other can take more than 30 minutes, despite the trip only being 10 miles. The entire trip is done in stop-and-go traffic, which is very annoying, but it's also where the Niro PHEV shines. 

The Niro PHEV allows you to choose what kind of power the crossover runs on thanks to an electric and a hybrid mode. Depending on your driving style, the vehicle is happy to oblige, keeping you in the mode for as long as it can. In urban areas, the vehicle operates solely on electricity, running nearly silently in a low whir of noise and providing immediate acceleration. As long as your inputs are smooth and purposeful, the Niro PHEV is quiet and efficient, capable of getting an estimated 110 MPGe in the city. 

While having 26 miles of EV range to play with may not sound like a lot, I found the figure to be more than enough for a day's worth of running errands and running around the city. The Niro PHEV also rewards you with good driving, as coasting and braking appropriately slowly gets some electric miles back. You won't be able to recuperate all 26, but getting one or two miles here and there is possible. 

Where The Hybrid Part Comes Into Play

Moving out of the city and onto the highway, the Niro PHEV behaves more like a hybrid than an electric vehicle. When coasting, the vehicle will go into EV mode to eek out the best fuel economy, but for the most parts, traveling at higher speeds and pushing the throttle for overtaking other motorists brings the engine to life. If you manage to find a way to keep the Niro PHEV in EV mode on the highway, you're looking at 99 MPGe. 

The extra complexity and weight of the Niro PHEV would make it seem like its fuel economy figures would be below the regular Niro's, but that's not the case. Over the course of our time with the Niro PHEV, we covered over 600 miles, the majority of which came on the highway. During that time we averaged over 51 mpg with the gasoline engine. That's better than what Kia claims the crossover is supposed to get, which is 46 mpg combined. In fact, it's much closer to the regular Niro hybrid, which is rated to get up to 50 mpg. 

That's not a large difference, but the Niro PHEV weighs 117 pounds more than the regular hybrid variant. What's really impressive, is that the plug-in hybrid crossover is quicker than the regular hybrid, too. Car and Driver tested both vehicles and found the Niro PHEV to be 0.6 seconds quicker to zero to 60 mph than its hybrid counterpart. Clearly, Kia found a way to make the vehicle efficient, enjoyable to drive, and versatile. 

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The Kia Niro PHEV's Downfalls

Not everything is perfect in the Niro PHEV's world. Consumers looking for the best fuel-economy figures will gravitate towards smaller offerings, like the BMW i3, Toyota Prius Prime, Volt, Honda Clarity plug-in hybrid, or Ioniq plug-in hybrid. But those can't match the crossover's spacious cabin. In its field, the Niro PHEV doesn't get the same MPGe as competitors, but it's larger. 

The second and most pertinent issue has to deal with the number of available chargers in the U.S. While there were a number of them in my area, they still required me to drive somewhere and park in a spot for a certain amount of time. If we wanted to spend some time in a park, that's not a huge sacrifice, but having to go to a parking garage just to have some place to charge the car is an issue. Also, if you don't have a charger at your residence, the situation is even more precarious, because you'll waste electric range trying to get to some place to juice up. 

Then, and this just may be a regional thing, but people still don't respect or understand EV ownership. There were plenty of times when I'd go to the park only to find people with non-electric vehicles parked in a spot that's designated for EVs. Since electric-vehicle parking is usually in highly-desirable locations, the majority of drivers think it's okay to park their vehicles there and take away valuable charging space. The greater issue is that they don't think they're doing anything wrong.  

The third issue is that having automatic climate control on, which is a necessity in the warmer months in Baltimore, usually equates to having the gasoline engine on. The vehicle hasn't figured out a way to keep the AC on full blast and the cooled seats on under just electric power.  

Lastly, there's the issue of electric range. While I didn't have a problem with being able to travel 26 miles on a charge or waiting a couple of hours to get a few miles back, some consumers may not see the point, especially when the regular hybrid is fuel efficient and thousands of dollars cheaper. 

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Plug-In Hybrids Are The Ideal Gateway EVs

While plug-in hybrids combine the best attributes from hybrids and electric vehicles, the Niro PHEV errs more toward the hybrid side. That wasn't a problem for me, but you have to look at the 26-mile range and swallow hopes of anything more. The vehicle would be perfect for my wife, who only has to travel 1.7 miles to work, as she could make the trip and never have to fill up. It would also be an ideal choice for anyone that travels less than 25 miles in mostly stop-and-go traffic everyday.

The first set of hybrids required a lot of compromise and it looks like the first set of plug-in hybrids and EVs are requiring some, too. With the Niro PHEV, those compromises aren't as large as one would expect and the result is a vehicle that acts as both an EV and as a hybrid. For the majority of people looking to get away from gasoline-powered cars, plug-in hybrids like the Niro PHEV are a better option than fully electric cars. 

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