Kia put the Niro to market about a year ago, as the company's first vehicle designed specifically to be electrified. The 2017 Kia Niro was a hybrid by default and very well done at that. For 2018, Kia introduced the Niro Plug-in Hybrid model, which takes that one step further. With the PHEV, we can get hints as to what the upcoming battery electric model will be like, too.

There are a lot of things to like about the 2018 Kia Niro as a plug-in. Its design is passenger-centric, with emphasis being on the interior space being maximized for carrying people around (up to five). This makes the Niro one of the few compacts on the market that has a liveable back seat. Kia sacrificed cargo space to make that happen, though, but the rear seats fold down to gain some of that back.

As a plug-in hybrid-electric vehicle (PHEV), the Kia Niro Plug-in offers phenomenal efficiency for its size and capability. Its powerplant is a 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine, an electric motor, and an 8.9-kWh battery pack. These attach to a six-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission that powers the front wheels. There is no all-wheel drive option for the Niro. Total system output is 139 horsepower (104 kW) and 195 pound-feet (264 Nm) of torque.

Together, these offer an estimated 26 miles (42 km) of all-electric driving range per charge. Fuel economy ratings after that are 48 mpg in the city (4.9 l/100km) and 43 mpg on the highway (5.5 l/100km). That's slightly less than the standard Niro (50 mpg/4.7 l/100km), due to the heavier battery pack resulting in a heavier car.

Those numbers are on paper. In the real world, we averaged about 21 miles (34 km) per charge with mostly city driving and an overall MPG of 45.5 (5.2 l/100km) after a week of driving at high altitude (6,000 ft/1,829 m) as a daily vehicle. Our driving mix was about half highway, half around town. We noted several things about the drive quality of the 2018 Niro Plug-in Hybrid as well.

The first thing we noted is that "Eco" mode in the driving settings dampens the throttle considerably and makes the Niro PHEV a snail on wheels. Get-up is almost non-existent and there is no hurry to get places. Ever. Even with the throttle mashed. Turning off "Eco" mode changed that, but only slightly. The Niro PHEV will hurry if the throttle is pressed, but fuel efficiency gets tossed out the window entirely as a result. Much of the Niro's MPG returns are based on a steady right foot and lots of patience.

Where the 2018 Kia Niro shines, in any package, is in its everyday usefulness. The Niro, as mentioned, is mostly a people-hauler, but it can do the regular duties of grocery-getting and occasional box store runs. The rear seats fold flat in a 60/40 split as standard in the Niro, expanding cargo room from 19.4 to 54.5 cubic feet (549 to 1,543 liters). That's not as much as some others in the field, but it's plenty for a compact. What's more, the cargo space is mostly useful, though the round rear opening of the Niro does mean that bulkier items might be a tough cram.

With passengers, the Niro does very well. The front seating is nicely done with plenty of comfort and adjustment options, even in the base model 2018 Niro. The back seat bench is surprisingly large for the class, seating two comfortably and three across when needed. The middle passenger, while cramped for shoulder room, will be happy with the flat floor and higher roof, giving plenty of leg- and headroom. Child safety is not a shining point in the Niro PHEV, with LATCH anchors being stuffed down into the cushions. But getting a rear-facing safety seat into place is easy otherwise, and leaves room for an average-sized adult to sit comfortably in front. That's a rare find in a compact.

Another high point for the Kia Niro PHEV is its technology. Standard features include a 7-inch touchscreen with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, two USB ports, and satellite radio. A rearview camera and forward collision warning and mitigation are also standard, as is lane-keeping assist and adaptive cruise control. That's a lot of equipment for a base offering.

Going up just adds more, with the EX trim bringing blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, air vents for the rear passengers, and more. The EX Premium adds LED headlamps, parking sensors front and rear, a larger 8-inch touchscreen, a more robust driver information display in the cluster, and a much better Harman Kardon stereo. Wireless phone charging and heated/vented front seating are also found in the Premium.

Pricing starts at US$28,200, with the EX Premium ringing in at $34,900 as driven. That's before any tax incentives, but pretty steep for the compact class. The standard Niro is about $5,000 cheaper at its base level and about $2,500 cheaper at its highest trim point. The fully-electric Niro EV has not yet been priced, but will likely scale up the Niro Plug-in Hybrid's price again.

Our overall assessment is that the 2018 Kia Niro Plug-in Hybrid is a well-done vehicle for the compact buyer who wants the efficiency of a plug-in without the range anxiety of an EV. The Niro PHEV is phenomenally efficient and sized exactly right for usefulness without bulkiness. It's not the most spirited drive on the road, but it is comfortable as a people hauler.

Product Page: Kia Niro PHEV

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