The Kia Niro range is actually quite interesting. It's a trio of hatchbacks, all of which are electrified. There's the conventional hybrid for folks just dipping their toes in the green space, or the full EV, for those who are taking the plunge. For me, though, I think the best of all worlds is found here, in the Niro plug-in hybrid.
For 2020 the Niro gets a small mid-cycle refresh, with a new front fascia with a redesigned grille and LED running lights. The rear lighting also gets an update and there's a new Horizon Blue color on offer, too. Otherwise, the Niro is the same as it ever was, but that isn't a bad thing.
The Niro PHEV is motivated by a 1.6-liter inline four-cylinder engine and a 44.5-kilowatt electric motor. Together they make 139 horsepower and a healthy 195 pound-feet of torque. An 8.9-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion polymer battery stores enough electrons for 26 miles of electric driving range. And when the gas engine comes on, it's mated to a six-speed dual-clutch automatic rather than a droning continuously variable transmission, like the Niro's rival, the Subaru Crosstrek PHEV. This makes the Niro far better to drive.
Still, the Niro PHEV isn't particularly thrilling behind the wheel -- not that it needs to be. There is a Sport mode that adds some pep to its step, but this hatchback is all about easy efficiency above all. It's at home in the city, seamlessly switching between pure EV and hybrid modes. Of course, I can program the car to save all my electric miles until I want to use them, but I think the Niro works really well when left to do its own thing.
The Niro has paddle shifters, but they don't always control the transmission. When the car is in Sport mode the paddles function as gear shifters, giving me a little bit more control of the car, but in Eco mode they control the regenerative braking. Level 1 is hardly noticeable, while Level 3 is a little too jarring. Level 2 is just right, although the regen isn't strong enough to bring the car to a complete stop.
On the highway the Niro PHEV accelerates just fine thanks to its torquey powerplant and I like the adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping assist systems. The tech keeps the Niro in the center of its lane, sweeping through turns with no ping-ponging or sudden movements. I also like that I can dial in the driver's aids so I can have full intervention or just an audible alert for the lane-keeping assist.
On a Level 2 home charger, the Niro PHEV will fill its battery in about 2.5 hours. When you're out and about, the Niro's optional navigation system can route you to nearby charging stations, though I'll admit this tech didn't always work seamlessly. (Sometimes the plug wasn't compatible, other times it was nowhere to be found.) However, frustrating the GPS is in terms of directing me to charging stations, it does have a few cool tricks in its memory bank. It can predict how much energy the car will need to say, traverse a mountain pass and save up electric energy to prepare. I can also see the radius of my EV range from my current location, which is helpful if I want to stay on electric-only power while I'm out for the day.
The Niro PHEV gets 46 miles per gallon combined or 105 MPGe when you use the maximum electric and gas efficiency. At the end of my week with it the computer showed an average of 63 mpg, which seems about right since I relied on the gas engine an awful lot.
Inside, there's a nice tech upgrade for 2020, with Kia's Uvo infotainment system running on an optional 10.2-inch touchscreen (the standard screen measures 8 inches). Uvo is fine, with crisp, clear graphics and both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard.
Ironically, interior charging ports are on the sparse side in my tester, with just the wireless charging pad, two USB-A ports and a 12-volt outlet up front. There are no outlets in the armrest and none for rear-seat passengers, either.
I'm not a super-fan of my EX Premium model's interior design. It's just a bit dark for my tastes but the materials are of high quality and there are plenty of standard features like heated and cooled front seats, a heated steering wheel and wireless charging. The rear seats are plenty roomy and with 22.4 cubic feet of space behind the rear seats and 63.2 cubes with them folded down, there is plenty of utility to be had. The rear seats, however, don't fold completely flat and there isn't a lot of small storage space up front.
The only true competitor to the Kia Niro PHEV is the similarly sized Subaru Crosstrek PHEV. It starts at just over $35,000 while the base Niro PHEV can be had for a few thousand dollars less. That said, no one at Roadshow has nice things to say about the plug-in Crosstrek. Your only other choice for a plug-in crossover is the larger Toyota RAV4 Prime, which offers 42 miles of all-electric driving range. You could also check out the Toyota Prius Prime which costs a few grand less than the Kia Niro PHEV, or the Honda Clarity PHEV, which is about $4,000 more and 10 times as ugly.
The 2020 Kia Niro PHEV is for folks who care about fuel economy but may not yet be ready to commit to a full EV. The beauty of PHEV is that you can get much of your in-town driving done on pure electric power, but not be stuck having to recharge in the middle of a long road trip. The Niro PHEV offers up plenty of features and driver's aids for a nice price, too. All in, it's a practical, affordable plug-in.