On Autos: Kia plug-in hybrid combines efficiency, versatility

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The Kia Niro offers a fuel-efficient option that fits five passengers and offers SUV-like interior space despite city-sized dimensions.

The Kia Niro can be considered a compact station wagon, or a tall hatchback. Kia calls it a subcompact crossover.

But whatever you call it, the Niro is a versatile, fuel-efficient option that’s sized right for city driving.

The Niro first appeared last year as a 2017 model. It’s a five-passenger front-wheel-drive gas-electric hybrid, like a more conservatively styled Toyota Prius. Its SUV-like proportions can disguise its tidy dimensions in a photo, but at just 172 inches long, it’s nearly a foot shorter than a Honda Civic sedan.

With a boxier shape than the Prius, the Niro offers more cargo space in a smaller footprint. You won’t have ample rear-seat room, but the Niro accommodates four adults in decent comfort. And with up to 55 cubic feet of cargo room with the rear seat folded flat, it’s competitive with a Honda HR-V or Nissan Rogue Sport crossover.

But it’s much more fuel-efficient. The base Niro hybrid is rated for 50 mpg in mixed driving, which drops to 43 mpg if you weigh it down with heavy optional equipment. Like most hybrids, it’s most fuel-efficient in urban conditions — precisely where a gas-only vehicle is burning the most gas. Prices start at $24,675.

If you have access to a power outlet, the new 2018 Niro PHEV provides even further fuel savings. PHEV stands for plug-in hybrid electric vehicle, meaning a car that has a gasoline engine but can also take electric charge from the grid.

The EPA says the Niro PHEV can travel up to 26 miles on each all-electric charge. That covers a lot of ground within the District. A tested Niro returned a 30-mile charge in urban conditions and 24 miles on the highway. It takes just nine hours to recharge it using a standard 120-volt household outlet, or less than three hours using a 240-volt charging station. Without its all-electric range, the Niro PHEV averages 46 mpg in normal gas-electric hybrid operations.

The Niro PHEV has a sticker price of $29,235, but the net cost falls to $24,692 after you claim a federal tax credit. In other words, if you ever expect to charge up from the grid, the PHEV costs essentially the same as the standard Niro hybrid.

Compared to the Prius — and its plug-in variant, the Prius Prime — the Niro isn’t quite as fuel-efficient, and it doesn’t ride or handle as smoothly. But compared to the space-age Prius, it’s more mild-mannered and user-friendly, in addition to offering more cargo room.

Two other compact hybrids shaped like the Niro are the Toyota Prius v and the Ford C-Max. Neither matches the Kia’s fuel economy, and the Toyota is more expensive, but both have more room than the Niro. The C-Max has a plug-in hybrid version, which can travel 20 miles per charge.

A more Prius-like hatchback version of the Niro — the Hyundai Ioniq — offers a similar experience but trades some cargo room for better fuel economy and a slightly lower price. The Ioniq’s EPA ratings beat the Prius’, but Prius drivers who try to accelerate gently can build speed nicely between four-way stops using only the electric motor. The Ioniq’s (and Niro’s) gas engine turns on for most acceleration, which cuts your real-world city mileage.

The Hyundai Ioniq trades some cargo room for better fuel economy. (Photo by Brady Holt/The Current)

Like the Niro, the Ioniq is sold as a conventional hybrid and a plug-in hybrid. There’s also a purely electric model, which is rated for 124 miles of all-electric range per charge. So far it’s sold only in California, but a tested model proved impressive. The electric motor is peppy and silent — making it more fun to drive than its hybrid counterparts, whose engines groan if you try to get moving in a hurry.

For a similar driving experience to the tested Ioniq Electric, consider the Volkswagen e-Golf and the newly updated Nissan Leaf. Just remember: Unlike a PHEV, these models don’t have a gasoline engine to rescue you if you exceed your all-electric range.