2018 Kia Niro Plug-In Hybrid: A Thin Teal Line by Cliff Leppke There’s a thin line between saving cents and sensible. Kia’s Niro drives toward that line. It’s available as a conventional or a plug-in hybrid. Either can reduce chaotic tailpipe emissions. The plug-in hybrid-electric vehicle or PHEV costs you $2,500 to $5,300 extra for the necessary 8.9 kWh battery, 60-hp motor and portable charger. Tax credits might alter the bottom line. After a charge, the plug-in Niro treks an honest 20 miles in electric vehicle mode. Kia adds whimsical blue trim as an inducement. This ride shares corporate cousin Hyundai’s Ioniq platform. Kia, however, drapes its hybrid with a two-box suit. The PHEV’s powertrain feels more robust than the hybrid-only Niro. You connect the portable charger to a 120-volt outlet. Charging time is less than eight hours via this method. After you’ve exceeded 20 miles, a 1.6- liter gas engine kicks in. Then, the Niro lets the engine and electric motor propel. Combined horsepower is a modest 139. Unlike the plug-in Toyota Prius Prime’s wild styling, the Niro looks like a practical econobox. As an EV, it rolls a mile or two farther than the Prime. The big difference between them is how the gasoline-fueled ponies play. Kia uses an automated six-speed dual-clutch gearbox with distinct ratios rather than the Prius’ continuously variable transmission. The former promises thrilling engine rev variability, which in sport means this critter has a tachometer in addition to a power meter. You select sport by tapping the shift lever sideways. The tranny’s mode is highlighted at the lever’s side. I observed 87 mpg overall during a summertime test with the air conditioner blasting and front-seat chiller cooling. I charged the Niro overnight at home and at my workplace, which upped my EV commuting range to 40 miles. According to the onboard info screen, I scored 75% economical, 20% normal and 5% aggressive. You’ll want to stay on this machine’s eco side because the engine labors, when you push the urgent pedal. The slow pedal, likewise, isn’t firm due to generative braking, which charges the battery. Want to merge into expressway traffic? You can. Urgency, however, mandates engine assist. The EPA says this Niro gets 105 mpg(e), has a 26-mile EV range, nets 46 mpg gas-only combined. Annual fuel cost estimate is a paltry $700. A Niro accommodates four adults with good-enough comfort. Headroom is generous front and rear. The driver gets power seat controls and a canted dashboard. Riders enjoy the charming whir of electric mobility until the gas engine decides to clear its sore throat. While the engine’s note is off key, vibration isn’t a problem. Sport mode noticeably raises engine rpm. Kia offers additional electronic wizardry. Driver assists include forward collision warning, lane keep assist, rear cross traffic alert and blind spot detection. The seven-inch TFT instrument panel is legible night or day. Dash-mounted switchgear is thoughtfully laid out. Four steering wheel toggle switches let you tweak the radar-based cruise control, alter what’s on the info screen, and manipulate the tunes player. Since these devices are paired and not lighted, you can inadvertently misapply them. The instrument cluster has double vision—separate electric and gas-miles range indicators. The combined distance resides atop the display. Kia offers helpful aids. The Nero's navigation system, for example, It dutifully selects a nearby intersection, when it cannot find the entered street address. It also locates charging stations. The portable charger’s sleek iPhone-like display utilizes simple graphics but sunlight bleaches them. A light, visible through the Niro’s windshield, also indicates charging status. Charge rate is automatically chosen based on your outlet’s capacity. Charmin’s Mr. Whipple, might like the pliable dash pad, soft front-door cards and thinly padded armrests. These amenities suggest an upscale atmosphere but ultimately seem skimpy at $35,575, before tax credits. Whipple, furthermore, might find the ride acceptable. Michelin 16- inch Energy Saver tires absorb some road impacts, road noise is subdued, although wind rush is noticeable. The cargo bay, atop an independent suspension, lithium-ion polymer battery, and 12-volt battery accepts golf clubs or groceries without folding the rear seat. Kia doesn’t provide a spare tire. Driving without the lane keep assist turned on triggers the “take a rest” icon. Thus, I used the LKA and wrestled with its aggressive interference. Steering is vague, lacks road sense and the vehicle corners sloppily. It behaves as though it’s having a mass attack due to the powertrain’s extra weight. My biggest quibble is with the variable ratio steering’s effort. It’s low at slow speeds and higher as velocity climbs but doesn’t communicate cornering effort. When Kia introduced the Niro at the Chicago Auto Show, it claimed it embodied a rock-and-roll spirit. It’s driving behavior doesn’t. Plug it in, however, and you’ll cross an automotive boundary. It morphs into a dual-mode commuter EV that stretches the distance between fill ups.