The new Kia Niro PHEV is an unusual proposition. It’s a rugged-looking SUV that conjures up images of long-distance road trips, a boot packed with camping gear and all the other outward bound-type cliches advertising executives like to use to sell jumped-up hatchbacks.
But it’s also a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV), a category that until recently was mostly restricted to smaller cars designed to scoot around city streets on short trips.
In town the Niro PHEV is a sleek machine that glides near silently in pure-electric mode from busy roundabout to gridlocked junction. The shuffle between electric to petrol and back is smooth, and drivers will rarely notice the petrol engine kick in occasionally.
Kia Niro PHEV
Engine capacity: 1.6-litre petrol, plus 8.9kWh battery
Claimed electric range: 38 miles
Top speed (MPH): 107
Fuel economy (MPG): 217.3
CO2 emissions (g/km): 29
Range is good too, with 30 miles on pure electric mode easily achievable, so if you have a short urban commute you will rarely need to visit the petrol station forecourt (a full battery charge at home takes about two-hours and 15 minute).
The real test though is beyond the city limits, where the Niro PHEV is meant to offer a less compromised experience than existing smaller hybrids.
Passenger and driver space is good, but with the PHEV battery back eating up 60 litres of rear seat space, it doesn’t feel as spacious as its conventional crossovers rivals, so perhaps forget that extended camping trip.
That’s quite a disappointment as the Niro looks more like an estate than a traditional crossover, but somehow the space doesn’t materialise inside. It does get plenty of entertainment kit for long road trips though, including a large touchscreen display and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
But on longer trips, when you find the open road, the plug-in hybrid set-up is a little less smooth. The auto gearbox can be clunky and as is often the case with hybrids, the revs stay really high if you put your foot down. Any longer than than half an hour behind the wheel on the motorway is a little unpleasant. And the further you go in the Niro, the worse the fuel consumption is going to be too, as the battery runs down and the petrol engine takes more of the strain. So, expect to get 50mpg out on the motorway, not the official 200+ figure.
It’s the same story with Kia’s Optima SW PHEV, the firm’s latest plug-in hybrid which comes in the estate format. It feels somewhat more responsive than the Niro PHEV, but both vehicles feel too large for the existing plug-in hybrid format.
To be fair to Kia though, both feel adult, refined and are incredibly comfortable places to spend time and eat up miles. The Niro almost makes London’s city centre traffic bearable. The hybrid set up also helped reduce the usual feeling of guilt I feel when motoring in London, where air pollution often breaks legal limits
Complaints over the powertrain aside, Kia hybrid progress has been rapid. The Niro is the South Korean firm’s first dedicated hybrid model (the Optima is more of an adaptation of the standard combustion engine model). Expect even more rapid improvements.