2018 Kia Niro Driving Impressions

The Plug-in Hybrid, in all-electric mode, can gently accelerate to highway speeds, but the engine joins the powertrain going uphill or accelerating hard. The gas pedal has a spot where there is resistance, in order to stay in all-electric mode, but you often have to push past it and use the engine to keep from getting run over by fast traffic.

Once, we found ourselves with an empty battery at the top of a hill. Zero electric range. By the time we got to the bottom of the hill, after coasting and taking advantage of regenerative braking, we had added three miles of range.

Friction braking with the brake pedal also charges the battery. The pedal was a bit spongy, and the travel was long, but the blending of regenerative braking with friction braking was seamless. However, both Niro powertrains sometimes hesitated or lurched during transitions between braking, regeneration, and transmission shifting. It’s one drawback to the Kia (and Hyundai) single-motor hybrid system, as opposed to the two motors used by Ford, GM, Honda, and Toyota.

The Niro sheds pounds with an aluminum hood, liftgate, and suspension bits. Its light weight and low center of gravity largely make the car handle and hold the road well.

It’s far more fun to drive in Sport mode, but that’s where the fuel mileage will sink. Eco mode is more frugal, but it’s sluggish. The Eco mode is uncomfortable because it prevents the transmission from kicking down for acceleration. The engine will stay in higher gears as long as possible, which not only keeps the rpm and sound down, but brings in the electric motor to add torque for acceleration.

The Niro snaps into Sport mode as the driver pulls the shift lever to the left, almost like a downshift. The car comes alive, and easily keeps up with fast traffic on the freeway. The Sport mode enables sharper throttle response and transmission shifts; and supposedly sharper steering too, although we couldn’t feel much difference in turn-in quickness or weight in the steering wheel.

The transmission is quick, decisive and engaging in Sport mode. Kia chose a dual-clutch transmission, rather than a continuously variable transmission, partly because it wanted the Rio to not feel like a hybrid (but just be one). Mostly, it didn’t want the Rio to feel like a Prius. Research has shown that hybrid owners don’t much like the characteristics of the CVT that usually comes with hybrids. The dual-clutch transmission uses gears like a manual transmission, but feels like an automatic, and can be manually shifted more sharply than a CVT.

Niro doesn’t have paddle shifters, so you have to use the lever to shift the transmission in Sport mode. But, strangely, downshifting in Sport mode does not produce engine braking, especially the regenerative variety.

One novel feature, called the coasting guide, tells the driver the most energy-efficient time to coast and brake. Predictive Energy Control looks at the route set by the navigation system, and comes up with a plan to spare the throttle and raise the fuel mileage on the trip, then instructs you step-by-step on a screen how to achieve that goal. Of course it doesn’t have eyes, it’s based on speed limits and elevation; so what it tells you to do with the gas pedal and brake in real time, assumes you’re the only car on the road. But it gives you the right idea.

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