2018 Kia Niro Plug-In Hybrid first drive review (pricing from $28,840)

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Some plug-in hybrid models are easily distinguishable from the rest of the cars their maker sells.

Others, like the 2018 Kia Niro Plug-In Hybrid, are all but invisible. It takes a sharp eye to see the charging port door on the left-front fender or the trim and badging differences that distinguish it from a garden-variety Niro Hybrid.

We spent 500 miles over two days in California with the new plug-in version of the Niro last week, and came to appreciate it as a total package.

ANOTHER ALTERNATIVE: 2018 Honda Clarity Plug-In Hybrid first drive

Like the conventional Niro Hybrid, the compact-wagon shape of the Niro is easy to get in and out of, rides higher than small hatchbacks do, holds a decent amount of cargo in its load bay, and has pleasing lines.

Don't be fooled by any marketing you may see: The Niro is not a crossover utility vehicle, no matter what Kia says.

You can't get all-wheel drive in any Niro, though Kia Motors USA executives note that it's a perennial request from North American product planners to the South Korean engineering team.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article was published on December 18, 2017, and subsequently updated to reflect information on likely pricing of the 2018 Kia Niro Plug-In Hybrid reported by CarsDirect.

2018 Kia Niro Plug-In Hybrid

2018 Kia Niro Plug-In Hybrid

But clearly the shape, whatever you want to call it, is hitting the sweet spot in the market.

Kia has sold roughly two and a half times as many Niros this year as its Hyundai parent company has of the Ioniq five-door hatchback that shares its underpinnings.

So why mess with success? The Niro Plug-In is essentially the Niro Hybrid sold for almost a year with the addition of a larger battery pack, an onboard charger, more power electronics, and that charge port in the front fender.

DON'T MISS: 2017 Kia Niro hybrid: first drive report

It's EPA-rated at 26 miles of all-electric range, 105 MPGe when running electrically, and 46 mpg combined once the battery is depleted.

Miles Per Gallon Equivalent, or MPGe, measures how far a car can travel electrically on the amount of energy contained in 1 gallon of gasoline.

Paired up with former colleague Bengt Halvorson, whose 6-foot-6-inch frame was easily accommodated in the Niro, we spent two days on a sort of road trip and scavenger hunt organized by Kia.

2018 Kia Niro Plug-In Hybrid

2018 Kia Niro Plug-In Hybrid

2018 Kia Niro Plug-In Hybrid

2018 Kia Niro Plug-In Hybrid

2018 Kia Niro Plug-In Hybrid

2018 Kia Niro Plug-In Hybrid

Starting at Kia's U.S. headquarters in Santa Ana, the goal was to find our own route to a hotel in San Francisco while seeing sites and charging the car along the way.

The points system for the competition was generous for each charging stop, so we figured a total of 15 over two days—with a minimum of 5 percent capacity increase at each—would place us among the top finishers.

We weren't even close. One intrepid team trounced us by stopping at 31 separate charging stations over the two-day trip, located through a feature added to the Niro Plug-In's navigation system that would locate the nearest charging stations en route.

CHECK OUT: All-electric Kia Niro EV to come in 2018, says Kia exec (updated)

In our two days, we found the plug-in Kia wagon to be just what we expected: a Niro Hybrid with more battery and electric-running capabilities.

Overall, the 26-mile range was borne out in a variety of uses, though we should note coastal California had fairly temperate weather last week, with lows overnight dipping only into the 40s F.

Despite the much larger battery pack, the plug-in Niro has essentially the same interior volume and cargo capacity as the regular hybrid model.

2018 Kia Niro Plug-In Hybrid

2018 Kia Niro Plug-In Hybrid

That battery pack, whose extra capacity is tucked under the cargo area, has a capacity of 8.9 kilowatt-hours, using LG Chem cells.

Only a slight under-seat protrusion behind rear-seat riders' shins indicates the larger battery accommodated under there, and we didn't notice it until Kia pointed it out to us.

The plug-in Niro's powertrain carries over from the conventional Kia Niro hybrid, with a 103-horsepower 1.6-liter 4-cylinder engine and 6-speed dual-clutch automatic-shifting gearbox that sandwiches the electric motor.

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