Competition improves the breed. And that’s exactly what the Kia Niro brings to hybrids like the Toyota Prius and Prius Prime.

Compared with the Prius, the Niro is taller and roomier. Likely to its benefit, it looks like a small crossover SUV, though with only front-wheel drive, it's no kind of SUV.

It does offer the crossover advantages of easier access, better forward vision on the highway, and a more natural, upright seating position. That's especially true in back, where the taller seat makes for easier access and more space.

Best of all, even with its tall, boxy shape, it gets terrific gas mileage. Over 46 miles driving only on gasoline (subtracting out all the electric miles we used), we used just 0.58 gallons of gas, for a gas-only mileage reading of 79.3 mpg.  

That blows away the Niro Plug-in Hybrid’s 46 mpg gas-only EPA rating, though it was admittedly over a short run that didn't involve a lot of heavy traffic or high speeds.

We drove mostly on rural byways almost ideal for maximizing fuel economy. Still.

2018 Kia Niro Plug-in Hybrid dashboard

2018 Kia Niro Plug-in Hybrid dashboard

It’s not like we avoided accelerating onto freeways or never had to stop at stoplights and get going again. We drove about a quarter of that distance at 70 mph on the freeway.

Even more impressive, perhaps, is the electric range. The EPA estimates the Niro can make it 26 miles on its 8.9-kwh lithium-ion battery. On one charge with mainly around-town driving that’s exactly what we got.

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On a second charge, with a mix of freeway and back roads driving, much of it with five passengers in the car, the Niro went 36.1 miles before the battery ran out. We kept wondering how so many miles were still showing on the dashboard electric range indicator.

2018 Kia Niro Plug-in Hybrid front seat room

2018 Kia Niro Plug-in Hybrid front seat room

We weren’t able to verify an exact charge time, but the 2.5 hours that Kia claims on a Level 2 charger seems roughly accurate.

The Niro uses a 104-horsepower, 1.6-liter inline-4 paired with a 60-hp electric motor. The combination delivers 139 total hp and 195 lb-ft of torque.

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Unlike most other hybrids and plug-ins, though, Hyundai and Kia back both propulsion sources with a 6-speed dual-clutch transmission. It sometimes feels strange for the car to shift when driving electrically, but without the sound of the gas engine, it's less jarring than hearing shifts in a conventional car.

2018 Kia Niro Plug-in Hybrid back seat room

2018 Kia Niro Plug-in Hybrid back seat room

In electric mode, of course, the Niro Plug-in Hybrid is almost silent. Even its gas engine is hushed, and the Niro is a perfectly pleasant car just driving as a hybrid.

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With a charge in the battery, drivers can switch between Hybrid and Electric modes with a button next to the shifter. It’s effective for preserving electric range, though fairly meaningless in electric mode.

Giving the go-pedal a swift, firm kick will start the gas engine, but it has to be a very firm kick. The car strongly favors using electricity.

2018 Kia Niro Plug-in Hybrid Instrument cluster shows 24 miles of battery range

2018 Kia Niro Plug-in Hybrid Instrument cluster shows 24 miles of battery range

Through the first 70 percent of pedal travel, if there’s any charge in the battery, it won’t start the engine. Once it does, the engine only runs for a few seconds—just enough to get you up to speed—before it shuts down again, even if the engine is cold.

Even in hybrid mode, the Niro runs a lot on electricity and won’t start the engine in the first 60 percent or more of accelerator-pedal travel if the battery has any reserve at all. It always did in our week with it.

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Maybe best of all, the Niro didn’t ask for any sacrifices in practicality or driving enjoyment for such fuel economy. It rode beautifully full or empty, and its responsive handling borders on enthusiastic.

The 8.0-inch touchscreen in the top-of-the-line EX Premium we drove is one of the easiest in the business to use. Its home screen shows a map alongside audio information, such as what track you’re playing over Bluetooth or Spotify, or the radio frequency. That’s handy, because it keeps you from flipping through multiple screens to look at one or the other.

Like almost all Kias and related Hyundais, the Niro has a full set of redundant hard buttons and knobs to use for audio and climate-control adjustments.   

2018 Kia Niro Plug-in Hybrid cargo area

2018 Kia Niro Plug-in Hybrid cargo area

The EX Premium we drove comes loaded with heated and cooled front seats and a heated steering wheel. There are no factory options available for the EX Premium.

The Niro Plug-in Hybrid starts at $28,840, including destination. It is eligible for a $4,543 federal tax credit. The EX Premium we drove costs $35,440 with destination.

Kia is expected to build an all-electric version of the Niro with a 236-mile range early next year.