Once upon a time, car categories were simple — sedans, convertibles, station wagons, vans and pick-up trucks. Vehicles had concise, practical names often referencing ferocious or fast animals. But ambiguity now reigns.

Consider the 2018 Kia Niro and its close relative, the Hyundai Ioniq. The former, introduced two years ago, is designated as a subcompact crossover hybrid SUV, but it more resembles a hatchback. It doesn’t offer all-wheel drive or extra ground clearance, customary SUV characteristics.

The 2018 Kia Niro is a strong challenger to the Toyota Prius.
The 2018 Kia Niro is a strong challenger to the Toyota Prius. Images © James Raia/2018

Like the Niro, the Ioniq is also considered a subcompact crossover SUV, but it looks nothing like the Niro. It’s available with multiple engine options, hybrid, plug-in hybrid and all-electric. It further adds to the uncertainty where the two efficient, stylish, un-hybrid-like vehicles fit in the automotive family.

The vehicles’ names don’t help. The Ioniq name is a combination of the words ion and unique. The Niro name, according to Kia, is a combination of the words of “hero” and “near zero.” The amalgamation was chosen to designate the car’s low emissions and high fuel economy.

I reviewed the Hyundai about a month ago. More recently, the Niro (PHEV) was a weekly companion. Like the Ioniq, the Niro excels in many areas and further identifies a first in the green car industry. The Toyota Prius final has legitimate competition for about $35,000, not counting tax credits.

The Kia plug-in hybrid (PHEV) with a gas-electric combination is new for 2018. It qualifies for a $4,543 federal tax credit and a $1,500 California state tax credit. There’s also access to HOV lanes. The electric-only mode has a 26-mile range and can recharge in less than three hours. The recharging plug is located just in front of the driver’s door, with the necessary equipment stored in a portable small backpack-style case.

The Kia Niro has an informative and intuitive infotainment center.
The Kia Niro has an informative and intuitive infotainment center.

The Kia Niro’s immediately noticeable strength is its non-hybrid-like appearance. Its exterior is handsome, with a balanced, streamlined style for an SUV. The Niro is equipped with a four-cylinder engine and an electric motor that combines for 139 horsepower. It advances via a dual-clutch, six-speed automatic transmission.

While the Ioniq and Niro share versatility with their different engine configurations, fuel efficiency and peppiness, the Hyundai has more cargo area. The Niro gives rear passengers more legroom and headroom. If the Niro’s seatbacks are folded, the cargo room expands to 54 cubic feet, cavernous for a subcompact SUV. Both vehicles make good use of overall space since the battery is located under the back seat.

Among the country’s most fuel-efficient vehicles, the Niro is rated at 52 miles per gallon in city driving and 49 miles per gallon on the highway. Only niche electric vehicles are marketed with higher gas mileage average ratings.

Standard features are among the best in the segment. Available equipment includes a Harman Kardon audio system with eight speakers, a rear-seat USB port, wireless phone charging and tech upgrades including an eight-inch touchscreen and a voice-command navigation system.

The Niro infotainment system is intuitive and efficient. Graphics are clear and Android Audio and Apple CarPlay are standard.

Don’t expect a luxury car’s driving persona. The Niro’s performance is satisfactory and its handling is surprisingly nimble. It’s peppy, but not a speedster.

Like Hyundai, Kia offers the industry’s best warranty, five years/60,000 miles bumper to bumper, 10 years/100,000 miles on the powertrain and 10 years/100,000 miles for certain hybrid components.

Toyota has dominated the country’s hybrid and electric cars sales since the Prius debuted nearly 20 years ago. Its reign may not end this year, but the Ioniq and Niro will not allow complacency.

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