The 2018 Kia Niro has a 1.6-liter, 4-cylinder engine with two electric motor assists. It has an all-electric range of 26 miles. Metro News Service photo

PHEV versions of Outlander, Niro are all the craze

Pair of plug-in hybrid crossovers show similiarities, differences

There are clear and noticeable trends in today’s automotive industry. Look at the headlines that Ford and General Motors are grabbing by eliminating many of their traditional car/sedan products, leaning now toward SUVs and the ever-so-trendy small crossovers.

What is even trendier is making those small crossovers into plug-in hybrids for extra fuel efficiency. Case in point: This week, I take a look at two vehicles that offer a PHEV option for the 2018 model year.

Both Kia and Mitsubishi jumped into the PHEV trend with their compact crossovers. The Kia Niro and the Mitsubishi Outlander are similar in many ways.

On looks, they’re both diminutive with little-to-no aggressive styling, taking a more conservative bent. This is actually refreshing as within the small crossover segment, there is a lot of silly styling. Also when it comes to many hybrids, they often get some oddball looks too. Thankfully, neither of these crossovers falls into that trap; both offer an attractive, understated styling that will retain a modern look for many years.

Both vehicles are sluggish off the line. As PHEVs you are willing to forgive a lack of power for the sake of improved fuel economy. The Niro is the more efficient and more enjoyable to drive of the two. It has a 1.6-liter, 4-cylinder engine with two electric motor assists. It has an all-electric range of 26 miles.

Meanwhile, the Outlander PHEV has a 2.0-liter, 4-cylinder engine with two electric motors. It has a combined electric range of only 22 miles. Both vehicles charge on a standard 120-volt outlet in about nine hours. So, for short trips, it can be quite efficient and mean far fewer trips to the gas station.

On gasoline alone, the Niro is far more fuel efficient with an EPA rating of 46 mpg/combined city and highway. The Outlander, which is larger than the Niro and has a bigger engine, has a gasoline only rating of 25 mpg.

The Niro wins out in this category, and overall, it felt like the peppier vehicle. Oftentimes the Outlander seemed to struggle off the line and even at highway speeds. While the Niro is not a speedster, it seems to at least get out of its own way. Plus, the Niro doesn’t have a continuously variable transmission like so many hybrids do; rather, the dual-clutch six-speed transmission does an admirable job. The Outlander had a single-speed transmission that just felt odd to me. The shifts were held back at times. The Outlander was equipped with all-wheel drive, while the Niro was not.

Inside, both vehicles were similar in overall quality. Mitsubishi has improved its product line, including offering better interiors than they have in the past. The Outlander was no exception as the touch points were nice.

Likewise, the Niro had a simple, but adequate interior. The second-row comfort in both vehicles is good. Both crossovers have adequate headroom and legroom. The Niro surprised me with how spacious the back seat was, as it’s a much smaller vehicle than the Outlander.

From a technology standpoint, the Niro’s infotainment is slightly better than the Outlander’s. They both do the same thing, but the Outlander’s infotainment system is less intuitive. I’ve seen criticism of the Niro’s infotainment system accusing it of being too simple, but in this case, it accomplishes all you need or expect.

The PHEV Niro has a starting price of $34,500. The Outlander PHEV has a higher price with an MSRP of $40,295. With a few options and packages, my Outlander tester had a final price of $42,225.

If you’ve read my column enough, you’ll know I haven’t always been a fan of PHEVs or of compact crossovers, but I did find that both the PHEV Niro and Outlander have merit.