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2019 Kia Niro EV Test Drive Review
The Niro EV follows the Soul as Kia's second battery-electric vehicle, but it's still a mostly ordinary hatchback.
Brand-new for 2019, the Niro EV is the first electric Kia to crack 200 miles of range. It’s based on the Niro Hybrid and Plug-In Hybrid, which Kia introduced in 2017, but it forgoes the gasoline engine (and the affordable price tag). Most Americans won’t ever see a Niro EV because it’s sold in only 12 states and you can’t even ask a dealer in the ineligible 38 states to order one. That didn’t stop us from putting more than 500 miles on this compact hatch, temporarily rewiring daily life to accommodate an electric car in freezing weather. New England is a prime market for the Niro EV. So how does it stand up to the simplest of tasks, like a two-hour drive to Boston?
Look and Feel
The Niro EV is dull. It’s not ugly, offensive, or anything regretful you’d later scrub off your timeline. Judging how my gray-on-black example was a loaded EX Premium Launch Edition, priced at $45,995, it looks this drab on purpose. Normcore is a throwback fashion style in which today's 20-somethings dress like their parents did in the early 1990s. Thick-rimmed glasses with oversized gray Champion sweaters are the bare minimum. A pair of jeans with rolled-up cuffs and a phone bulge—Bluetoothed to white airpods in each ear—are normcore’s few modern flourishes. The Niro EV, for better but mostly worse, makes this statement. This car erases what little excitement there was on the regular Niro Hybrid, such as the swooshy 18-inch wheels, and the contrasting rear skid plate and trim flowing around the license plate. Minimalism is one thing, but dowdiness is another. The flat 17-inch wheels, formless silhouette, and cheap-looking bumper cutouts aren’t offset by the teal accents, the arrow-shaped LED running lamps (available on only the Launch Edition), or the solid grille, each of which are unique to the EV. Kia makes $40,000 cars that are flat-out "wow" (the Stinger sedan) or utterly handsome (Telluride SUV), so the Niro’s design is disappointing. Compared to the visual excitement pouring from Kia’s other economy cars and crossovers (Soul, Forte, Sportage), it’s unacceptable.
The interior makes amends with LED ambient lighting and gloss black door panels with raised dark teal accents. Kia separated the center console from the center stack to create open storage, and perched a hockey-puck-style shifter by the driver’s hand. Material quality, fit, and finish are good for a car in this category, and the additional gloss black trim on the dash and more matching teal stitching on the seats and steering wheel (plus teal-colored air vent surrounds) are welcome. The speed and range numbers on the instrument panel—hastily converted from analog gauges—appear like early LCDs did in the 90s. Who was in charge? I’d really like to attend the meeting for the Niro redesign.
The EPA rates the Niro EV at up to 239 miles per charge. Kia says you can recharge the 64-kilowatt-hour battery from dead to 80% in less than an hour. During my winter test, neither claim held up. Even the best and most affordable modern EVs (like this Kia) are optimized for stop-and-go city driving, overnight home charging, and the temperate weather of Los Angeles. They can deal with a two-hour trip to Boston—as I did in the cold, facing elevation changes, at constant highway speeds—but they can’t make the trip home. Upon fully charging the battery, the Kia showed a range of 226 miles in normal driving mode. When I pulled into Copley Square, a total distance of 120 miles, the range showed 85 miles. I briefly left the car on a Level 2 charge for an hour where the station could output only 5.9 kilowatts—that’s six percent of the Niro EV’s 100-kilowatt capability. As such, the charge was almost useless. Later that evening, I attended a college hockey game with my best friend and couldn’t charge in the two stations provided in the garage. So we left, on a 30-degree night with about 80 miles, until reaching an EVGo DC fast-charge station at a rest stop. At 40 kW, the Niro EV charged from about 20 percent to 70 percent after the station’s 45-minute timer expired. With 107 of the 120 miles left in our trip and 130 miles showing on the dash, I figured we’d be fine. I got home with barely three-percent of the battery left (5 miles) as the car switched itself into a low-power mode. This was a stressful, long, drawn-out story that repeated itself over the week I had with the car. Why should any new car have to be like this? Kia’s advertised range isn’t so much a lie as it is evidence that all EVs—no matter the manufacturer—cannot travel moderate distances without multiple, time-sapping fill-ups. At least the powertrain is among the most efficient EVs, with an EPA-estimated 123 MPGe city, 102 highway, and 112 combined.
If you charge on a Level 2 connection every night and drive the Niro all the time in optimum conditions, you won’t have an issue. It’s fun to drive, actually. The electric motor produces 201 horsepower and 291 pound-feet of torque, sent through a single gear to the front wheels. That’s far more powerful than the hybrid powertrains in the regular Niro and Niro Plug-In. But unlike other EVs that zip off the line, the Niro EV can’t put all that power down in Sport mode, as the traction control cuts the acceleration. With traction off, the Niro EV lights up its front tires like a high-schooler. All-wheel drive is unavailable. But once you get it going, the Niro EV is zippy.
The steering feel is accurate and the brakes feel natural, without the artificial regenerative sensations I felt in the Jaguar I-Pace. The Niro EV is also really smart with regen braking. Holding the right steering wheel paddle will activate an auto mode where the car’s radar sensors pace the vehicle in front. It will slow the car down for you and increase braking gradually until you apply the brake pedal. Or you can choose one of three regen modes that vary from light to aggressive one-pedal driving, where you almost never touch the brakes. You can also shut it off entirely to coast. This is intuitive and very useful. While the ride is cushy, the minimal grip and excessive body roll convinced me the Niro EV does not like to be hustled on tight roads. For everyday driving, it’s great. But like the car’s exterior style, you won’t find much sportiness behind the wheel.
Form and Function
The Niro EV’s bland design works wonders for the car's practicality. Every seat, while lacking in lateral support, is roomy and spacious by any measurement. There are 18.5 cubic feet of cargo space in the trunk, and 53 cubic feet with the rear seats folded. Storage is fantastic, with a large central cubby that opens its sliding door to reveal the coolest cupholders I’ve ever seen. Push the spring-loaded holders against the sides to use a flat, fully open storage bin. Press two buttons and the cupholders retract into their normal position. You’ll have to watch our video review to see it in action. It’s incredibly useful and simple. Additional cord cutouts in the storage bin let you route cables neatly to the outside, where there’s lots of open space and USB charging ports below the center stack. A wireless charging pad is nearby.
The instrument panel may look dated, but it’s easy to read while driving. So is the main infotainment screen, with an EV app that shows you how much the accessories draw from the battery and the estimated time to charge at various voltage levels. The stereo and climate controls are well-marked. The steering wheel controls for the multi-function display in the instrument cluster work in the same way. Daily-driving in the Niro EV is a conventional experience. It’s intuitive and not at all intimidating.
The Niro’s infotainment system is quick and full of connectivity, with standard Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and 4G WiFi. Kia’s UVO connected services allow the car to send maintenance alerts to your phone, and connect the navigation to online points of interest (POI) searches. Voice recognition is fast and accurate. However, like in the I-Pace, the Niro’s list of charging stations is incomplete. Many fast-charging stations near me were unlisted, and yet Tesla Supercharger stations—which aren’t compatible with any car other than a Tesla—were suggested stop points. The map also puts a green circle around where you can travel, though it would be more helpful if the radius didn’t stretch out into waterways like Long Island Sound. Regardless, the system as a whole is good. Semi-automated driving is possible on marked highways when using the Niro EV’s standard suite of driver assists. But best of all is the heat. Unlike the resistive heating systems used by most EVs, Kia installed a heat pump that blasts hotter air and warms the cabin much faster. This is an expensive piece of hardware you’ll never notice. But because it works so well—and doesn’t drain the battery nearly as much as in other EVs—I don’t think I could own an EV in New England without it. It’s fantastic.
The Niro EV comes standard with automatic emergency braking, lane-keep assist, and adaptive cruise control. Blind-spot monitoring is optional. Exterior sounds at low speeds help alert pedestrians that the car is rolling by them. In crash tests, the 2018 Niro Hybrid and Plug-In Hybrid are rated a Top Safety Pick+ by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). The Niro EV is more than 700 pounds heavier and packs a significantly larger battery that is mounted deep within the frame. We would expect the same stellar results for the Niro EV, so long as crash tests prove the battery isn’t compromised in a crash. We hope the IIHS tests a Niro EV. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has not crash-tested any Niro models.
The Niro EV starts at $38,500, plus a $995 destination fee. That's more than the mechanically identical 2019 Hyundai Kona EV ($36,450). Shoppers in only 12 states can buy it (California, Connecticut, Georgia, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Texas, and Washington). A $7,500 federal tax credit and additional state incentives reduce the cost. But that’s still roughly $10,000 more than a Niro Plug-in Hybrid, which can travel up to 26 miles on battery power, and offers 105 MPGe combined in EV mode and 46 mpg combined with the battery depleted. Plus, the Plug-in Hybrid can travel up to 560 miles versus the Niro EV’s 239. A regular Niro Hybrid is even cheaper and can deliver more than 50 mpg. Loaded, it’s still a better deal than an EV and promises a stress-free commute without the spotty, inconsistent, and—depending on your local electric rates—expensive DC fast-charge network. Is the Niro EV a value next to the Chevrolet Bolt or Tesla Model 3? You bet. But that doesn’t make it a good overall value when the gas-powered Niro models are so affordable, very efficient, and dependable.
Clifford Atiyeh is a reporter and photographer who has spent a good portion of his life driving cars he doesn't own. He is vice president of the New England Motor Press Association and committed to saving both manuals and old Volvos.
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