The Kia Niro EV is a battery electric vehicle I’ve been eager to drive for a while now. Two years ago, I tried the $26,000 Niro, a 40mpg (5.9L/100km) hybridthat charmed my socks off. Last year, it was theNiro PHEV, a plug-in hybrid that beefed up the battery in exchange for not too much more money. Both of those still carried around an internal combustion engine; the $39,090 Niro EV does not. Aside from some subtle design clues, you might not know one from the other, but a blanked off nose grille and bits of blue highlight trim give the game away that this version ditches the ICE.
Instead, a 64kWh lithium-ion battery lives low-down between its axles. Under the hood lies a 201hp (150kW), 291lb-ft (395Nm) permanent magnet synchronous motor that drives the front wheels. If those specs sound familiar, they should be: the Niro EV shares its electric powertrain with another budget BEV from Korea,the Hyundai Kona EV.
As we discussed with the hybrid Niro review, Kia calls it a crossover. Whether you do depends on how sensitive you are to its visual height—as a shape, it screams, “I’m a mini SUV” much more softly than theKia Seltos we looked at last week. You don’t sit that high up—enough for a bit of extra situational awareness, perhaps, but still a couple inches lower than another Kia is-it-a-hatchback-or-a-crossover, the Soul. Pigeon-hole it where you like, that part is probably not as important as whether it fits with one’s lifestyle.
Family car practicality
And, for a family of four, it should. The experience from the front seats is nigh-on identical to the hybrid and PHEV variants—the only thing that really gives the game away is a different center console that swaps out a traditional transmission stick for a rotary drive selector that falls much closer to hand. It also provides a much smarter selection of storage options between the front seats. The cupholders can be retracted when you don’t need them and then pop out with the push of a button when you do, and there are pass-throughs for cables and covers to hide stuff from prying eyes when parked.
Backseat passengers might notice the change in powertrains if hopping from one variant to another. The Niro EV has to give more internal room over to its battery pack, and this shows up with the loss of about an inch and a half of head room (37.7 inches/958mm) and leg room (36 inches/914mm). But you can still fit two adults comfortably in the back, or more likely, a pair of car seats. Cargo capacity is similarly shrunk a little by the need to lug around so much lithium-ion. But at 18.5 cubic feet (524L) with the rear seats in use and 53 cubic feet (1,500L) with the rear seats folded flat, going all-electric doesn’t mean you have to leave most of your stuff at home on long trips.
Driving the Niro EV is a lot like driving a Kona EV, thanks to what both OEMs call their smart regenerative braking system. Behind the spokes of the steering wheel are a pair of paddles, the kind you might use to change gears in a sports car. Here, they let you easily and quickly adjust the amount of regenerative braking that happens when you lift your foot from the accelerator pedal. Left increases regen, from zero so you can coast efficiently, through to three, which slows you at up to 0.25G. Right does the opposite, easing the lift-off regen setting. (The car also regeneratively brakes when you press the actual brake pedal, so you don’t have to worry about wasting kinetic energy if you have to slow more suddenly.)
I can’t remember what the Kona sounded like now, but my wife and I were both fans of the noise the Niro makes as you drive. Kia says the sound is “a fantastic techy whirring noise when moving that evokes speedy sci-fi craft,” which is a pretty good description.
For stop-and-go traffic, I like to have as much regen as possible, for one-pedal driving. Conversely, if I’m cruising along—even at 25mph (40km/h) on now-empty streets—I prefer not to keep my foot on the accelerator the whole time once I’ve reached my speed. And sometimes you only want to slow a little, the way you might use engine braking on a conventional car. Kia (and Hyundai’s) paddle approach makes it extremely simple to switch this up as conditions dictate, and I might prefer it to even the regen braking paddle of the Chevrolet Bolt EV.
The Niro EV has another efficiency-boosting trick involving regenerative braking, again shared with the Kona EV. It leverages the car’s forward-looking cruise control radar to maintain following distances to a car in front when you’re coasting. So if you’re coasting along at 25mph and the car ahead starts to brake, you begin to regeneratively brake to keep the gap the same, so you don’t need to apply the brake pedal yourself to avoid the risk of rear-ending them. The system will also vary the amount of regen when climbing or descending inclines to keep the rate of deceleration constant—again, similar to engine braking on a conventionally powered vehicle.
The Niro EV offers you four different drive modes—Eco, Eco , Normal, and Sport. These alter the mapping of the accelerator pedal (and also the severity of regen), although Eco also limits top speed and the amount of total power draw from the battery, and it cuts off the AC in the name of maximizing range. In Sport, the accelerator will give you enough torque to easily overpower the available grip of the front (low rolling resistance) tires. In fact, you can even make them chirp and torque-steer in Eco if you’re sufficiently lead-footed from a standstill. That also means there’s not a massive amount of grip for committed cornering, but if you want an EV for hooning, save up the extra dough for aTesla Model 3 PerformanceorPorsche Taycan.
Fast-charging? Not quite so fast…
The EPA rates the Niro EV at 239 miles (385km) on a full battery. In practice, the power consumption gauge on the main instrument display told me I achieved between 4 and 5.5 miles/kWh (6.4-8.9km/kWh), and over 4,500 miles, that particular press fleet Niro EV had averaged 3.6 miles/kWh (5.8km/kWh). Which means a Niro EV should have more than enough range for normal use, even if you only plug it in every other day. With a level 2 charger, the Niro EV will charge at 7.2kW and needs about 9.5 hours to go from empty to full. CCS DC fast-charging is standard on both EX and EX Premium ($44,000) trims, but beware: although Kia says it is capable of charging at 100kW,the most you might see is 77kW and then only for brief bursts.
I took advantage of a recently openedElectrify America stationto test the car’s fast-charging chops, arriving with a 46-percent state of charge. Just over 38 minutes later, I was at 79 percent, having sucked down 26kWh. That left me with an indicated 201 miles of range, but if you wanted to match Kia’s claims of “approximately 100 miles of range in 30 minutes” you probably ought to arrive at a fast charger with less than 20-percent SoC and a thoroughly warm battery. DC fast-charging was also complicated somewhat by the fact that during the initial handshake with the charger, the car says it can cope with up to 150kW, which bumps you into a more expensive $/kWh bracket. Kia and EA therefore set up a Kia Select program that keeps your fast-charging at 35c/min to accommodate that quirk, which should make road trips in a Niro EV a lot more palatable.
With a starting price of $39,090 before the $7,500 IRS tax credit and any local incentives, the Niro EV is priced about where you’d expect for a BEV with this sort of range and equipment. As we’ve come to expect from Korean automakers, the list of standard equipment is generous and includes a full complement of advanced driver assistance systems—forward and rear cross traffic collision warnings, automatic emergency braking, lane keeping, and blind spot monitors. We tested the EX Premium version, which adds a power sunroof, a bigger infotainment screen (now 10.25-inches for MY2020), ventilated front seats, as well as convenience features like wireless cellphone charging and parking sensors. (Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard on all Niros.) Our test car also included a $1,080 cold weather package (a battery heater and heat pump).
The snag in all of this is that you can only buy a Niro EV in one of 14 states in the US—California, Connecticut, Georgia, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Texas, Vermont, and Washington. Kia can only get its hands on so many batteries, so the US has to compete with other markets for supply. Kia North America is concentrating its efforts on those states with a zero emissions mandate and a few others where there’s enough demand there to soak up every BEV it can bring over.
Listing image by Jonathan Gitlin