2019 Kia Niro EV First Drive: The New Affordable Long-Range Leader
Kia overtakes Chevy and Hyundai for EV range, space, and comfort at an affordable price.
After a full day of driving the 2019 Kia Niro EV through California’s Monterey Bay region, the all-electric crossover’s real-world range appears to be about 250 miles. The Niro EV’s official E.P.A. range is 239 miles, but 260 miles was indicated on the dash as we left the hipster Hotel Paradox in Santa Cruz.
After the day’s journey of 155.7 miles, the Niro’s range estimator showed 93 miles’ worth of miles remaining and an efficiency of 3.8 miles per kilowatt-hour. The dashboard indicated that 38 percent of the battery’s capacity remained. We drove in a mix of driving modes and styles – from easy city cruising to pedal-to-the floor passing. Based on our drive as well as multiple conversations with other writers on the trip and anecdotes from Kia engineers, the Niro EV can easily beat the E.P.A. estimate by at least 10 miles.
Like the Hyundai Kona, the Kia Niro EV provides four levels of regenerative braking. Using steering-wheel-mounted paddles, the level can be set from Level 0 to Level 3. Kia told me that each step up adds about .05 g of regen force. Tugging on the left steering-wheel paddle three times, Kia said, puts the Niro’s regen braking level to about 0.25 g.
Depending on the road’s incline and other factors, Level 3 regen can bring the car to a complete stop after a long coast. But for a useful, no-pedal stop – similar to the BMW i3 or the Chevy Bolt in L – you also need to pull and hold the left paddle. Kia’s Garrett Ono, manager of product strategy and regulatory compliance, called it a “hold to stop” function.
Fortunately, it was straightforward to configure each of the three driving modes (Normal, Sport, and Eco) to a persistent preferred level of regen. By choosing Level 3 of “Coast Energy Regeneration” in the Normal mode, the highest available regen level becomes the default. In this way, when you start the car on your next trip, it’s already configured to have a high level of regen (about 0.25 g).
EV purists might not consider this level a true one-pedal set up because throughout the day – even at Level 3 – I still needed to pull and hold the left paddle to bring the car to a stop.
When commencing a trip, the Kia Niro EV creeps to about 4 miles per hour without touching the accelerator pedal. However, after bringing the car to a stop with heavy regen, the Niro EV doesn’t creep forward when you let go of the pedal.
All told, the driving experience would be entirely accessible to electric-car newbies. “We developed the Niro as an everyday car. It’s unobtrusive,” said Ono. “We carried that over into the EV version.”
I’m an everyday Chevy Bolt driver and the fully loaded, upper trim version of the Niro EV – the version that we drove – felt like a step up in quality. The Niro’s fit, finish, and seat comfort was nicer than what’s found in the Bolt. I appreciated the availability of a sunroof.
Yes, Kia uses abundant plastic, but the design of those hard materials was pleasant to the touch. The leather stitching matches the treatment in luxury vehicles. The cabin design and creature comforts were at least one notch better than the Bolt – and two or more notches improved from the latest Nissan LEAF.
The Niro’s most significant advantage over competing long-range, affordable EVs is its length and profile. At our stop near the Monterey Aquarium, we parked the Niro EV behind a Kona. This picture shows the difference between the two models.
I also made a side-by-side comparison of the hatch cargo between the Niro EV and the Bolt, and the Kia is the clear winner.
On the Road
The Niro EV uses a 200-horsepower motor mounted to the front axle. Given its extra size, the Niro EV is not as fast off the line as the Bolt or Kona. Even when punching the Niro EV’s accelerator, you are not tossed back in your seat. The launch starts modestly until it reaches about 15 miles per hour – and only then does the torque kick in with alacrity.
Even in Sport mode, there’s a lot of play in the accelerator pedal in the first inch or two. You can also press the pedal all the way to the floor without the motor responding accordingly. The Kia Niro EV is more than capable in both city and highway maneuvers, but the throttle is mapped more for comfort and efficiency than rapid electric performance.
The pedestrian warning sound, a futuristic whirring tone, gets louder as you transition from a slow creep to around 10 miles per hour. It is louder than competing EV models, even encroaching into the cabin. In keeping with the Kia value-oriented brand, the Niro EV is not the quietest electric car on the market. Of course, it beats any combustion car regarding low decibels. But when accelerating from about 40 to 55 miles per hour, there’s a high pitch that resembles a muted jet engine. I prefer absolute quiet, but my driving partner liked the Kia’s high-tech whine.
The feel of the steering wheel was an excellent midway point between comfortable and sporty. While the steering gets slightly tighter in Sport mode, it is not separately controllable. Like all aspects of the Niro electric crossover, the road manners felt highly competent. There’s a sense of weight and stiffness from the big, low-slung battery pack but the car doesn’t feel ponderous or uneasy over bumps.
There’s no frunk in the Niro EV. The platform was designed to accommodate conventional hybrid and plug-in hybrid powertrains so the “engine” cabin has space that might have been put to better use in a purpose-built EV. “There is some compromise when you don’t go with a dedicated EV platform,” admitted Ono.
I asked (again) if Kia was planning to design and produce a ground-up, purpose-built EV in the future – to take full advantage of the powertrain and packaging benefits of an electric powertrain. “There’s plenty of potential for that,” Ono responded. That could be a couple of years in the future.
In the meantime, my Bolt’s lease is up in about a year. After today’s drive, the Kia Niro EV is the frontrunner to become my next electric car. Now, it’s a matter of waiting to see exactly how the all-electric Kia is priced.