There are certainly limitations, but they're not the Niro EV's fault.
Lots of favorable reviews have already said plenty of positive things about the Kia Niro EV and, for lots of good reasons. It’s the electric car that lots of buyers have been asking for, a compact wagon.
A wagon? Yes, it’s a wagon. If you don’t think that’s true, just search on that subject. Kia, however, wants you to believe it falls into crossover territory. Pick your favorite label. Mine happens to be ‘wagon.’
With a 64 kWh battery, traveling reasonable distances with minimal hassle should be possible, right? It is, but there are limitations, and they're not the car's fault.
Electrify America installations are changing how we use non-Tesla EVs. This comes well after Tesla has shown the world how to quickly and efficiently spin up chargers. In conjunction with ChargePoint, EVgo, and other minor players, long-distance travel in non-Tesla EVs is now a reality. However, there are caveats. More on this and Electrify America later.
First of all - The Car
Kia provided a sparkling clean 2019 Niro EV for a week’s worth of driving. Aside from the loaner Niro EV, I didn’t receive any compensation for this review. Spoiler alert: The Niro EV is reliable, useful, comfortable-the superlatives continue. This is a car that I’ve genuinely anticipated, and the results are better than I could have hoped.
As mentioned, the car presents as a small wagon. The test example, with its white grill-less face, almost suggests Tesla though, after closer examination, the outline of the Niro Hybrid and Plug-in grill is there in a nod to its corporate heritage. It’s tidy and, though it may not win any beauty competitions, it isn’t going to have the neighbors thinking you’ve been bargain shopping, either.
The interior is going to feel immediately familiar to anyone who’s driven a Hyundai or Kia in recent years. All the controls feel familiar, and there’s very little that's new to Kia or Hyundai buyers.
There are three drive modes with the usual suspects of Eco, Normal and Sport and console-mounted shifter knob. The latter should be approached with caution by those who are used to BMW’s iDrive. I found myself having to be very deliberate when making adjustments to the radio. Other than that, the interior hard to fault. The materials are quality stuff, and the parts themselves are put together with the same level of thoughtfulness as the more expensive Japanese brands. Watch out, Lexus. Kia is hot on your tail in terms of interior quality.
The Nanny State
Aside from Tesla’s Autopilot, I’ve never been happier to have a car tell me what to do. There's Blind Spot Protection, Lane Keeping warning and assist, automatic cruise control, and emergency braking. They all work brilliantly together. Kudos to the good folks at Kia for providing such a robust and effective suite of safety and convenience tools. This car hits the sweet spot on all of the systems mentioned above. In particular, the Lane Keeping Assist is extremely accurate. That helps make the miles slip by effortlessly.
The Test Route
The test route was my standard loop to and from downtown Atlanta, and St. Augustine, Florida. Along with incidental driving of about 100 miles, this is a trip of just about 1000 miles.
How did the Niro EV do?
Well, in a word-great! With comfortable heated and ventilated seats with power adjustment, leather seating surfaces, this is the kind of car beckons you to hit the road. Yes, it’s on the smaller side, but it feels substantial, yet it’s simple to park. In regards to parking, this car has the best backup camera I’ve ever experienced.
With a 64 kWh and a 239 mile EPA estimated range, this car falls well into my theory that, on average, it takes 30 kWh of juice to go 100 miles in a variety of conditions and speeds in today’s EVs. Some do better; some do a little more poorly. In the case of the Niro EV, it does slightly better than average.
What does that mean? It means that long-distance travel in a Niro EV is possible so long as there is a reliable source of fast charging every 175-200 miles or so. That, in turn, requires planning and flexibility when it comes to the route taken. However, far less planning is required in the Niro EV than it does in a shorter range EV.
Why 175-200 miles when the car has greater range? We live in a world where charging stations are still unreliable. Moreover, on the test route, there has been a CCS charging desert for a long time along I-95 in Georgia between Savannah and just south of the Florida border. I had hoped that Electrify America would change that situation. Sadly, it has not in the way that I had hoped.
I point this out because Tesla has established stations placed at strategic distances from one another. That means Tesla’s pretty much defined a cadence for travel. That hasn’t come to the CCS world yet. There’s no cadence, no real rhythm, no consistency in vendors-yet.
My point is that during the Niro’s stop at the Brunswick, Georgia location, one charger failed to start and, after switching stations, the second required restarting once. After a little over an hour of fiddling with the chargers, I departed with an 80% charge. I didn’t need to charge, mind you. I was anxious to test the chargers and, if I had not stopped, my next required charging stop would have to have been at a very reliable but slow 35 kW Evgo installation in Jacksonville.
I’ve been back to this station three other times since in my 33 kWh BMW i3 with even worse results. The worst incident was after the second-worst (and after the stations were taken down because of the following incident-and, clearly not tested before being put back into service). This incident had one restart before the EA folks shut down the entire site leaving me stranded. The second worst took three hours and 20 + restarts to get to a 60% state of charge. That charge was enough to get me to the Savannah Georgia Power ChargePoint installation. That station has never failed to perform for me. The third incident at that EA installation was better-but not by much.
To add insult to injury, each restart at one of these Electrify America installations puts a $20 hold on the credit card every time a restart is required. That's pretty terrible.
The stations in question are the Efacec 150 kW units, and they’ve since been dialed back to 50 kW to prevent overheating. During my trials and tribulations with these defective chargers, it was pretty clear that there was an overheating situation. However, no one at EA’s customer service would admit to that being the case. This makes me wonder how Audi e-tron drivers are going to feel when they get the surprise of not being able to charge at 150 kW.
Let me add a note about EA’s Customer Service. It’s hard to get angry at the good folks on the other end of the phone. They’re courteous and as helpful as they can be. They offer free charging sessions when things go wrong. However, when you need to be somewhere, and you can’t get there because of defective (and I believe untested) installations, it’s annoying. I called EA on several occasions and offered them a chance to comment on their testing/quality assurance process. The only returned call I received was one offering me a free charging session.
Because I drive this route frequently, I’ve taken to stopping and seeing the good folks at the Hampton Inn, St. Simons Island that’s only ten miles from the Electrify America Installation, and I’m going to continue doing so until EA has its reliability problem under control.
The hotel has 2 L-2 ClipperCreeks and 4 Tesla destination chargers. The employees park their cars in the EV spots so other customers can’t ICE chargers and then move when you ask. Tip of the hat to the good folks at Hampton Inn for letting me work in the lobby while my car charged. Other times, I’ve just stopped for the night and left with a full charge.
Because of Electrify America’s issues, the Kia Niro EV shines even more brightly. Drivers have a lot more wiggle room when it comes to charging opportunities because of its substantial range. Combine that range with a supremely comfortable interior and one of the most versatile EV configurations going, and you’ve got a winning package. Kia’s on to something and I, for one, say “Bravo!”