2019 Kia Niro EV First Drive Review: Starting The Affordable Electric Revolution

First Drive

More than Tesla, Kia is doing its part to ensure that the future is electric…and affordable.

Some time in mid to late February, you’ll start to see a phenomenon take place at your local Kia dealership. There’s nothing particularly strange about an EV, and the electrified Niro isn’t even the first battery-powered compact from the Korean automaker, but once it's sitting alongside Stingers and Souls, that’s when you’ll see the electric car holdouts show up. They’ll wander around asking about charge times and kilowatt hours instead of horsepower figures, happy because they no longer have to wait for a decent affordable electric car that has buttons on its dash. The moment that happens will be confirmation that the electric invasion has truly begun. No longer will the movement be only for those with deep pockets, now everyone can join. Bring Grandma along too because Kia is has released a ride for those of us who’ve craved the personality, simplicity, and unpretentious flair of a basic commuter car during the electric revolution.

Kia thought it might be nice if we got a chance to ride it before it hits the dealership, so it shipped us out to Santa Cruz, California and let us loose in a fleet of fully-charged Niros.

Exterior Design: Small Crossover? Large Car?

Almost as strange as Santa Cruz’s funky vibe is the Niro’s aesthetic. It’s always been a collection of paradoxes - small but spacious, unique yet versatile, sleek and futuristic but plain enough to whiz through traffic without turning heads - and that’s what makes it perfect as an electric car. It even looks like the and Niros, bearing Kia’s tiger nose grille even if here it’s just a plastic cutout because the electric motor behind it doesn’t need fresh air to do its job.

The Niro EV’s silhouette isn't exactly a crossover's but neither is it of a traditional car, and like the Niro PHEV, it has conspicuous blue trim strewn around its body like leis on hula dancers. To further differentiate between the Niros, Kia revised the EV's front and rear bumpers and gave it LED daytime running lights to help save juice. Aside from that there’s a set of 17-inch alloy wheels specific to the EV, which look aerodynamic but don’t actually help the Niro attain its 0.29 coefficient of drag.

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Interior Design & Features

The biggest clue you’re in the Niro EV and not one of its more "wasteful" counterparts is the large silver shift knob just ahead of the center console’s enlarged storage compartment. It not only helps clear up space for large items (like a purse), it also stands alongside a digital gauge cluster optimized for the electric drivetrain, unique upholstery accented with more blue trim, and an "Eco/Electric” badge to further distinguish the Niro EV from the gas-sippers.

That same blue exterior trim also jumps off the seats and makes it onto the dash and door panels. Despite the futuristic vibe it proliferates, the overall feel of the cabin isn’t luxurious. Quality, however, is high. The materials aren’t fantastic, but they sure feel like they’ll last. Buttons are large, easy to read, and satisfying to press - with the touchscreen bearing the same attributes - and three separate USB ports ease road trip pains by transferring juice from the EV’s battery to occupants’ devices.

Power, Performance, and Range

Using the Niro EV to charge your electronics is less of an anxiety-inducing activity than it was in the Soul EV. For that we can thank the battery. That 64 kWh lithium-ion brick sits below the floor-panel and spans most of the crossover’s width and wheelbase, concentrating 1,008-pounds of the EV’s 3,854-pound curb weight in the bottom-center of the chassis. It powers the 356-volt electric motor under the hood, which sends 201 horsepower and 291 lb-ft of torque to the front wheels. If you’re driving like a normal person and not squeezing out 7.8-second runs from 0-62 mph or approaching the Niro EV’s 103 mph top speed, you should get 239 miles out of a fully-juiced battery. Charging the Niro EV isn’t as quick as charging a Tesla, but using a DC fast-charger can still guarantee 100 miles of range in 30 minutes or an 80% charge in 75 minutes.

Dimensions, Trunk & Cargo Space

A problem with electric vehicles designed on platforms that can accommodate gasoline engines is that the battery pack tends to invade the cabin and diminish space for passengers and cargo. The Niro EV is no exception to that rule, but battery intrusion is low enough that it’s close. All three Niros share a 106.3-inch wheelbase, but the EV is longer and taller than the Hybrid by 0.7 inches and 1 inch, respectively, bringing length to 172.2-inches and height to 61.8-inches. Fitting the battery low means ground clearance also takes a 0.2-inch loss compared to the Hybrid, but that outward growth doesn’t make up the interior space given up to the battery.

Rear-seat occupants lose 1.4-inches of headroom and legroom, but at least the front stays consistent in its dimensions. The EV's cargo capacity is also down by 0.9-cubic feet compared to the Hybrid’s 19.4-cubic foot trunk, but you’ll hardly miss it since the Niro is not the first cargo hauler most people would pick in the first place.

Driving Impressions: Capable, Hold The Fun

A strength smaller Kias have evolved is a style of driving that's so simple and uncomplicated you almost forget you’re driving at all. And with an army of powerful driver aid features, including lane keeping assist, smart cruise control with stop and go, rear cross-traffic alert, blind spot monitoring, and forward collision avoidance assist, there are many instances where our only job was to keep watch over the orchestra of technology and try not to get distracted by the beautiful Monterey scenery.

Kia has gone a step further with the Niro EV by making the complexity of its driver aids and electric drivetrain easy to use and understand. It sort of has to considering this crossover is an electric ambassador in a fossil fuel world, but it pulls it off well. Braking, usually an issue for EVs given the delicate balance between the regenerative braking and pad braking systems, feels smoother in the Niro than in (though it’s still not perfect).

In most other areas the Niro EV remains adequate; not shining but hardly a burden. The throttle maps in Eco, Eco +, and Normal force a driver to dig for power off the line. Steering is light and vague but it’s still easy to position the Niro right where you want it, and though the pliable suspension makes seesawing through corners in Sport mode more of a chore than a celebration of driving, the low-slung battery pack makes sure the Niro stays nailed down to the road.

The Niro EV won’t make you feel engaged like the Chevy Bolt will, but the wheel-mounted paddle shifters do help coax fun out of braking They’ve been repurposed to toggle through different levels of regenerative braking resistance and can even bring the Niro to a full stop, which is fun until you start to miss the ability for true single-pedal driving in the Bolt.

Complaints & EV Nuances

Aside from the brakes, the Niro EV succeeds in masking the nuances of its electric drivetrain so the absence of engine noise and vibration are the only hints you get that excited electrons are powering this crossover. That doesn’t mean the drive is whisper-quiet, though.

Key to alerting pedestrians about this EV's presence is a whirring noise that makes the Niro sound like a flying saucer powered by alien technology. Most drivers will mistake it for the sound of the electric motors, but it’s actually produced by a speaker mounted behind the front bumper.

Price & Trims

A nice thing about Kia’s push to be ranked alongside its more established Japanese competitors is that the automaker doesn’t skimp on standard features. The Niro EV will only come in two trims, EX and EX Premium, but peak inside the base model and you’ll find a 7-inch touchscreen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, a wireless charger, Bluetooth connectivity, Kia’s full suite of driver aids, and an updated version of the UVO telematics system with real time charging station updates, scheduled charging times, and pre-conditioning that can get the cabin to a comfortable temperature in case using the heated and cooled front seats isn’t enough.

Step up to the EX Premium and you’ll find an 8-inch touchscreen infotainment system, the addition of LED headlights, a heated steering wheel and power sunroof, interior mood lighting, parking distance sensors on the front and rear, and an 8-speaker HK sound system.

Kia has yet to give us a price for the Niro, but it’s safe to say that it’ll cost about as much as the Hyundai Kona EV (the two cars share the same electric motor after all). You can snatch a base Kona EV SEL for $36,450 or the higher trimmed Ultimate for $44,650 before federal and local incentives kick in, which can knock up to $10,000 off the price tag depending on which state you live in.

Verdict: The Green Car For All

With the government subsidizing the extra cost of the electric drivetrain and with Kia having enough EV credits for these incentives to last halfway into the next decade, the Niro EV can truly become the car it was destined to be: an electric crossover that’s actually affordable, more capable than the competition (it has more space and ground clearance than the Bolt or Kona EV), and offers fantastic value for money.

Driving the Niro EV is not exactly a pule-raising experience, but those of us who just want to get around in a reliable crossover that has the latest safety features, some luxury toys, room for weekend adventures, and zero guilt as we whiz past fuel stations now have the a choice that the competition needs to work to beat.

In building the Niro EV, Kia has simply done what it does best: brought incredible value to a hot segment, only this time it’s electric.

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