239-mile EV range
Standard advanced safety features
Cabin on the plain side
Handling hardly sporty
Tight rear seat room
2019 Kia Niro EV EX Premium
Since making its debut in 2018, the Kia Niro has battled it out in the subcompact EV segment with rivals from Chevrolet (Bolt), Hyundai (Kona), and Nissan (Leaf). One of three eco models –hybrid and plug-in hybrid variants are also offered - that share the same body, the EV differentiates itself with model-specific exterior and interior touches.
While it also shares a platform with the Hyundai Kona, which sports the obvious design cues of a subcompact crossover, the Niro family’s design defies such easy classification – is it a crossover, hatchback, or wagon? At the same time, kudos to Kia for a restrained look that flies in the face of the complex bends, creases and faux floating roof styling cues endemic to many of its peers.
Tasteful and upright like its gasoline-fueled siblings, up front the EV swaps out a traditional upper grill for a tiger nose-inspired closed body-color panel with integrated charge port centered above a blue trim-outlined lower air intake and between swept-back LED headlight enclosures. The sides are defined by deep stampings on the lower door panels that visually lower the body, while the roof gently tapers to the tailgate.
That sedate exterior is wrapped around an equally conservative interior, offering soft surfaces at most touch points and seats that, on our Premium trim tester, were covered in soft, blue-flecked, perforated leather. The pair up front are supportive, nicely-bolstered, and, like those in back, stitched and trimmed in blue piping, matching the dashboard air outlet surrounds. A large, rotating knob at the front of the console, replacing a conventional shifter, is set between 2 rows of buttons that control the drive mode and seat heat/cool functions and just behind a wireless charging pad and ahead of a pair of storage bins – a forward one with a sliding cover that features pop-up cup holders, and an aft bin with a flip-top arm rest that exposes a decent amount of storage along with a 12-volt outlet.
Centered in the dash is an 8-inch touchscreen, while a a pair of power/volume and enter/tune knobs, as well as handy redundant buttons for radio, media, seek track, map, navigation, favorites, and setup are located just under it. Below those controls is another set for the cabin HVAC functions. All are smooth, intuitive and within easy reach of the driver.
The crossover-typical ride height allows for sweeping views out the front, sides, and rear three-quarters courtesy of narrow A- and B-pillars, as well as a small window set in the C-pillar. The Niro is also eminently versatile, boasting 96.6 cu ft of passenger space - eclipsing the Chevrolet Bolt EV and Nissan Leaf Plus – as well as 18.5 cu ft of cargo volume behind the back seats that expands to 53.0 cu ft with the seats folded.
On the other hand, cargo room fails to match either the Chevrolet Bolt, Nissan Leaf or Toyota Prius, the understated design flies in the face of buyers bent on flaunting their eco-conscious cred, while, despite nice graining with impressive matte finishes, the plethora of hard plastics – especially down low - looks out of place on a vehicle with a starting price north of $39,000.
Under the hood
The Niro EV features a single drivetrain: a 64 kW SK Innovation lithium ion polymer battery pack (sealed and liquid cooled) delivering energy to a permanent magnet AC synchronous electric motor that develops 201 horsepower and a maximum 291 lb-ft of torque between 0 and 3,600 rpm. The motor is mated to a single-speed gear reduction transmission powering the front wheels.
Recharging times, as you might expect, vary depending on the source. Give yourself plenty of time if you plan on plugging a depleted battery into a conventional 120-volt electrical source, as it will take about 59 hours to top things off. With a Level 2, 240-volt home charger (as well as most commercial chargers), the time drops to about 9.5 hours. With DC fast charging (the Niro EV fast charges on the CCS DC fast-charging standard up to 100 kw for a short time), the Niro can recover 100 miles of range in 30 minutes, or from 0 to 80 percent in about 1 hour.
The Niro EV achieves an EPA-estimated 123 MPGe in the city, 102 on the highway, and 112 combined – measurements that are a bit misleading, since they have little to do with actual energy usage. When checking our electrical consumption during a week of mixed driving, we noted a vehicle-measured average consumption of 4.6 miles/kWh. Doing a little math, and with electricity priced at 17.3 cents per kilowatt-hour (as of July 2019 for Detroit-Warren-Dearborn, MI), the cost to drive 100 miles in the Niro works out to roughly $3.76. With the price of a gallon of gasoline hovering around $2.60, the cost to drive a comparable vehicle, capable of achieving 33 miles per gallon over 100 miles, would be $7.80 – meaning that the Niro is roughly 3 times more efficient, translating to about 99 miles per gallon equivalent in terms of cost-per mile.
The Niro EV is available in two trims: EX and EX Premium. But even the EX is well-equipped, offering the usual power features (windows, locks, mirrors), as well as 17-inch alloy wheels, LED daytime running lights, positioning lights, and rear high-mounted stop light, fog lights, heated, power-folding outside mirrors with LED turn signals, 7-inch TFT instrument cluster, keyless push-button start, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, and automatic climate control. The standard infotainment system consists of a 7-inch touchscreen with Bluetooth, satellite radio, Android Auto and Apple CarPlay capability, and Kia’s UVO infotainment and telematics services (free for the first year).
Moving from the base trim to the Premium adds LED headlights and turn signals, LED interior lighting and taillights, a power sunroof, heated and cooled leather-trimmed front seats (power driver’s with power lumbar), wireless device charging, an infotainment system with a larger 8-inch touchscreen offering navigation and Harmon Kardon premium audio, and rear parking sensors.
Standard advanced safety features across the lineup include blind spot detection, rear cross-traffic alert, lane keep assist with driver attention alert, lane following assist, pre-collision warning with pedestrian detection, automatic emergency braking, and adaptive cruise control with stop and go.
On the road
The Niro EV EX delivers a smooth, quiet ride, with a fairly sporty driving experience aided by a dedicated platform that places the battery pack low in the chassis, allowing for a correspondingly lower center of gravity than hybrid versions. An absolute hoot to drive as a commuter, maximum torque is available immediately for strong step-off at stoplights. With a bit of practice, the odd rotary shift knob is easy to use, while tapping the paddle shifters behind the steering wheel allow you to flip through the four driving modes - adjusting brake regeneration level, heating and air conditioning settings, and maximum speed, defaulting to the second level each time the Niro is started. Sport mode offers a more engaging drive, but the level-2 default offers a good compromise, offering single-pedal driving under most circumstances that’s an especially nice feature in stop-and-go driving that allows you to feather the accelerator pedal in order to maintain a set distance while, in most cases, avoiding the use the brake pedal, altogether. Because the Niro is an EV, it also eliminates the transition issues between regenerative and friction braking endemic to hybrids.
But despite near-instantaneous torque, perfection is eluded as it still takes 7.8 seconds to make the run up to 60 mph from a full stop, and single-pedal driving can often feel jerky. In addition, despite sharp around-town handling, the Niro doesn’t feel any more agile than the Ioniq when driven on curvy back roads, where body lean is apparent due to the heft of the larger battery pack and despite a more responsive multi-link rear suspension versus the Hyundai’s torsion beam. Finally, winter range assumptions, as we discovered with the Ioniq EV, will probably need to be modified for those living in cold weather states.
2019 Niro EV prices
The Niro EV is available in two trims, with the EX checking in at $39,545, and the Premium priced from $44,995 (both prices include the $995 destination charge).
Our Gravity Blue EX Premium was also equipped with the Cold Weather Package 2.0 – a must for colder climates ($1,080, battery heater, heat pump), EX Premium Deletion Packing (-$200, deleting Homelink and front cooled seats), the Premium Launch Edition Package ($1,000, heated steering wheel, LED headlights, auto-dimming rearview mirror, front and rear parking sensors, cargo cover), Cargo Mat ($95), Carpeted Floor Mats ($135), and a Cargo Net ($50), boosting the MSRP to $47,155.
As of this writing, the Niro EV qualifies for the full $7,500 Federal tax credit.
The Bottom Line
Despite a pedestrian design, an interior below eye level swathed in hard plastics, and availability limited to just 12 states, the Niro EX Premium EV's impressive 239-mile range, smooth, tranquil ride, and significant list of standard safety features make it a solid choice in the compact EV class.