Kia is on an EV roll. The big news is that 11 new electric vehicles will hit dealerships over the next four years; but the Korean automaker is already making inroads with the current 2021 Kia Niro EV, a reasonably affordable compact crossover that bumps up against much more expensive luxury models in range and sophistication.
Both Kia and its corporate sibling Hyundai have built up to this latest announcement with a string of plug-in hybrids and early-tech EVs that taught their respective engineers valuable lessons about what worked, and what didn’t, in a mass-market electric car. If the Niro EV is any indication, the future looks bright for a brand that is betting big on electrification.
An Electric Hatchback With Crossover Flavor
When deciding to take on a segment already staked out by the entry-level Chevrolet Bolt, Kia designers knew that it had to make the Niro at least as practical as its pioneering rival. That mission is accomplished by way of the Niro EV’s puffed-up hatchback body shape, which tops the Bolt in terms of cargo space behind the rear row of seats (and trails it only slightly when the back bench is folded forward).
Front riders have the best seats in the house, with a decent view of the road ahead provided by the Niro EV’s somewhat elevated ride height. Those in the rear won’t have much to complain about, but they’re in for tighter quarters than one might expect from a crossover in this class.
Interior tech is akin to any similarly-sized model in the Kia lineup, with a choice between 7.0- and 8.0-inch infotainment screens as well as Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Comfort-wise, the ante is raised with a heated steering wheel, heated and cooled front seats, and a power sunroof, each of which are add-ons to the base car’s roughly $40,000 price.
A note about that window sticker: Like many electric models the Niro EV qualifies for various state and federal tax incentives that can reduce its overall cost, depending on whether you purchase or lease, putting it on par with more affordable gasoline-powered automobiles.
Real-World Electric Range
While the Niro EV’s somewhat anonymous looks won’t pull style-conscious shoppers, its battery pack certainly will. The Kia is outfitted with a 64 kWh unit that delivers a stout 239 miles of range in between top-ups, and DC fast charger compatibility guarantees 80% capacity from zero after about an hour of plug time.
That range figure puts the Niro EV ahead of much more expensive luxury crossovers like the Audi E-tron and the Volvo XC40 Recharge, each of which struggle to push past the 200-mile mark. In cold-weather testing the difference is even more stark, as the Kia dropped only 17% of its battery life when facing sub-zero temperatures and snowy, slippery roads — a much more modest power loss than many other EVs when dealing with inhospitable conditions.
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With 201 horsepower and 291 lb-ft of torque on hand, the Niro EV is responsive when pulling away from a stop, if not spin-the-wheels enthusiastic. Its 3,800 lbs of curb weight make it feel less than sporty in terms of handling, and the heft is also noticeable when slowly climbing past the 75 mph mark on the highway. For most buyers this will be a non-issue, as Kia doesn’t tout the crossover’s athletics, but it’s worth considering the more pliable Bolt if corner carving is high on your list of priorities.
The Niro also provides multiple drive modes ranging from range-saving Eco to slightly sharper Sport, each of which dial back or spur forward the accelerator’s sensitivity in a bid to control the flow of electrons. There’s even a button on the dash to kill the heating system for power-saving masochists inching their way towards a charger. More interesting is the Kia’s adjustable regenerative braking system, which is controlled via a set of paddles behind the steering wheel. It can be backed off completely or heightened for near one-pedal driving, the latter squeezing a decent amount of juice back into the battery when coasting down to a stop.
Secret Soul EV Hints at a Bright Future
As a daily driver the Kia Niro EV covers most bases. It’s got useful storage space, a comfortable ride, reasonable power and battery range that will get you to work and back while taking care of any errands that might crop up in between. It’s also a realistic road tripper, provided you’re cool with breaking down a longer drive into 200-mile (read: four hour) increments.
The Niro EV’s battery-powered platform isn’t unique — it’s also available in a somewhat larger, and funkier, flavor as the Kia Soul EV. The catch? You have to live north of the border if you want to get a taste, for while Kia’s electric lineup has already expanded in Canada, massive demand for the Soul EV in Europe and a limited number of battery packs to go around canceled the redux for America and focused the brand’s electrification strategy exclusively on the Niro for now.
Driving the Soul EV back to back with the Niro, it’s clear that the crossover’s boxier brother is just as appealing, while packing in additional cargo room and more eye-catching sheet metal. The same winter conditions that saw the Niro EV emerge nearly unphased are also conquered by the electric Soul with equal range resilience.
Having the latest Soul EV teased and then snatched away stung the small but dedicated group of buyers in the U.S. who had picked up the first generation of Kia’s first-ever electric car. Knowing what the Niro EV brings to the table, however, helps make the automaker’s promise of an electric tomorrow feel more real, especially in comparison to other automakers.
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