2021 Kia Niro EV: Is it a case of too little, too late?
Kia's first pure-electric model, the Niro EV, might be an unfortunate case of too little too late when it comes to this ageing model's 2021 Australian debut.
What is it?
The first pure-electric car to wear the Kia badge, the 2021 Niro EV is a new arrival to the Australian market, although the DE Niro (yes, its chassis code really is DE, and yes, Robert De Niro really did appear in overseas commercials for it) has been around in South Korea since 2016, the UK since 2017, and the US since early 2018 as a conventional or plug-in hybrid, while this electric version arrived in the latter half of 2018.
A model designed from the ground up to only ever feature electrified drivetrains, the Niro EV arrives in Australia with only the larger 64kWh battery and more powerful 150kW electric motor borrowed from the Hyundai Kona Electric are on offer (other markets offer a lesser 39.2kWh version) meaning that this top-spec Sport model isn’t at all cheap, with Kia claiming a steep drive-away price of $70,990.
Why are we testing it?
With Kia planning to bring a total of 11 electric vehicles to market by 2026, we figured it’d certainly be worth taking a took at the brand’s first attempt at making one. Also, with the current Niro being brought here so late in its model life, it’s likely we’ll only see this present Niro in Aussie showrooms for a year or two before it’s superseded, so we also wanted to see whether it was worth bringing here despite that, or whether Kia should have waited to bring an all-new model here.
What’s it like inside?
The immediate impression you get inside the Niro EV is that it’s been designed to be a practical space, with its centre console arrangement the real centrepiece of that. With no transmission and no need for a traditional shifter – an electronic rotary dial is used instead – it frees up a massive amount of space, allowing for a huge storage bin in the middle between the front occupants’ legs, and another ahead of the armrest which is covered and features two easily retractable cupholders.
There’s an acreage of space inside it, too, with more than ample room for both front and rear occupants which is a nice contrast to the cramped cabin of the closely-related Kona Electric, and it offers far more in the way of boot space, too. In this Sport model, leather-appointed seats with power adjustment for the driver come as standard, although I am very disappointed to see that there’s no seat heating on offer given just how much this thing is going to cost you. Dual-zone climate control, a sunroof, and wireless phone charging are other disappointing omissions from the spec sheet on what is a seventy-grand car, too.
I must say as well that I struggled to find a comfortable position for my 6’2″ frame behind the wheel, with the seat base not feeling quite long enough or able to reach an appreciably ergonomic angle. It was also sorely lacking when it came to thigh bolstering as well.
Thankfully the infotainment system is one good bit of kit – the Sport model features a 10.25-inch touchscreen in the middle as standard, although it is running older software than you’ll find in some other Kias sat next to it in the showroom. An eight-speaker JBL audio system also comes as standard, as does a digital instrument cluster, and although a full TFT screen for it would be nice, the dot-matrix dials the 7.0-inch screen in the middle is flanked by do give a nice retro-futuristic look.
Given the Niro will be a bit of a niche product in Australia – a market where EVs are hardly popular, especially due to world-first taxes recently implemented on them in Victoria and South Australia – Kia has effectively brought over UK-spec vehicles, something you’ll note by the fact the indicator stalk is still on the left, rather than on the right as it is in all other Aussie-spec Kias. This isn’t a problem if you’re as used to European cars as I am, but it is a sign of it being a bit of a rushed job to bring the Niro here.
While it all feels well made, is an incredibly practical interior, and offers some decent tech, the Niro EV Sport’s cabin simply doesn’t scream seventy-grand the same way the Sorento GT-Line does given the disappointing omissions on its spec sheet.
What’s it like to drive?
While petrol-electric hybrid versions of the Niro use the same combination of a 1.6-litre petrol engine and smaller electric motors and battery packs seen in the Hyundai Ioniq, the Niro EV on test here is powered by a single electric motor that produces 150kW and 395Nm. Despite its SUV size, all versions of the Niro are front-wheel drive exclusively, with power in the electric model sent through a single-speed reduction gear set at an 8.206:1 ratio.
Although you get the feeling of there being plenty of instantaneous electric torque at your disposal as you give the Niro some welly, its 1791kg kerb weight means that it never exactly feels sprightly, especially above 80km/h where having a second gear would really make all the difference.
With so much torque on tap, low rolling resistance tyres, and only front-wheel drive, being too spirited with the throttle means that there’s plenty of unwanted wheelspin and torque steer to be felt, so combine that with its lack of outright blistering pace and the Niro is clearly a car best driven at normal speeds.
In traffic, it feels right at home thanks to that low-speed torque and the overall smoothness of its electric drivetrain, while its easy steering helps it feel nice and manoeuvrable on city streets, and its suspension does a pretty good job of ironing out potholes and speed bumps.
Where it’s clear that this lacks an Australian-tuned suspension setup of most other Kia models, though, is on backroads. Not only does it feel to struggle a touch with handling mid-corner bumps, it simply doesn’t feel as poised or pointed through the corners as just about every other Kia model does at this point, including the company’s SUVs.
While it’s a great city car and feels pleasantly smooth and torquey in the way you’d expect an electric car to, the Niro simply doesn’t feel that at home on quintessentially Australian roads, especially when compared to its incredibly capable petrol-powered alternatives within the wider Kia range. Am I nitpicking? Yes, but I do feel as though it is justified given just how good many other EVs (and many other Kia SUVs) out there are to drive.
How do the numbers stack up?
Being an electric car, range is always the big question that immediately pops up, and thankfully, due to all Australian models featuring the larger 64kWh battery pack normally on offer as an upgrade as standard, it means that the Niro is able to cover a claimed 455km on the WLTP test cycle, using a claimed 15.9kWh/100km.
In my week of testing, I actually managed to better that consumption claim, using an indicated 14.8kWh/100km, although don’t think you’ll better the range claim as using the air con zaps any potential gains away. Given the average Aussie drives around 255km per week, this means you should only have to charge it roughly every 12 days.
For curiosity’s sake, though, I gave it a precautionary charge halfway through my above-average 368km week with it when the gauge indicated 55 percent charge remaining, and from a normal household outlet, you’re looking at… 17.5 hours to reach full again, according to the car. Not good. With a 7.2kWh AC charger, that time should be cut to 9.5 hours; a 50kWh DC fast charger will slash it to 1¼ hours from 0-80 percent; and a 100kWh DC fast charger will brim it in 54 minutes. Finding charging stations is still a tricky business in Australia, though, so do consider the potential impracticality of that. As for the cost of charging, that will depend on the company or government running public charging stations, or whether or not you have a rooftop solar system if you’re charging at home, but figure for around $0.20/kWh, which is just shy of $15 per 500km based off the energy consumption we saw.
The other number that needs discussing here, of course, is the cost, as the Niro EV is undoubtedly expensive. At $67,490 drive-away for the S model and $70,990 for the Sport tested here, it’s a staggering figure to be paying. Consider the fact that its list price sees it cost $3090 more than a Tesla Model 3 Standard Range Plus and it doesn’t exactly look like the good-value buy you expect from Kia. Granted, the Hyundai Kona Electric Highlander will set you back around a grand more than the Niro EV Sport, but it has far more standard equipment so it’s the better buy, even if it is smaller. A Niro starts at just $41,990 for the Hybrid S while the Plug-in Hybrid S is $49,990 drive-away, too, so these currently more usable and considerably cheaper versions of the Niro are worth considering also.
Do keep in mind, though, that there are incentives in place to bring that purchase price down. The NSW Government just days before the publication of this article announced it would waive stamp duty on new EVs priced below the luxury car tax threshold, while states including both NSW and Victoria also offer $3000 rebates on electric vehicles. Consider how much cheaper it’ll be to run in the long term as well,
Kia’s warranty, surprisingly, falls behind some of the competition for the Niro in some regards as well. While its impressive seven-year unlimited kilometre warranty still applies to the basic vehicle, the warranty for the battery pack (guaranteeing replacement if there is more than 25 percent degradation) is only valid for seven years/150,000km where many other EV manufacturers offer eight years/160,000km.
So, what’s the verdict?
Make no mistake, the Kia Niro EV is a perfectly competent car that performs well in traffic and has more than enough usable range on offer to cover a week or two of driving, but this ageing model that’ll only be kicking around here for a year or so, and which hasn’t been optimised for our roads, does feel to be lagging behind its competition when you consider how much more polished a car you’re getting in the Tesla Model 3 or Hyundai Kona Electric.
The price tag, I imagine, might make you wince a bit like it did me, and although subsidies that are slowly being introduced here do reduce the cost to a far more reasonable number, I imagine many looking for an electrified Kia will be opting for the Hybrid model – Kia thinks so, too, citing expected sales of 70 percent Hybrid, 20 percent EV, and 10 percent PHEV – although I personally fancy the Plug-in Hybrid as a best-of-both-worlds option.
What the model does at least do is whet the Kia buyer’s appetite for electrified vehicles, and even if they still buy the traditional internal combustion-powered SUV sat beside it in the showroom, it might at least make them think about how when they go to trade it in, an EV might just be on the cards. A case of too little, too late? Perhaps – but at least the Niro raises awareness of what's next (and what needs to be next) for Kia.
This article originally appeared on drivesection.com on June 23, 2021. The vehicle tested here was provided by Kia Motors Australia. All noted prices are in Australian dollars (AUD).