Kia e-Niro: The closest thing to a Tesla Model 3?
Ben Griffin headed to South Korea to drive the Kia e-Niro electric car, which some have nicknamed the people's Tesla.
Until the Tesla Model 3 arrives, potentially ushering in a new dawn of electric motoring that could worry the establishment, the Kia e-Niro and its sister car, the Hyundai Kona EV, are the closest alternatives available.
Why? Because both offer a large capacity battery of 64kWh, which means a range approaching 300 miles according to WLTP figures, but without costing the earth. The fact you get that in a flavour-of-the-month compact SUV package makes it even harder to ignore.
Kia is, of course, a much less appealing brand than Tesla although the Stinger has helped in the same way as the i30N for Hyundai. But you do get a seven-year warranty and surprising levels of performance.
Here's what else I learned from driving the Kia e-Niro, having attended the launch event that took place on the manufacturer's home turf of South Korea.
1) What range anxiety?
With 282 miles of range (the original 301-mile figure was a mistake made by WLTP testers), range anxiety is still a problem. But then a Nissan Leaf tops out at 30kWh, less than half of the 64kWh offered by the e-Niro, while the Model S and Model X are far pricier.
In fact, the other long-ranger is the brilliant Jaguar I-Pace, but that costs north of £60,000. That leaves the e-Niro and the higher spec Kona EV alone to do their thing at a sensible price we will get to later. Basically, this is the EV that could work as a first car, not a second one.
2) Spec simplicity assured
The dual-tone alloys provide some bling
Unlike the Kona EV, which comes in a short range and long-range offering, the UK e-Niro EV is served with one battery size and a spec that is basically that of a '3' for its hybrid variants, which is to say it's well-equipped.
For starters, the Kia e-Niro First Edition (as it will always be known, so says Kia) comes with rear parking sensors, 60:40 split-folding rear seats, LED daytime running lights, automatic headlights, automatic air conditioning, folding door mirrors and automatic wipers.
As for safety, Ford Collision-Avoidance applies the brakes if you fail to do so when an obstacle jumps out, Driver Attention Warning keeps tabs on whether you are fit to drive and Hill-Start Assist Control prevents rollbacks on hills plus a whole lot more.
There is one optional extra that we can see, which is a premium paintjob for £565. A non-essential addition, if you ask us, but at least the option list is wonderfully simple.
3) The exterior has been electrified
From the outside, Kia's various revisions are modest but recognisable. The tiger-nose grille has been closed to help with aerodynamics, while the air intakes have been adjusted for similar reasons. You also get 17-inch two-tone alloy wheels of the diamond cut variety.
Then there are a few areas with blue trim to indicate its powered by electricity, as well as a redesigned rear bumper and a unique paintjob (Pluto Brown) in addition to the other five, all of which are, sadly, a little on the subdued side.
4) You get a revised interior, too
The interior is a bit dull in places, but it's solid and sensibly designed
Because there is no need for a physical transmission system (hello, one gear), Kia has been able to fit a shift-by-wire system controlled by a rotator dial. This area is also now home to buttons for the electric parking brake, auto hold function, parking sensors and heating controls for the seats and steering wheel.
Not only that, an eight-inch touchscreen in the centre of the dashboard lets you control various settings and features, while yet more blue accents add a touch of differentiation. A choice of six colours for the mood lighting is also a welcome touch, as is the Qi wireless charging area.
Letting you see all the useful EV-specific information is a seven-inch LCD behind the steering wheel. Here, you can swap between seeing how economical you are driving or not as the case may be. It even displays separate information on when you give it some beans.
5) Paddle-shifters help do away with braking
Like in the Kona EV, the Kia e-Niro has one paddle on the left of the steering wheel and one on the right. These let you control the level of regen (from 0 to 2) on the go, as opposed to faffing with a button or setting in a menu.
The benefit is that you can bump it up to 2 when you want to maximise the level of regen and need to stop quickly but without touching the brakes. Or you can go for zero and coast more like a combustion engine car.
Using a mixture of 1 and 2 and anticipation (a seemingly rare driving skill these days), you never have to brake, which makes life gloriously simple. Factor in adaptive cruise control and lane keep assist and being stuck in slow-moving traffic is much less uncomfortable.
6) The handling is better than expected
Lithium-ion batteries are heavy (457kg in this case), but then Kia designed the e-Niro as an EV from the start, which meant it could locate it as near to the floor as possible, lowering the centre of gravity. Improved handling is the result.
That and a firm suspension setup ─ too firm in some instances ─ means Kia's e-Niro is capable of going faster than you expect, although its tyres care more about decreasing rolling resistance than all-out grip.
Like all EVs, there is an overarching familiarity when it comes to how it feels. The steering is quick but not too light to make it detached, but feedback is on the limited side. It is, however, rather enjoyable because the power delivery is smooth and plentiful, as I shall now talk about.
7) Take on the e-Niro at your peril!
The Kia e-Niro will never set any lap records, not that it needs to, but its half-decent handling is complimented by a 201bhp electric motor. With 395Nm of torque delivered from zero RPM, you have enough punch to go from 0-60mph in 7.5 seconds. It can also hit 104mph.
That is enough to nip into a small gap on a roundabout, get home faster than usual and generally embarrass anyone who either lacks the horsepower or fluffs a gear change. For mid-range speed changes, the Kia e-Niro is particularly gifted.
At sensible speeds, which you will be doing if you want to see as much of that claimed range as possible, the Kia e-Niro is suitably pleasant, although the suspension can sometimes struggle with small undulations.
8) Music lovers will be most pleased
Blue dials always look cook. Fact
Because the e-Niro is good at hiding wind noise and not too bad at hiding road noise, the cabin is very quiet. That makes it easier to hear your music, which will be pumping through the eight-speaker, 320-watt sound system with a subwoofer.
It helps, too, that you get a fast charge USB port to keep your smartphone or tablet going and connect it to the car using Android Auto or Apple CarPlay.
9) You get a warranty for (2,555-ish) days
What Kias lack in prestige, they make up for in a class-leading warranty. Seven years or 100,000 miles, to be precise (whichever comes sooner), which should mean care-free motoring. The fact it transfers when you sell the car helps with resell.
Undoing some of that benefit is the fact lithium-ion batteries become less effective over time and nobody will want to spend thousands replacing it once the warranty has expired. That harms depreciation, obviously.
With that said, batteries on older models do seem to be holding up better than expected and so maybe we will see the e-Niro regain some of its value, as we have seen with quite a few early EVs.
10) The Kia e-Niro costs this much
Despite the UK government lowering the plug-in grant to a less impressive £3,500 (a move I deem too soon), the Kia e-Niro costs a somewhat wallet-friendly £32,995. More than its hybrid and plug-in hybrid variants, yes, but then those who can make it work will see a return.
Making it work is the crux, of course. Those who routinely cruise up and down the motorway will find the need to stop and charge inhibiting, plus those without access to a home charger will find it less convenient.
But for those who blitz around town or rarely stray too far, or are happy having an extended coffee break once in a while, will never have to fill up again and reduce their carbon footprint. Given the e-Niro's mix of performance, 451-litre boot, space for four adults and refinement, it is certainly worth considering.
The Kia e-Niro goes on sale on the 1st of April, 2019. And, no, that's not a prank.