The Kia Niro EV arrived in Australia in 2021 despite being on sale globally – as the e-Niro – since 2018.
When Apple released the first iPod in 2001, the clunky CD was quickly forgotten, and Walkmans tossed to the back of the cupboard. The company then moved from iPod to iPhone in a short six years, illustrating the warp speed of innovation in the early days of a given technology.
You may wonder what the iPod has to do with the Kia Niro EV Sport, a $70,990 (driveaway) electric small SUV with 455km of WLTP range, a 64kWh battery and 150kW of power – but the speed EV tech has advanced means there’s quite a parallel between it and Apple’s music revolution.
Like early MP3 players, the Kia Niro EV launched when CD players (in its case combustion cars) still ruled the roost. At its international launch in 2018, the Niro EV’s biggest competitor was the slow-charging Nissan Leaf ZE1 ($60,490).
By 2021, things have shifted. MP3 players are no longer the king of the market; it’s all about the iPhone, which for the Niro’s means cars like the Polestar 2 Single Motor ($59,900), Tesla Model 3 Standard Range ($59,900) and Ioniq 5 ($71,900). All offer faster charging, longer range and smarter tech at a similar price to the Kia.
So is the Kia Niro EV worth considering if you’re after a compact EV? Only launching in Australia in 2020, just 12 months before a facelifted model is set to launch, doesn’t leave the Niro EV much time to ingratiate itself with customers, but Kia’s EV has good bones.
Not that the exterior makes those good bones obvious: ‘anonymous’ is one way to describe the Niro EV. This battery-electric variant is set apart from its PHEV and hybrid siblings by the blanked-off ‘tiger nose’ grille with CCS Type 2 charging port hidden behind a flip-out cover.
These conservative looks entice precious few glances from onlookers, with the Sport’s 17-inch alloy wheels, Aurora Black ($695) paintwork and the EV’s blue flourishes barely cutting the surface of anonymity. Behind the bland appearance, the Niro EV is a perfectly serene place to spend time, but is it worth the $70K asking price?
With EV technology advancing rapidly and the Niro EV’s three year vintage, will it offer the same benefits as fresher EV competitors? It certainly does when it comes to the smooth electric power delivery and instant grunt.
With a single 150kW/395Nm electric motor mounted low in the engine bay, the Niro EV drives the front wheels through a single-speed transmission. There’s plenty of get-up-and-go in a vehicle the size of a Kia Seltos, in fact the power output matches the hilarious Hyundai i20 N.
A claimed 1791kg kerb weight goes some way to stunt the Niro’s punch – especially from a dig where the front tyres spin easily – but the instant torque kicks from 50-80km/h which is where most urban and suburban driving is done.
Like all contemporary EVs, the Niro EV depends on regenerative braking to extend its range. There are four potency levels, but even in the most aggressive the Niro EV doesn’t promote single-pedal driving, with regen braking cutting out below 10km/h to simulate automatic transmission creep.
Things improve when jinking the Niro EV’s tiller into a tightening, well-cambered bend where the small SUV rotates toward the apex with real gusto – a surprising touch for a 1.8-tonne EV.
“Like all contemporary EVs, the Niro EV depends on regenerative braking to extend its range.”
That prowess comes from where the Niro EV’s weight is situated: low – you can actually see the battery housing hanging beneath the side skirts – and centred in the wheelbase.
Grip is tempered by modest 215/55 R17 Michelin Primacy eco-tyres, though the low-resistance rubber maintains this SUV’s neutral and faithful-enough balance.
The urban experience of the Niro EV is enjoyable, with the instant torque and high seating position giving confidence to dive into roundabouts. The Niro EV is fun to zip around in, encouraging you to blast away from traffic lights and weave through traffic like you’re in a hot hatch – without the dull din of a four-cylinder engine.
Something has to give for the unexpectedly high outright grip levels, and that is suspension compliance. Over repeated low-frequency bumps my head was bobbing in the Niro EV’s driver’s seat owing to its firm dampers.
This isn’t down to Kia Australia’s ride and hand tuning program, because the Niro EV’s short gestation period prior to local launch means it runs the typically firmer European chassis tune (and, oddly, indicator stalk location). Hopefully the chassis compliance is remedied on the arrival of the facelifted Niro.
As for safety systems, the Niro EV Sport is equipped with frontal AEB with car, pedestrian and cyclist detection, blind-spot monitoring and lane-keep assist. The driver assistance programs interface well, with adaptive cruise and lane-trace assist making slogs on the freeway hassle-free.
Unlike the forthcoming EV6, the Niro sits on a platform that supports both combustion and electric powertrains, lending the cabin a thoroughly conventional – and dated – tone.
The 10.0-inch touchscreen set centrally into a piano black trim piece is responsive and runs Kia’s android software with in-built navigation and cabled Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. There are arguably kitsch touches like the ‘Sounds of Nature’ audio tracks that play through a decent 10-speaker JBL stereo.
This simplicity is continued with physical HVAC, volume and tuning controls and vast spaces to store odds-and-ends, with generous door and centre bins, two central cupholders, and a large cubby low down, between the seats.
About the quirkiest Niro interior feature is the rotary gear selector sunk into a floating piano black ‘flight deck’ surround. It looks classier than a traditional gearshift, and works well. There are also paddles mounted behind the steering wheel to control the regen efficacy on-the-move.
The material quality makes the Niro feel like any old Kia, with the same hard moulded secondary plastics you’d find in a Cerato – though the dash and front door-tops are soft-touch.
The seats are appointed in leather and the driver benefits from electric adjustment, including lumbar, but the front passenger must make do with manual adjustment. Notably, there are no heated or cooled seats available in any Niro in Australia.
That’s a problem in an electric vehicle of this price because even with the Niro’s clever heat pump, warming the cabin sucks a lot of juice from the battery (and therefore range on a cold day). Heated seats would allow more efficient and targeted temperature regulation placing less strain on the battery.
Still, there are high points to be found in the Niro’s cabin packaging. Without the need to fit bulky combustion components, Kia has been able to push the Kia’s wheels some way to the corners of its 4375mm body, resulting in a 2700mm wheelbase.
That means, despite only being 5mm longer than the Seltos small SUV, the Niro EV packs in an extra 70mm of wheelbase that hugely benefits occupant comfort. At six-foot-two in height, I was comfortable sitting in Row 2 behind my driving position, with knee and headroom to spare and supportive squab.
Additionally, both the S and Sport get rear air vents and a flip-down armrest, single map pocket and padded armrest for rear passengers. The combination of good space, easy-clean leather and reasonable creature comforts would make the Niro EV a rather clever choice for a rideshare car.
The boot helps, too, with an outright capacity of 451L and low floor it swallows all three Chasing Cars suitcases with space to spare. Underneath the floor there’s no spare, indicative of Niro’s urban mentality.
As spacious and well-packaged as the Niro EV is, does it feel $70K inside? Not really. The Tesla Model 3 and Polestar 2 ultimately offer more space and higher equipment levels than the Niro for a similar asking price.
The beauty of electric vehicle ownership is mechanical simplicity. There are very few moving parts with no oil changes, spark plugs, fuel filters or coolant to worry about during ownership. The reliance on regen braking means brake pads see reduced use as well compared to a combustion vehicle.
Yet Kia’s first electric vehicle to land in Australia is expensive to service and must be maintained at inconveniently regular intervals. Seven years of Niro EV ownership costs $2803 in maintenance and you’ll need a service every 12 months or 15,000km.
Recharging the Niro EV is pretty hassle free. Maximum charging speed is 100kW DC with Kia claiming a 0-80 percent zap will take around 54 minutes. The 64kWh liquid-cooled lithium-ion battery allows repeated fast-charging without power loss, unlike the Nissan Leaf’s dated air-cooled setup.
With 100 percent charge, the Niro EV claims 455km of roving range in the combined WLTP cycle, and in the real-world we found that appeared to be accurate.
During our testing, we averaged 14.5kWh/100km in mixed scenarios, actually improving on Kia’s 15.9kWh/100km energy consumption claim.
Finally, Kia’s seven-year unlimited-kilometre warranty – which remains one of the best in the Australian car industry – covers the Niro EV, though its high voltage electrics (the battery and motors) are covered for seven years/150,000km.
To write off any car on its appearance alone would be reductive, and in the Niro’s case doing so would be to miss by far the best aspects of this EV – its generous interior packaging and surprisingly enjoyable drive.
Sure the driveaway price is steep for a small SUV, but if you can hunt down a Niro Sport for a discount it would prove a hit as a rideshare car; it’s eco credentials, silent operation and killer packaging makes it perhaps the perfect Uber vehicle.
If the Niro was $50k, I’d be singing praises: the solid range, liquid-cooled battery and 150kW motor make it a joy next to the Nissan leaf. But, priced where it is, the new competition is simply better. Luckily, the facelifted Niro is only a few months away.
Variant tested ELECTRIC SPORT
Key specs (as tested)
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