Niro EV proves electric cars make sense

John Gilbert

 

Kia Niro EV goes beyond hybrid and plug-in hybrid to pure electric driving. Photo credit: John Gilbert
Kia Niro EV goes beyond hybrid and plug-in hybrid to pure electric driving. Photo credit: John Gilbert
Hidden panel on bar of grille houses secure plug-in for self-contained cable. Photo credit: John Gilbert
Hidden panel on bar of grille houses secure plug-in for self-contained cable. Photo credit: John Gilbert

 

 

Plug logs securely into car and power outlet to recharge battery range for up to 260 miles. Photo credit: John Gilbert
Plug logs securely into car and power outlet to recharge battery range for up to 260 miles. Photo credit: John Gilbert

 

You can have a lot of fun with people when you’re driving a Kia Niro EV. Park it in a parking lot somewhere and ask a passer-by if he or she can help you locate the gas filler nozzle. They can walk around the car, several times, but they won’t find one, because there isn’t one.

It’s not a Tesla, or any of those exotic, $100,000-plus luxury vehicles. It is an under-$50,000 wagon that looks like a compact SUV, but it is a pure electric vehicle, all the same. It’s “fuel economy” figure on the sticker shows 123 miles per gallon city, 102 highway, or 112 MPGe combined. The lower-case “e” after MPG stands for electric. It is a symbol of a changing world, which is fast approaching.

The Niro is silent-running, and when you switch it on, don’t wait for an engine sound, just look for the little sign on the instrument panel that says “ready to drive.” Switch the rotary knob on the console to “D” and you’re off. There is also an “R” indicator to the right, and an “N” for neutral, and the little round circle with a “P” on it in the middle of the shift knob is for park. When you stop, or park, make sure you hit the P or the silent-running Niro might go home without you!

The Niro is very comfortable for four or five, and it is both quick and good-handling both in city driving or cruising on a freeway, where you are pleasantly surprised at how easy it is to hear conversation or the fine audio system because there is no engine noise.

The Niro is possibly trying to decide if it should be a luxury car or a sporty car, in fact it seems to be facing its own identity crisis about whether it is a car or SUV. Motor Trend, which runs an annual issue with capsules showing all the new cars, and another issue showing all the new SUVs. I looked for the Niro among the small SUVs, but it wasn’t there. Sure enough, Motor Trend showed the Niro among the cars. There are other compact crossovers without all-wheel-drive that don’t get insulted by being placed with cars, but the Niro seems OK with it.

My appreciation of hybrid vehicles has been increasing at about the same rate that coordinated gas-electric hybrids have been moving into increasingly prominent roles in the auto industry. But there is one segment of the industry that I have had trouble getting my hands on, up on the great North Shore of Lake Superior, and that is an EV — a pure electric vehicle.

Oh, I had the Nissan Leaf, and was mightily impressed with it, although its earliest models had a modest range of 20-=something miles. But the manufacturers who build pure electric vehicles, with real-world driving range capability, pretty much ignore what we endearingly call “flyover land.” The reason is obvious on a couple of counts.

One, the expense of installing rapid charging stations makes the best sense if you put them in high-population areas like Los Angeles, or San Francisco, or the New York, Boston area of the East Coast. Maybe Florida. And second, it gets cold in the Great White North, really cold, and that can knock the starch out of the driving range of battery packs.

But I keep writing that we’re all headed toward a world of electric-powered cars, and we’ve done well with hybrids and plug-in hybrids. Not only that, but we have a few EV charging stations in Minnesota — mostly in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis-St. Paul, but we do have a few in Duluth, right up here on the tip of Lake Superior.

Finally, I was notified that a vehicle would be delivered from a press fleet operation in Chicago, and it would be the Kia Niro EV.  I know that it comes as a hybrid, as a plug-in hybrid, and as a pure-electric, and when they informed me that it would be delivered to my house up the hill from the North Shore in rural Duluth in an enclosed trailer, I got excited.

Sure enough, the vehicle was a 2019 Kia Niro EV, in EX Premium trim. That’s a lot of suffixes, but the EX and Premium tags just mean the creature comfort packages on the particular vehicle coming my way. The car is Kia’s version of a similar drivetrain in the Hyundai Ionic, and more recently the Hyundai Kona compact SUV. The Niro resembles a compact SUV, but it really is an example of how the South Korean partners are now differentiating their models. The Ionic is a slick compact sedan with large-car interior space, while the Kia designers took the same platform and built it up into an SUV-style vehicle using the same powertrain.

That powertrain is a 64 kilowatt-hour Lithium Ion Polymer battery pack, built low and streamlined by LG Chem, also a South Korean electronics innovator, and it produces 150 kilowatt-hours — or 201 horsepower — through an AC synchronous motor. It also has a 7.2 kilowatt on-board charger, and a DC fast-charge port for 480 volts in the front grille. It is concealed behind a small horizontal trap door on the end of what looks like a trim bar. Pop it open, pull the charge cable out from its receptacle under the hatch, and you can plug it into a normal household outlet, or a  high-voltage outlet, or a special quick-charge outlet if you can locate one.

 

Interior is both sporty and luxurious in the Niro EV. Photo credit: John Gilbert
Interior is both sporty and luxurious in the Niro EV. Photo credit: John Gilbert
Along with adequate storage, the rear seat head and legroom is easily adequate. Photo credit: John Gilbert
Along with adequate storage, the rear seat head and legroom is easily adequate. Photo credit: John Gilbert

 

I clicked onto Google with my iPhone and asked for “Charging stations for EV cars in Duluth, Minnesota,” and it came back with several. The one that most interested me was  at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, in the lot near the administration building, where at the end of a long row of parking meters there are two charging

stations. The company that makes the charging units worked out an arrangement with UMD to install the two chargers, one normal and one fast-charge, and for its part of the bargain, UMD offers free usage of the charging stations for up to 4 hours at a time. That’s for students, faculty, visitors, and any residents who might come and plug in.

When the Niro was delivered, it showed a workable range of 268 miles. That’s a lot. If yuo drive it precisely, you could get more, or less, if you want to hot rod around. I charged mine at home, overnight, on a normal outlet. It showed I had reached 54 percent of capacity. I was disappointed I didn’t get more, but then I read that the most efficient way to insure long life for your battery pack is to charge it up to about halfway, then drive it.

The price of the Niro is $44,000, and if you add the numerous features of the test vehicle, such as the sunroof, Harmon Kardon audio upgrade, navigation and perforated leather seats, it rises to $47,155.

I showed the car to some friends, and they mostly said, “I don’t want an electric car.” So I asked how much they pay a week for gasoline. The norm was $20 a week, to drive to work and back. So I pointed out that 268 miles would get me through a whole week easily, and on the weekend, I could go to a UMD football or volleyball game, plug in the car at the free charge station, and recharge it far enough to make it through the next week. If you did that,  you would switch from paying $20 per week for gasoline, to paying $0, for the week, or the year.

That’s right — absolutely nothing for fuel for your car if you use the free-charge device. If you don’t you can always go to one of the available credit card pay-recharge stations.

Niro has silhouette of compact SUV, but even Motor Trend doesn't know how to classify it. Photo credit: John Gilbert
Niro has silhouette of compact SUV, but even Motor Trend doesn't know how to classify it. Photo credit: John Gilbert

It’s common to drive from Duluth to Minneapolis and back in a day, or for a weekend, and it’s about 140 miles away. So you make it one way with ease, and if you don’t recharge in Minneapolis, you could head back home and stop for a little dinner, getting enough of a charge while you’re eating to make it the rest of the way.

The Niro handles remarkably well, because the mostly flat, horizontal battery pack runs up the middle, beneath the rear seat, sort of like a spine. It also places a large portion of the car’s weight between the axles, giving the Niro the same benefit a mid-engine sports car gets from such placement.

Along with the expected safety features and electronic convenience and security items, the test Niro EV has a cold weather package that includes a battery heater and a heat pump that forces heated liquid to the battery pack to greatly reduce the normal power loss severe cold can do to battery packs. Warming up the powertrain makes it easier to operate in cold, as well.

Kia’s owner’s manual states that using a normal AC charging ensures optimal battery life more than DC charging. Also, charging for the amount of range you need is better than fully charging, and you can
set the Niro to shut off charging when the optimum charge is reached. Among other of its numerous lane-change, lane-departure, lane-following, collision-avoidance, etc., there are also fun features such as a mode switch that lets you instantly click to sport for improved acceleration.

Kia also resisted the urge to install a continuously variable transmission, and instead uses the superb in-house 7-speed dual-clutch automatic that adds to the sporty feel.

My favorite Kia contact says the Niro has been selling on the West Coast for almost six months, and they are selling so fast, the company has held off introducing its Soul-E, its next electric vehicle. I think the fact that the charging stations are already showing up in such outposts as Duluth, the logical move to sell more pure-electric cars in the Upper Midwest has got to be coming. We’re all going to be driving electric, sooner or later, so we might as well get on with it.