For the average person looking to buy an electrified vehicle, Kia and Hyundai have become solid options. The Hyundai Kona EV is an outstanding crossover and the upcoming Kia Soul EV puts a lot of fun and storage space into a small package. But it's the Kia Niro EV that bests them both. It's not flashy or fun like the Kona or Soul; it's an EV for grownups that will actually fit grownups.
The Niro EV starts at $38,500. A $1,500 premium over the Kona EV. But you're getting more cargo space, more legroom (for rear passengers) and a design that's appealing without being overbearing. It looks the part of an adult crossover and for that price, you're getting a lot of features standard.
Out the door, the tiny SUV comes with adaptive cruise control and lane keep assist. You don't have to pay extra for these features that make traffic a bit more bearable. The cruise control does an excellent job tracking vehicles in front of it and easily handled merges or when I was cut off while in traffic. It steadily and smoothly slowed down and sped up to match the situation.
The lane keep assist is less robust. It did a fine job keeping the car centered in straightaways and around wide corners. But anything tighter and the system can't handle it. It's not as good at Tesla's Autopilot or Nissan's ProPilot Assist, but it's adequate enough for dense traffic and long stretches of highway.
Plus, with all these systems, you need to keep your hands on the wheel and your focus on the road. A gentle reminder that the car is helping not actually driving.
Still, it's the beginning of a trend where these advanced driver assistance systems become standard and Hyundai and Kia are at the forefront of that. Plus, adding features like this to EVs (which are easier for the car to control than a gas powered vehicle), is an additional incentive to go electric.
Kia sweetens the pot with heated mirrors, CarPlay and Android Auto support and a bunch of safety features like blind spot and driver attention warnings. The result is a comfortable vehicle that's not even the best trim level (which starts $44,000). But frankly, you don't need to pay the extra money for a genuinely nice crossover.
The niceties include comfortable seats that took me a while to adjust because of some aggressive lumbar support that's only available on the more expensive trim level. But once the driver's chair was ready to go the slightly firm seats are great for short trips around town and medium length road trips that last a few hours.
The rest of the interior goes for logic over beauty. The hockey puck gear shifter is the exception. I thought I would tire of it, but it won me over after a few days. Shifts are quick and precise and better than most of the shift-by-wire systems found in other vehicles. Meanwhile, the dash is pretty much what you see in most other Kia and Hyundai vehicles.
The buttons are all where you would expect them to be and were easy to reach while driving. The climate control is a physical button affair with a few features available in the infotainment system. The addition of tangible controls in the dash for the various on-screen features is a nice touch when you want to quickly get to the home screen or media pages. It means you can build muscle memory with which is more difficult with a touchscreen.
As for the infotainment system, it's what we've seen in Kias and Hyundais for the past few years. As always, it's not breaking any new ground, but it works. It does have additional features for the electric powertrain, like info about the battery and the location of nearby charging stations. The only annoying bit of latency I encountered with the system was in the EV section. There was a pause while using the options. It didn't happen all the time, but it was noticeable when it did.
Once you get past the tech, the interior is a surprisingly spacious area with enough room in the back for adults to sit. Even with a tall person in the driver's seat, most full-sized humans would be comfortable relaxing in the back of the Niro.
It's got plenty of cargo space for whatever you throw at it thanks to the18.5 cubic feet of space with the seats up. That's not that exciting, the Kona EV has 19.2, but once those seats are down, you get a whopping 53 cubic feet of space (he Kona only has 45.8). This means it has enough room for all your stuff and if you're the outdoorsy type, the standard roof rails give the option to buy racks for the Niro.
Getting all your friends and their random stuff to their destination is a pleasant affair. The Niro EV's 201 horsepower and 291 foot-pounds of torque made city and highway driving a trouble-free experience. The EV torque in Sport mode meant I was able to easily merge with traffic from the off-ramp and able to get ahead of other cars at the stop light. The more conservative Eco mode is fine for getting around town and cruising on the freeway. While Normal mode is a nice "set it and forget it" option.
The Niro EV, like other electric vehicles, has repurposed the paddle shifters as regenerative brake controls. On-the-fly adjustments are great for driving around town but I do wish the highest level of regeneration supported one-pedal driving.
All that energy goes back to the Niro's 64kWh battery pack. With it, the vehicle is rated at a range of up to 239 miles. During my tests, I actually bested that estimate a few times. Only by a mile or two, but it's better than coming in far below the EPA results. Hyundai and Kia have done an excellent job making these powertrains as efficient as possible.
One issue I did find with the Niro EV is the brakes. They're oddly aggressive for a crossover. I would gently depress the pedal and slow down when suddenly the car would brake far quicker than expected. This was especially noticeable in the rain on slick roads -- I was like driving a sports car where having incredibly braking power is important. Instead, I was just cruising around in an electric vehicle.
Overall, the Kia Niro is an outstanding electric crossover that surpasses its internal combustion counterpart. It's one of the best, if not the best EV on the road that regular people can afford. It's comfortable, fun to drive, has a ton of space and comes standard with advanced driver's assistance system (ADAS) features. It's not a design maverick like the Kona or the Model 3, but it has nearly everything the average person wants in a car that just happens to be electrified.