Three years after getting an extra-early peek at the Kia Niro hybrid back in 2015, I find myself again in South Korea visiting Kia's Namyang R&D facility for another early spin, this time behind the wheel of the 2019 Kia Niro EV. With an estimated 239-mile range, this fully-electric doppelganger of the brand's first dedicated hybrid model promises to be the "first long-range EV from Kia." (I guess the 's 110-mile range isn't long-range enough to count.)
After a morning of briefings from Kia staff and a quick poke around under the hood, I was handed the key fob and instructed to drive the electric crossover from the Namyang facility to the Hyundai Mobis proving grounds in Seosan, about 60 miles away.
The Niro EV's engine bay is home to a 150-kilowatt electric motor that makes 201 horsepower and 291 pound-feet of torque, which it sends to the front wheels via a single-speed transmission.
Powering everything this is a 64 kWh lithium-ion battery pack beneath the cabin floor -- a huge step up from the 1.56 kWh pack in the hybrid and the 8.9 kWh battery in the plug-in Niro -- that enables the EV to cruise for an EPA-estimated 239 miles between recharges. That's down from Kia's early estimate of 300 miles, but still on par with the likes of Chevrolet's Bolt EV.
The battery can be rapid-charged to 80-percent (about 190 miles) in about an hour via its standard combined charging system (CCS) DC fast-charging port. However, a more conventional Level 2 home or public charger takes about 9.5 hours to reach a 100-percent charge.
So far, only the long-range EV been officially announced for the US but, globally, a less-powerful 134-horsepower model with a smaller 39.2 kWh battery pack will also be available. Early estimates put it at somewhere around 150 miles per charge with a 6 hour recharge time at Level 2 stations.
Physically, the Niro EV is slightly shorter from bumper to bumper than the HEV and PHEV models, due to its revised and more aerodynamic bumper design. It's also slightly taller vertically to make room for the underfloor battery pack. Externally, there are also unique wheels and side skirts, but the easiest way to spot a Niro EV is the closed-off grille -- home to the charging door -- and generous blue accents all over.
Inside, the EV features a shift-by-wire drive selector puck and paddle shifters that toggle between four levels of regenerative braking, ranging from light regeneration to a one-pedal driving driving mode. There are also driving modes (Eco, Normal and Sport) that adjust the balance between performance and range. The blue accents continue into the cabin where they highlight the dashboard.
On the streets
Rolling onto the throttle at the beginning of my trip, the first thing I noticed was the electric torque that I've come to love from EVs like the Niro. Acceleration is quite good, thanks to the 291 pound-feet that's available instantaneously from zero-rpm.
Sport mode was my preferred setting. The sharper throttle response and more generous application of power made for smooth and quick passing and confident acceleration away from traffic lights. Eco and Normal settings added a few kilometers to the trip computer's estimated range at the cost of a more ho-hum feel behind the wheel. I also spent most of my time with the regenerative braking set to max for one-pedal driving, similar to that of the Nissan Leaf's e-Pedal feature.
I wasn't impressed with the Niro hybrid's steering or handling, and the Niro EV doesn't fare much better. The power assist makes for a very light steering wheel, which is good for fatigue-free commuting but not so great for feel when cornering. Rounding a bend, the EV also feels heavier than the hybrids. However, the way it carries that weight -- thanks to the battery pack's low center of mass -- keeps the electric Niro feeling planted and fairly nimble around bends and offramps.
Having driven the Niro hybrid and Niro EV -- but not the plug-in hybrid -- I prefer the electric model. Its simpler and more torque-y powertrain feels better. Though heavier and taller, the EV feels more planted within its modest handling envelope. And there's more than enough range to commute without anxiety.
I arrived at the end of the 101.5 kilometer (63 mile) drive from Namyang to Seosan with a 77-percent charge and a trip computer indicating there's 326 km (about 203 miles) yet left in the battery. That's not bad considering these were mostly smooth highway miles; it's actually better than the EPA's estimate. That said, I'll wait until we can get the Niro EV on our home turf for extended testing before singing its praises too loudly.
The 2019 Niro EV will be available only in EX or EX Premium trim levels. There will be no base trim level offered. That gets you the larger UVO infotainment with EV-specific content like range and efficiency calculations and navigation with charging station search.
The Niro EV will also feature the full suite of Kia driver aid and safety tech including a new lane following assist (LFA) system, which evolves lane keeping and adaptive cruise control with more sophisticated steering assist. Front and rear collision-warning system feature pedestrian and cyclist detection and automatic emergency braking.
The level of equipment offered along with the bigger battery means you can probably expect a higher starting price higher than the affordable Niro FE hybrid. I'm guessing it'll be competitive with the Bolt's $37,000 base price. Kia says that pricing for its new electric crossover will be announced closer to the Niro EV's on-sale date in early 2019. Stay tuned.
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