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2021 Kia Niro EV long-term update: 500 miles across the UK

In which I learn a lot about our Niro EV -- and the UK's charging infrastructure -- on a trip to see Mum.

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The little Niro is a great long-distance cruiser.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

I've had our long-term Kia Niro EV for some months now, but due to lockdown restrictions in my home in Scotland, I've been unable to leave my immediate area since its arrival. Now that things are starting to open up again and travel beyond home is legal, I thought it was time I paid my dear old mum a visit -- and put the Niro's range to the test.

Mum lives in the Peak District, almost exactly 250 miles away from my home in Edinburgh. On paper, that's not a big challenge for a car with a range of 239 miles (based on the US EPA cycle). But these would mostly be motorway miles, traveling at higher speeds that are less efficient for the battery, so I knew I wouldn't be getting the full 239 miles with each charge.

Planning the route

Planning your journey is a necessity with electric driving, as charging points simply aren't as common as regular fuel stations. This was a necessity for my trip, especially when I'd be leaving the motorway and journeying into the heart of the Peak District where charging points were much less common -- and the chance of being stranded was higher.

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ZapMap makes it extremely easy to see where all the UK's charging points are and to plot your route accordingly.

ZapMap

But it's not just any charger I needed; to keep my journey shorter I needed to find only the 50-kilowatt DC fast chargers, which would give me 80% of my range back in about 40 minutes. Thankfully, these are relatively common to find along the UK's major motorways, and after a short time using ZapMap, I had a route in mind and a selection of chargers I could use.

And it is important to have a selection. Back in 2015 when I tested the Nissan Leaf, I planned a journey that included a charging point that I knew I'd safely arrive at, but with little range left to continue. I arrived to find the charger out of order and without the range to get me to the next nearest charger (around 20 miles away). I had no choice but to call a tow truck. I've learned from this experience and make sure I always have backup options on my route and never let my range fall much below 50 miles.

A long drive

Leaving at 7 a.m., the drive out of Edinburgh and onto the main road was a dream. In the city the Niro was comfortable, with smooth acceleration off the line at traffic lights and a compact enough size that nipping in and out of traffic was easy. Joining the motorway, I quickly settled down into a comfortable seating position and enjoyed the long Spotify playlist I'd made for the journey.

It was nice to finally do some proper distance in this car, rather than just nipping to the nearby shops. The Niro is a great long-distance cruiser, feeling planted and stable at higher speeds with little road or wind noise, and of course no engine noise. The seats are supportive and comfortable, and with driving aids like adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping assistance, munching through the motorway miles is a dream.

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There's a wireless charging pad for your phone, but I mostly had it plugged in via USB to use Apple CarPlay and enjoy my Spotify driving playlist.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

All Kia Niro EVs come with an eight-speaker JBL sound system and it's only OK. It can chuck out decent volume and while clarity is good (particularly on acoustic guitars or drum cymbals), I'd like a bit more depth in the low end. My playlist fluctuated regularly between folky numbers, brutal metal and EDM bangers, and the latter -- featuring the likes of Knife Party, Feed Me and Deadmau5 -- have definitely sounded better. It's really not much of a complaint, but with little else to do on the five-hour journey except enjoy music, I want to really enjoy the music.

My first stopping point was at Tebay services near the Lake District, where I had to cross over from the southbound side to northbound -- the southbound services only have charging points for Teslas. Thankfully, there's a small backroad you can take (it's technically supposed to be for hotel guests, but nobody checked), but I found both chargers were in use.

This is a problem for EV journeys wherever you are. The UK has seen an explosion in the number of charging point locations, but most of those have only one or two available chargers, and given that most users will need around 30 minutes (or longer) to charge, you could be in for a long wait.

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Despite what you've heard, we Brits do not love a queue.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

I pulled up in a spare bay next to the charger, but I was in a conundrum. My plan was to plug in, nip to the toilet and grab coffee and a snack. I'd have a 30-minute break and I'd have all the range I needed. But if I had to wait 30 minutes and then charge, this short break could become a long one. And that's if they came back in only 30 minutes. While many EV owners, I'm sure, are responsible and make sure to not leave their cars on for longer than they need, there's every chance the person charging here may have decided to just leave it while they use the picnic area for an hour or more with their family.

So do I sit and wait and hope they come back, or move on? I had 93 miles of range left, but Tebay services has a legendarily good farm shop I really wanted to visit. In the end, I had a look at the charging screen and it said the neighboring car was at 75%, so I held hope that they'd be back soon -- and indeed it only took 15 minutes for them to return.

Niro plugged in, I headed inside and grabbed a sausage roll (delicious) and a flat white (also delicious) and had a leg stretch until my battery was back at 80% (at which point, the charging speed drops to preserve the battery life span) before unplugging and heading off.

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Exploring the Peak District in the Niro EV was bliss.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

The rest of the journey was as easy as the start, despite the horrible motorway traffic around Manchester. But even that was made all the easier by the adaptive cruise control that slowed the car when the traffic built up and the blind-spot warnings that told me when it was safe to change lanes.

Eventually I reached my mum's place and, over the weekend, we did a few short trips around the countryside using some of the remaining range, leaving me with 60 miles to do the 8.3 miles from her house to a fast charger in Chapel-en-le-Frith on my way home.

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I caught up on some photo editing on my iPad while waiting for the car to charge. 

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

The shopping center car park had just one charging point, but mercifully at 7 a.m. it was available and I went for a walk until the battery got back to 80%. Using the charger was extremely simple, allowing me to simply tap my contactless credit card on the reader, rather than having to use a dedicated app and payment service.

My next charging stop was, unsurprisingly, Tebay again. Not just because of the great food, but because it's a very convenient mid-point on my journey that simply makes good sense. If I also buy sausage rolls then that's a happy bonus, OK?

However, this time, the entire car park was jam-packed with vehicles, with what looked like multiple EVs in spaces around the charging point waiting to plug in. On this occasion I decided that trying to wait could mean hours wasted, so I opened ZapMap on my phone and chose another Ecotricity fast charging point about 30 miles north and well within the 80 miles of indicated range I had remaining.

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Relying on the higher-powered 50kWh fast chargers was crucial to keep my overall journey time down.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Thankfully this charger was available, and I plugged in and resigned myself to a disappointing service station sandwich instead of Tebay's farm shop specialties. Annoyingly, though, after a little over 30 minutes, the charging stopped early -- and when I tried to reconnect using the Electric Highway app on my phone, it gave me an error saying that the machine may have switched over to "free vend" and to check the charger's display. I did, and it hadn't, but the error persisted despite numerous restarts of the app and my phone.

Eventually I called the hotline listed on the charger and after five minutes of waiting, I was put through to someone who remotely restarted the charger and told me it would now work. It didn't, and after a further eight minutes on hold, I was eventually told the machine was broken and needed an engineer. So I had no choice but to continue, having wasted about 30 minutes just trying to get it going again.

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This. Again and again.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

I had about 145 miles of range to get me home on a route that Google said was 120 miles. Strictly speaking, this should've been enough, but with motorway speeds and hilly routes going into Edinburgh, I didn't want to risk it. As a result I stopped at a service station about an hour from Edinburgh. The car said I would have a spare 20 miles to get home, but I felt better knowing I had plenty of spare range, just in case those hills took their toll.

This service station had two chargers, one of which was out of order and the other was in use by another Niro EV owner, who returned in 10 minutes and then sat there for another 15 before I could plug in and charge. I didn't wait long; just 20 minutes then I hit the road.

A great car with a challenging infrastructure

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Sometimes a remote reboot of the charger will fix the problem. Sometimes it won't.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

My journey was easier than I expected overall, largely thanks to the Niro's 239-mile range. All that was required was a cursory glance at Google Maps and ZapMap and then I hit the road. There's no question that driving electric long-distance in the UK is a lot easier now than it was back when I did my Leaf road trip, but it's still not flawless. The small number of charging points at each location means you can be forced to simply wait your turn, while non-functioning units can put an even bigger delay on your day.

This will become less and less of an issue as more charging points are installed, but it's still something to keep in mind. I couldn't help but think, as I was waiting on hold for the customer services of the broken charger, that if I were on my way to attend -- or worse, to photograph -- a wedding and I had these kinds of delays, I'd be in real trouble.

I'm very impressed with the Niro EV, though, and its generous range means that most journeys will be free of this kind of charging anxiety. And while I've proved that a long-distance run in the Niro EV is not just possible, but also comfortable and enjoyable, the UK's electric infrastructure still has some way to go before it's a perfect solution. 

Check in with Roadshow's other long-term testers: