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2021 Kia Niro EV long-term update: A difficult Scottish adventure

Beautiful views and stunning roads were muddied by broken chargers.

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Well this is lovely.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

I've spent six months with our long-term Kia Niro EV, and while I think it's a superb all-electric vehicle, a lot of my driving has been around towns and motorways -- where charging points are plentiful. So I was keen to find out how it fares on a longer distance journey into more wild parts of Scotland. 

That's why I took it on a 400-mile round trip into the Scottish Highlands on a hiking, photography and sea kayaking adventure. Spoiler alert: I got back in one piece and didn't run out of range in the middle of nowhere. But it wasn't easy, and I've learned yet more about what it's like to own and enjoy an EV in the UK. Here's what happened. 

My journey began at my home in Edinburgh. I knew my first leg -- a 120-mile stint to beautiful Glencoe -- would be well within the car's maximum 239-mile range (based on the US EPA cycle), but I made sure to leave with a full battery to ensure I had plenty of breathing room. 

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The Niro EV performed superbly on the tight, narrow roads in the Scottish Highlands.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

As it turns out, that was a smart decision as the journey was stunningly beautiful and I ended up taking a variety of detours that extended the route. Couple that with less-efficient driving on the steep uphill route into Glencoe and I eventually arrived at the first charging point -- a slower, 22-kWh charger in a hotel parking lot -- with less range than I originally planned for. 

The Kia was a dream on the journey, though: Comfy, easy to handle and with a sound system that coped with my mostly Taylor Swift Spotify playlist admirably. Many of the small roads I found around Glencoe were rough, single-track affairs with steep up-and-down sections that scarred the road in many places with evidence of cars scraping their undersides. 

The Niro EV isn't exactly a burly off-roader, but its fairly tall ride height meant I had no worries about it experiencing a similar fate. In fact, it seemed to come alive on these roads: It was nimble and planted enough to handle the tight corners with ease, while compact enough to squeeze by the many motorhomes that seemed to think it a good idea to drive down tiny country back roads in something the size of a small church.

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It's a slow charger, sure, but what a view.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

I'd given the car an hour on the 22-kWh charger, which only gave me around 35 miles, but I had more than enough to get me to my nearby accommodation, which unfortunately was in a remote spot with no charger or ability to plug into a regular outlet. 

The next day involved hiking various trails around stunning Glencoe, so I didn't need a huge amount of range. The biggest drive was a 30-mile journey to the Highland town of Fort William. I arrived with about 100 miles left, but my journey the next morning would take me 40 miles to the coastal village of Arisaig for some sea kayaking, then the same distance back. While I could see on ZapMap that there was a 25-kWh charger in Arisaig, it was the only one in the area and I didn't want to risk it being out of order. The terrain could also be challenging so I wanted to leave with as close to a full battery as possible.

Luckily, there's a huge bank of ChargePlace Scotland-operated fast charging points in Fort William. Less luckily, every single one was out of order. Every. Single. One. 

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All of these chargers were out of order.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

All screens were blank and unresponsive and, judging by the user reports on ZapMap, had been like this for at least a couple weeks. 

And this is the biggest problem with using EVs outside of major areas: Councils and companies will install these chargers and give themselves a lovely pat on the back for ticking a box on their green initiatives checklist, but provide little in the way of upkeep and support. There was a second large bank of Tesla chargers nearby and they were all functioning because, unsurprisingly, Tesla understands it has to provide support to its customers. 

It's not like this happened during the quiet offseason, either. This was the middle of August, and the area was flooded with tourists and numerous EVs were visible on the roads. And those EV drivers will suffer from this lack of infrastructure support. The distance between charging points means you may urgently need those chargers upon arrival. And even if you planned your journey extremely well,  you're screwed if just one charging point you needed is out of order. 

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This one, in the same parking lot, was also out of order. The Tesla chargers, seen in the background, were fully operational. Because of course they were.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Thankfully, I did find a slower 22-kWh charger tucked behind a cafe nearby so I left it on for an hour and a half and went to get some food. The charge put almost 50 miles back in the Niro's battery, which meant I had more than enough for my next travel leg. 

The route was sublime -- as was the sea kayaking -- and it turned out the Arisaig charger was fully operational, so I gave the car a juice up to 80% while I sat and enjoyed an ice cream. I returned to my accommodation in Fort William, gave it another quick boost on the slow charger behind the cafe and, the next day, drove 90 miles to the village of Aberfeldy. 

Aberfeldy has a fast charger hidden in a parking lot, and while it seemed fully operational, nothing I did would get it to actually connect to my car and start charging. I was there at least 30 minutes, trying again and again, restarting the charging point itself, and I suspect a fault in the connector may have been the cause. 

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No amount of charging problems would stop me from enjoying the scenery in Glencoe.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

I had about 75 miles to home and, by my calculations, would have roughly 30 miles of range left when I arrived. Typically I don't like to let my range drop below 50 miles -- just in case -- but I was tired and frustrated, and the promise of a cup of tea and a cuddle with my cat was too strong.

So I threw some casual curse words toward the useless charger and headed straight home. I drove much more carefully this time, with very gentle accelerations, enabling regenerative braking and using the cruise control to maintain a steady slower speed of 60 mph on the motorways to increase driving efficiency (thus saving energy). My efforts worked: I arrived home with almost exactly 30 miles left. 

So while the journey was certainly a success in the sense that I didn't run out of range and grind to a halt in some beautiful Scottish glen, it wasn't exactly the trouble-free trip I'd hoped for. 

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Charging using the one charging point in Arisaig gave me ample opportunity to eat ice cream. Yum.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

That whole bank of broken fast chargers in Fort William really annoyed me and acted as a stark reminder of the long journey ahead, especially for countries committed to getting rid of gasoline- and diesel-fueled cars. It's all well and good installing new chargers in different spots, but what's the point if the existing ones are left to rot? It makes driving in these more rural spots more of a headache than it should be, and it does nothing to encourage people to go electric. 

The Niro played its part sublimely though, and it was only because of its generous maximum range that I wasn't left stuck out in the countryside. It was comfy, fun to drive on the stunning Highland roads and its large internal space meant I could pack multiple cases of photography gear and bags of clothing without issue. It's a superb EV for longer travels like this.