Kia's all-battery Niro may be lacking for a sparkling driving experience, but it has a big enough battery to bring Tesla-like range to the mass market.
In the Metal:
The Kia Niro is one of the more conventional-looking of electric cars, and that's a fact heightened by the familiarity of the shape thanks to the regular hybrid and plug-in hybrid Niro having been on sale for two years already. The e-Niro is distinguished by a blanked-off radiator grille, which also contains the cover for the charging socket, and some turquoise blue highlights scattered around the body. As with the standard Niro, it's not exactly exciting to look at, but you'd never call it ugly either.
The cabin is a little more impressive. The overall shapes and styling are nothing more than workmanlike, but the details impress. The normal gear selector has been replaced by a big rotary switch that probably won't be to all tastes - it's a touch large and slightly awkward to manipulate, but maybe we'll get used to it. In front of the driver is a new, and very clear, all-digital instrument pack, while in the centre is Kia's usual - and very impressive - eight-inch infotainment screen. That combines clear, simple satnav with a menu layout that's easy to use.
Driving the e-Niro is something of a game of two halves; one disappointing, one rather exciting.
The exciting bit is the battery stack and the electric motor. There will be a slightly cheaper, 39kWh battery version of the e-Niro, with shorter range (about 300km) and less power (135hp), but Kia Ireland reckons that this long-range version will be the best-seller. It packs a 204hp electric motor, although both versions get the same 395Nm torque figure. That's enough for solid step-off performance, even in Eco mode. In Sport, power comes in very briskly and smoothly, and there's plenty of it. Stand heavily on the accelerator and the e-Niro moves with no little vim, and of course no noise, which seems to accentuate the performance.
You can adjust the level of brake energy recuperation with the paddles behind the steering wheel. The lowest setting effectively means that the e-Niro sails on unimpeded when you lift off the accelerator, while the highest level is almost at the point of making it a 'one-pedal' car. To complete the picture, if you pull and hold the left-hand paddle, it will use the regenerative braking to bring the car to a complete halt. It's effective, but not as easy to use as the Nissan Leaf's 'e-Pedal' system.
Anyway, that's not the exciting part. The exciting part is that the official range seems to be accurate. Now, that comes with the warning that we didn't get to spend much time on motorways or dual carriageways, so the e-Niro was getting the chance to strut its best stuff. Equally, though, our root was over the foothills of the Alps, with plenty of long uphill stretches, and that's almost as good a way as motorway to test an electric car's ability to preserve its range. Within those limitations (and the fact that the weather was mild and dry) the e-Niro should put at least 400km between charge-ups. We started with a full charge and indicated range of 420km. We returned, 60km later, with indicated range of 380km. That suggests that an average driver could get several days use out of an e-Niro without needing to charge at all, all things being equal.
The disappointing bit is the chassis. The standard hybrid and plug-in Niro are fine to drive - not exciting, but fine. The e-Niro seems, though, to have been given steering that is even more rubbery and lacking in feel than the normal version. It's just a very unsatisfying way to steer a car and robs the driver of any potential enjoyment. Is that a significant point? Perhaps not, and perhaps for most drivers it doesn't make an iota of difference, but Kia knows how to make a car feel good to drive (Ceed, Stinger, Optima) so why not the e-Niro?
Possibly a more serious demerit is the ride quality. To cope with the weight of the battery pack, Kia has been forced to significantly stiffen up the springs and dampers, and the result is an over-firm, rather jiggly ride quality. Given that our test route was on largely well-maintained French roads, that doesn't bode well for Irish conditions.
What you get for your Money:
Kia Ireland has not fully finalised pricing for the e-Niro yet, but we know enough to be able to draw some conclusions. The headline figures are around €43,000 for the small-battery, low-range model, and €47,000 for the large-battery, long-range 64kWh model. Factor in the SEAI grant and the VRT rebate and that equates to around €33,000 for short-range and €37,000 for long-range. The likelihood is that, as Kia Ireland must order its cars long in advance from a factory in South Korea, the majority of e-Niros coming here will be long-range 64kWh models. The rationale is that, yes, they will be more expensive, but the impact on residual values of having a longer range is likely to be profound, plus the fact that, if Kia is to make an impact in the electric car market, there's little point in merely matching rivals on range.
That then creates a question: is the e-Niro relatively expensive, compared to say a Nissan Leaf? The e-Niro has significantly longer range than the current 40kWh Leaf, and a roomier boot, but it's quite a lot pricier. Or is it a massive bargain? It is if you consider that it has better useable real-world range than a Jaguar I-Pace, for less than half the price.
Standard equipment should be good. The most basic model we tested still had the seven-inch digital instruments and a seven-inch touchscreen, plus (synthetic) leather and an upgraded automated braking system that now includes pedestrian and cyclist detection. Higher spec models get heated and cooled seats, split-zone climate and further safety functions such as active cruise and blind spot detection.
If the Kia e-Niro could be made just a touch sharper to steer, and more comfortable in its ride, I think we'd love it. Even so, along with its Hyundai sister car, it could just be a major game-changer in the electric car world. A useable 400km range on one charge arguably brings electric motoring within the realistic reach of a lot more people. For that alone, the e-Niro deserves your applause - and possibly your own test drive.