Payne: Kia's Niro electric SUV shrugs off the cold

Henry Payne
The Detroit News
The 2019 Kia Niro EV has a range of 239 miles and can be recharged on a 100 kWh fast-charger 9though they are rare in the Midwest).

And now for something completely different. The battery-powered Kia Niro that suffers no range loss in cold weather.

This has been the winter of my battery discontent. I enjoy electric vehicles, from the Chevy Volt to the Hyundai Kona to my Tesla Model 3. They are all mass-market targeted with attractive designs, good cabin room and — in the case of the Kona and Niro (and the Volt’s sister Bolt EV) — utilitarian hatchbacks. They push the class envelope on acceleration, interior design and technology.

But they also push my patience with serious battery degradation when the weather gets frosty outside. Which is often in Michigan.

When the mercury drops below 40 degrees, battery range drops with it. At 30 degrees, range suffers by 25 percent. Under 20 degrees (including the sub-zero polar vortex this winter), range drops a dramatic 50 percent.

Not the Niro EV.

The little Kia arrived in my driveway this March in 31-degree weather with 163 miles of range left (fully charged the Niro promises a Chevy Bolt-like 239 miles). I jumped in for an afternoon’s adventure ... but not too much of an adventure, mindful that I likely had just 115 miles of actual range.

After 12 miles on the odometer I had lost just 11 miles of range. What?

The game was on. I logged 77 miles that day while losing just 70 miles off the battery, an unprecedented feat. And I wasn’t babying the Niro, either.

My journey took me across 70 mph interstates (hitting 80 mph at times, and a steady state of 75) as well as Detroit city traffic. Oakland County twisties. Meijer parking lots. I flogged the Kia in Eco, Normal and Sport modes just like every other EV I’ve driven.

On day two, temps improved to 43 degrees (for the first time this winter I was actually hoping for sub-zero readings just so I could test the Niro EV), but range didn’t change. The little hatchback soldiered on, logging a total of 114 miles on the odometer while losing just 110 miles of range.

By comparison, the Niro’s Hyundai Kona sister car consumed 56 miles of battery in 20-degree temps while traveling just 28 miles on the odometer.

How does the Niro do it? Despite surface similarities, it appears the Korea siblings are quite different.

The 2019 Kia Niro EV offers more cargo space than Chevy Bolt EV but is not as quick to drive.

While they share a 201-horse electric motor, the Hyundai and Kia source their batteries with different battery manufacturers — LG Chem for Kona and SK Innovation for Kia. But the most dramatic difference in my tester appears to be that the Niro has an electric coolant-heater to warm the battery (Hyundai says it has something similar — but elected to import its Kona without one).

I can preheat my Tesla Model 3 cabin in my garage, but that doesn’t do the battery any good. On a 30-degree jaunt to Kalamazoo this winter I got just 50 percent of battery range. Ouch. The Niro EV, by contrast, sat bone-cold in my driveway without any preheating ability — yet overperformed on range. Take a bow, Kia.

It’s hard enough to sell a 239-mile range $46,500 Kia EV (estimated cost; Kia has yet to release pricing for the U.S.) against a comparable, gas-engine Niro costing $15,000 less with a whopping 550 miles of range. Then tell someone in the Midwest the EV’s range is even worse in winter and they’ll look at you like you’re one brick short of a full load.

So at least the Niro EV’s range numbers are honest year-round.

But it’s still a tough sell. Which is why Kia — even with its battery-warmer package — and Hyundai only make their cars available in the heavily regulated, zero-emission, tree-hugger kingdoms of California, New York, Rhode Island, et al. That is, they are government compliance vehicles.

Make the effort to bring a Niro to Michigan, however, and you have an interesting competitor to the hometown favorite Chevy Bolt. The perky Bolt, of course, beat even Tesla in 2016 as the first car with a range over 200 miles per charge. But the Kia has caught up fast.

The smaller Bolt is the more eager animal with zero-60 acceleration in 6.5 secs and tighter handling that will tempt you to take it to an autocross course (I did). The larger, taller Niro offers no such temptation.

Where the Bolt is a hatchback, the Niro is determined to be a five-door SUV. It’s got 4 inches of wheelbase on the Bolt and 2 more cubic feet of cargo room. Throw it into a corner, and ... well, don’t do that. While its floor-based batteries give it a low center of gravity, it's not as athletic as the smaller Bolt or Kona. Acceleration, on the other hand, is instant, which soccer moms will find useful for freeway merging.

Niro is fun to one-pedal drive with its regenerative-braking setting (like other EVs) and adds Bolt-like steering-wheel mounted paddles if you prefer to do your regen-brake by hand.

Despite its subcompact size, the 2019 Kia Niro EV offers decent room for The Detroit News 6'5" reviewer, Henry Payne.

Fun EV tricks aside, this ute’s mission is good ol’ utility. Which it does very well with standard features — blind-spot assist, adaptive-cruise control — the Bolt EV doesn’t have.

Surprisingly, given the daring moves Kia’s made with the racy Stinger sedan and fetching Telluride SUV, Niro makes no attempt to stand out in the crowd. It’s vanilla compared to Bolt and Kona EVs’ chocolate-nut fudge styling.

If you want Kia Chunky Monkey flavor, get a Soul EV.

The Niro’s interior turns up the heat a bit with a typically attractive console and digital instruments. The rotary shifter is a particular favorite of mine, and there’s a nice big console space to stow a purse.

My Niro tester is only a value play with the $7,500 tax credit. But for those who never want to visit a gas station again — yet still need the practicality of a family five-door — the Niro EV is the best option out there.

Just be sure and spend the extra grand (or two) to outfit your garage with a 240-volt charger. Sure, the Kia is DC fast-charge rated — but stations are few and far between in the Midwest.

And getting to a full, 239-mile charge on a standard 110-volt wall socket will take — are you ready? — 59 hours.

The 2019 Kia Niro EV packs its electric motor and other electronics under the front hood where you'll find the gas engine in a standard Niro. The EV will cost about $15k north of its gas sibling.

2019 Kia Niro EV

Vehicle type: Battery-powered, front-wheel drive, five-passenger SUV

Price: Estimated $37,495 (no details from Kia yet), including $895 destination fee ($46,500 est. as tested, though battery heater may drive that up further) 

Powerplant: 64-kWh lithium-ion battery mated to AC motor

Power: 201 horsepower; 291 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 1-speed direct drive

Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.5 seconds (Car and Driver); top speed: 108 mph

Weight: 3,255 pounds (AWD hatchback as tested)

Fuel economy: 239-mile range (112 MPGe)

Report card

Highs: Look ma, no cold-weather battery-range issues; useful interior

Lows: Not  currently available in Michigan; pricey relative to comparable gas models

Overall: 3 stars

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-2 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.