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Second generation of Kia’s electric smash hit finds itself with tougher competition

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When the Kia e-Niro was launched in 2019, it made the Volkswagen Group’s grand electric plans look slightly silly. While the German group was still working on its dedicated electric platform, here was a crossover that was relatively affordable, had more range than virtually all other EVs short of a Tesla, offered a lot of interior space and didn’t look too weird.

It wasn’t a looker, either, but it was a smash hit for Kia. It arrived more than a year before the Volkswagen ID 3 and Citroën ë-C4 and ahead of the Peugeot e-2008. Modern, usable, long-range responses from Renault, Nissan, Vauxhall and Honda are in the development pipeline, but still not quite here yet. Meanwhile, the electric Niro is ready for a second generation.

Kia could have made the Niro EV a worthy but boring machine, much like the car’s hugely successful predecessor. But it didn’t: it managed to inject some playfulness into the styling and the way it drives, without compromising on usability or comfort.

Given how well the e-Niro was still selling, it could be argued Kia didn’t really need to replace it. But it has. The latest Kia Niro looks very different from the old one, following Kia’s new design direction first seen on the EV6. It remains available as a full hybrid and a plug-in hybrid, but as the electric Niro is the biggest seller in the UK, that’s the one we’re testing.

The electric Niro also has a new name. It’s now called the Kia Niro EV. Reportedly, ‘e-Niro’ didn’t work well in Google, a very 21st-century issue that anyone who has tried to find the website for Genesis cars and ended up on the homepage of the band with the same name will be able to attest is absolutely real. The new name also brings it in line with the full-hybrid Kia Niro HEV and plug-in hybrid Kia Niro PHEV.

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We almost awarded the e-Niro the full five stars when we road-tested it in 2019, but it had to settle for four and a half because of a lacklustre cabin and uninspiring driving dynamics. Can its successor claim that final half star? Kia has certainly made huge strides in the areas where the e-Niro faltered. On the other hand, the Niro EV has many more rivals to beat than the original did.

Range at a glance

The new Niro, like the outgoing model, is only available with electrified powertrains. The hybrid and plug-in hybrid use the same 1.6-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine and six-speed dual-clutch automatic gearbox. The EV drops the smaller-battery option that was available on the old e-Niro. All Niros share the same simple trim level structure of 2, 3 and 4.

ModelPower
Kia Niro HEV139bhp
Kia Niro PHEV180bhp
Kia Niro EV*201bhp

*Version tested

DESIGN & STYLING

02 Kia Niro EV RT 2022 front pan

It’s a common complaint that the styling of a new model is too subtly evolutionary, but it’s not one that can be levelled at the Kia Niro EV. Gone is the slightly frumpy face, in favour of a more angular and aggressive style that was previewed by the HabaNiro concept and follows the larger Kia EV6 and Kia Sportage.

At the back, the designers have been even more expressive, adding Audi-R8-style sideblades (optionally in a contrasting colour) that smooth out the air and reduce drag to 0.29.

Those Audi-R8-style sideblades are actually functional: air passes underneath to smooth the flow. Big red tail-lights are only for the main lights; brake lights, indicators and reversing lights are in a cluster in the bumper.

The new car has grown in almost every direction, too. It’s 45mm longer (20mm of that contributed by the wheelbase) and 20mm wider.

At first glance, though, it seems that the changes are skin deep, because the new Niro EV doesn’t use the EV6’s E-GMP platform. Instead, it shares its platform with the hybrid Kia Niros as well as various ICE cars from Kia and Hyundai. The battery has increased in usable capacity by a paltry 0.8kWh to 64.8kWh and charging speeds are still capped at 72kW. The motor produces the same 201bhp as in the old Kia e-Niro.

Those numbers were very impressive just four years ago, and while the 285-mile official range still puts the Niro at the top of the class, rivals aren’t far away. They can charge considerably faster, though. Kia claims the Niro EV can maintain its maximum charging speed for longer, but when the VW ID cars and the upcoming Renault Mégane E-Tech Electric can take at least 120kW, the Niro EV’s rapid-charging performance is disappointing.

Of course, Kia’s engineers haven’t sat idle. The electric Niro may still share its platform with combustion-engined models, but the second-generation K3 architecture is different from the old Niro’s J platform. It’s more flexible and in the Niro EV that translates to a flat floor, a deeper boot and a small frunk.

There are a few other perks. The Niro EV can tow a trailer with a braked capacity of 750kg. The higher trims get vehicle-to-device charging, where the car can charge appliances, or even another car, through a three-pin adapter for the charging port. Niro EVs equipped with sat-nav can also warm the battery in winter when heading for a rapid charger, helping it to accept a faster charge.

INTERIOR

10 Kia Niro EV RT 2022 dashboard

The main thing that kept the Kia e-Niro from a five-star verdict in 2019 was an interior that looked better than it felt. The Korean brands have improved hugely in that area, as the Kia Niro EV shows.

Like the exterior, the interior styling takes inspiration from the swoopy Kia EV6 and Kia Sportage, with the curved screens and rising armrests on the doors creating a more cockpit-like feel than you might expect in a crossover hatchback.

As expected in this class, cabin materials are mostly plastic and rubber, but the tops are soft-touch and the designers have shown creativity with the textures.

Whether the materials stack up depends on which trim level you go for. Although the base 2 grade is quite well equipped on paper, Kia has de-contented it in a few significant ways that might have the effect of pushing buyers to 3 or 4 grade.

Where higher trim levels get soft-touch materials on the door cards, customisable mood lighting and trim panels that look like tarnished brass (even though they’re recycled plastic), 2 just gets plain hard plastic and a much smaller infotainment screen that looks a bit lost in its oversized plastic binnacle.

In 3 spec, though, the Niro is about on a par with the Cupra Born. The German Spaniard’s cabin has more scratchy plastics, but Kia’s vegan approximation of leather is very approximate indeed, feeling more like soft papier mâché.

The Niro also suffers from one or two unexpected quality issues. There’s a fair bit of ugly exposed wiring under the seats and in the driver’s footwell, the luggage cover is flimsy and the brake pedal is suspended from a crudely welded bracket that can catch parts of your shoe as you come off the brake.

Kia’s designers have carefully considered usability in other ways, though. There’s a decent selection of physical buttons dotted around the cabin, and while the switchable touch bar for the climate control and the multimedia shortcuts isn’t ideal, it’s far better than an all-screen solution.

The space on offer in the Niro is impressive, too. Thanks to fairly thin backs on the front seat, it has just as much rear leg room as the Born and the Volkswagen ID 3 but 90 litres more boot space, with additional storage under the floor and in the small frunk. The VW Group MEB-based cars are 10cm shorter, meaning they use their footprint more efficiently, but other than that, the Niro doesn’t seem to suffer too much from having to share its platform with ICE-powered cars.

The one area where the intrusion of the battery pack is noticeable is in the driving position, which is higher than in the Niro hybrids. A tall driving position is hardly a negative for a crossover or SUV, but if you adjust the steering column to suit, the wheel sits at more of an angle than in most modern cars and long-legged drivers might hit their knee against the column trim.

Infotainment

14 Kia niro ev rt 2022 infotainment

Kia offers two infotainment systems in the Niro: 2 grade has an 8.0in screen, while 3 and 4 upgrade to a higher-resolution 10.3in version with built-in navigation and more modern graphics. Android Auto and Apple CarPlay are standard across the range, but bizarrely only the cheaper system supports wireless CarPlay (although it can be buggy).

We spent most of our time in a 3 test car. The multimedia interface is familiar from other recent Kias, responds fairly quickly and is logical to navigate, partly thanks to the row of shortcut buttons on the touch bar that is shared with the climate controls. We’d always take usability over snazzy graphics, but it must be said that Kia’s style is starting to look a touch dated.

The built-in sat-nav works almost as well as Google Maps but has the added benefit that if you set a rapid charger as your destination, the car will precondition the battery for faster charging when you arrive.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

18 Kia Niro EV RT 2022 performance pan

The Kia Niro EV is slightly lighter than its predecessor, so despite using a motor with the same power, it reaches 60mph in just 6.9sec, 0.2sec faster than the Kia e-Niro. Meanwhile, 0-62mph takes 7.2sec, which is a healthy 0.6sec faster than the claimed time.

The Cupra Born we road-tested recently was marginally quicker still, but the difference of a few tenths here and there is largely academic. Compared with petrol and diesel equivalents, a sub-7.0sec 0-60mph time is pretty rapid for a crossover hatchback. With instant power and no gears to change, you’re certainly never left wanting for performance.

Despite the Niro being front-wheel drive, there’s a small frunk. It’s only big enough for a charging cable, but that’s more than most rivals manage. We’d prefer a rear charging port, but having it in the middle does mean you can usually reach rapid chargers on both sides.

The Niro delivers its power in a mostly civilised way. Inevitably, you can feel some torque-steer under hard acceleration, but it’s never an impediment to driving enjoyment or safety. The traction control is on the ball, too, limiting power smoothly until adequate grip is available, even though an unexpected damp patch can still fox it. Turn the system off and the Niro will happily spin one wheel.

Drive it normally and the Niro is an example to other EV makers. The three driving modes give different amounts of throttle sensitivity and the steering wheel paddles allow you to vary the strength of the regen on the fly, from none at all to full one-pedal driving.

If we’re nit-picking, there are two very mild annoyances. The rotary gear selector isn’t as intuitive as the simple lever you get in a base-spec Kia Niro Hybrid. Having to put your foot on the brake before you can shift to Drive or Reverse can be quite frustrating when you’re doing a quick three-point turn.

The brakes themselves could also be slightly more progressive when trying to come to a smooth stop. We’ve experienced far worse, though, and their ultimate stopping power is on a par with electric rivals, although the Niro EV does take a few metres longer to come to a stop than lighter petrol alternatives.

RIDE & HANDLING

20 Kia Niro EV RT 2022 front corner

You would think that adding 443kg worth of batteries to a car, even when it’s mounted low down, would do little to help it along as a driver’s car. However, when we road-tested the old Kia Niro Hybrid (2016-2022) and Kia e-Niro, we were notably more enthusiastic about the electric version than the hybrid, and it’s the same story for the new one. We’ve spent some time in the Kia Niro Hybrid on UK roads, and although it performs adequately, the Kia Niro EV feels like a different car, with the caveat that they were on different tyres.

The Niro EV turns in keenly, has a commendable amount of grip in the dry and will even rotate into the corner if you back off the accelerator aggressively. Best of all, the steering actually has something you might describe as feedback.

In corners, the steering offers some useful feedback about diminishing grip, body roll is well controlled and the nose can even be made to tuck in on a trailing throttle. It’s genuinely good fun to punt down a B-road.

Under normal circumstances, it’s pleasantly light and, at 2.7 turns lock to lock, relatively leisurely geared. Dive in to a corner and the steering weights up strongly but progressively as you get close to the limit of grip. The amount of weight might be disconcerting at first when you step into the Niro from almost any other modern car, but it quickly feels natural, and any genuine steering feel in a new car that isn’t a Porsche or McLaren is something to be upbeat about.

No, the Niro EV is no hot hatch. The Continental EcoContact tyres start squealing rather quickly, they dull the responses somewhat and their grip drops off in wet weather. The Niro also lacks some body control over severe crests and through compressions.

However, it’s genuinely good fun to punt down a B-road and stands comparison with the Cupra Born. We’re still waiting for an affordable electric driver’s car, but it’s a good sign that engineers are figuring out how to put some sparkle into ordinary EVs.

Comfort and isolation

The Niro EV might well have some dynamic chops, yet that doesn’t mean it has completely forsaken the comfort of its occupants. The ride is relatively firm and it doesn’t quite achieve the same fine damping control as the Born, but the Niro is rarely harsh or crashy over surface imperfections, and the slightly loose vertical body control over crests means that it actually takes long-wave bumps rather serenely.

The seats in the Niro prove generally comfortable, too. Buyers of a 2-grade car, which features manual cloth items with no adjustable lumbar support or tilt function, might feel short-changed, but they shouldn’t, because the seats are set right anyway. The electric seats feel slightly harder but give you more adjustment. In the range-topping model, the passenger seat gets a ‘Premium Relaxation’ function. In practice, that just means it can be reclined using a single button, so you can have a nap while the car charges.

Unfortunately, the Niro isn’t the quietest car in its class. All types of noise – wind whistle, road roar and suspension thumps – can be heard inside. It stops short of being truly bothersome and is more excusable in a sub-£40,000 Kia than in a £60,000 Tesla Model Y.

Assisted driving notes

Even the cheapest Niro has adaptive cruise control with lane-following in addition to the usual lane-keep assist and forward collision avoidance with pedestrian and cyclist recognition.

The systems work fairly well, effectively taking a lot of the effort out of long motorway schleps, although the adaptive cruise can slow you down somewhat abruptly when another car cuts in. Kia helpfully lets you toggle the lane-following using a button on the steering wheel, rather than hiding it in a menu.

The lane-keep assist can be intrusive on country roads but is easily turned off by holding a button on the steering wheel, while the collision avoidance never gave any undue warnings during our test.

On 3 models, there’s an effective blindspot monitoring system as well as Highway Driving Assist, which reads speed-limit signs and can automatically adjust the speed. However, the speed-limit recognition is very hit-and-miss, making this function largely unusable.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

01 Kia Niro EV RT 2022 Hero corner

The days of Kia being a value brand are clearly behind us if the Kia Niro EV is anything to go by. Prices start at £36,245 and rise to £43,390. Our 3-grade test car with a heat pump and a premium colour – bound to be quite a popular spec – came to £40,490. A Cupra Born V2 with a few options to make it comparable is £38,965 and a Renault Mégane E-Tech Techno is £39,245, while the MG ZS EV remains the value champion. On a three-year, 10,000-mile PCP contract with a £6000 deposit, the Niro remains more expensive than its rivals.

The Niro is offered in three trim levels, named simply 2, 3 and 4. Top-spec 4 gets all the bells and whistles, including ventilated memory seats, a premium sound system and a head-up display, but even 2 is fairly complete. It has adaptive cruise control with lane following but misses out on heated seats and keyless entry, and the interior gets a noticeable downgrade in perceived quality. Kia continues to offer a seven-year warranty as standard, too.

The Niro’s slow charging rate largely undoes the range advantage it has over its rivals. When Kia has the tech to charge at more than 200kW, that’s quite disappointing. Even on 50kW chargers, the Niro never seemed to accept the full 50kW.

On paper, the Niro has the standard Born and VW ID 3 beaten for range by a useful 40 miles. In practice, that’s only about 30 miles, for a total real-world range of 246 miles. Viewed another way, it means the Niro managed to squeeze the same efficiency of 3.8 miles per kWh out of its battery pack as the more aerodynamic VW Group cars.

If you often cover long distances, however, the charge speed will be just as important. The Niro tops out at 72kW, meaning a 10-80% charge at a 100kW station will take at least 45 minutes. The VW Group cars need 10 minutes less to go from 5% to 80%.

VERDICT

22 Kia Niro EV RT 2022 static

At its launch in 2019, the Kia e-Niro was instantly a strong product that set new standards for range, performance and driving manners in the nascent electric car market, to the point that it was still competitive when it was withdrawn from sale earlier this year.

The new Kia Niro EV improves upon its predecessor in a number of meaningful ways. The styling exudes more confidence and the interior enjoys a step up in quality and design. The driving dynamics have been further finessed and a new platform has liberated more space for people and cargo.

That has come with an increase in price – both in absolute terms and in relation to rivals, of which there are a lot more than just three years ago. The Niro has also missed out on any major improvements to its range or rapid-charging capability.

The advances made by the electric Niro would have made it a five-star car in 2019. However, the EV space is moving so fast – driven largely by Kia and Hyundai’s larger cars – that in 2022, the Niro EV isn’t a game-changing electric car, just a very good one.

Illya Verpraet

Illya Verpraet Road Tester Autocar
Title: Road Tester

As part of Autocar’s road test team, Illya drives everything from superminis to supercars, and writes reviews, comparison tests, as well as the odd feature and news story. 

Much of his time is spent wrangling the data logger and wielding the tape measure to gather the data for Autocar’s eight-page road tests, which are the most rigorous in the business thanks to independent performance, fuel consumption and noise figures.