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The 2021 Kia Niro EV.

Photos by MATT BUBBERS/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

For electric vehicle shoppers on a budget, the Kia Niro EV was a minor marvel. When it first arrived in 2019, the Niro offered what was then a pretty unbeatable combination of long range, reasonable price and usable space. When the federal government launched its EV incentive program the same year, taking $5,000 off the price, it only sweetened the deal.

Today, although the Niro EV is far from old, it isn’t quite the marvel it once was. With most mainstream automakers finally getting serious about building EVs people actually want, the competition is heating up and each model year brings significant advances. That’s good news for drivers, but tough for the little Kia.

The Niro itself is a fairly ordinary compact crossover; Kia also sells a gasoline-powered version for $25,000 and a plug-in hybrid for $36,000. Pop the hood of the fully-electric Niro EV – which starts at $44,995 before government incentives – and you’ll find a cavernous space where the combustion engine would normally sit. The EV’s compact electric motor barely takes up any space at all. There’s no front trunk, just a lot of empty space and some tidy orange wiring. Unlike newer rivals, the Niro wasn’t designed from the ground-up as an EV.

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What made the Niro EV so special in 2019 was that it offered the second-most driving-range-per-dollar of any EV on sale in Canada. The Kia was only bested by its corporate stablemate, the smaller Hyundai Kona Electric. With 385 kilometres of EPA-rated range in a car that costs just under $40,000 (after federal rebate), the 2021 Niro EV still ranks highly as an electric value champion. It is, however, beat out by the new Volkswagen ID.4, which is more spacious, has slightly more driving range and costs the same as the Kia. Chevrolet’s updated 2022 Bolt has even more range (417 km) and is much less expensive, but it’s smaller.

The VW, however, is off to a rocky start in life with many early noting numerous little issues. The Niro EV on the other hand has the highest ownership satisfaction of any mass-market EV, according to a recent J.D. Power survey. It feels rock solid.

Recharging the battery from 0-80 per cent takes 54 minutes at a 100 kW DC fast-charger, or more than nine hours on a regular 240-volt outlet.

The electric motor sends 200 horsepower and 291 lb-ft of torque to the front wheels. It may not sound especially impressive, but because those horses are electric, the car feels like a rocket compared to traditional compact SUVs. Put pedal to metal in Sport mode – because apparently every car must have a Sport mode now – and the Niro EV spins its front tires. Even on the highway, overtaking is more fun than it should be; that’s just the nature of instant electric power.

The Niro’s electric power is not silent though. The car plays dreamy harmonic tones to alert pedestrians to its presence. Out of all the noises in the world, Kia chose to make its electric car sound like the undersea aliens from the James Cameron sci-fi movie The Abyss. It’s a vibe.

As for range, the Kia’s already-impressive 385 kilometre rating actually seems conservative. By my calculations, the Niro EV would’ve done just over 400 km on a single charge of mixed highway and city driving before it stopped dead. (That’s in line with a recent U.K. test that drove the Kia for 410 km before it finally stopped.) The car underestimated its own range. It’s the automotive equivalent of setting your watch 10 minutes early; knowing you have an extra buffer will be a comfort to anxious drivers.

Like other brands, Kia has big EV plans: seven dedicated new EVs by 2026, with electrified vehicles making up 40 per cent of its global sales by 2030. The brand’s upcoming EV6, built on a new EV platform, will offer all-wheel drive, faster charging and longer range, although the company won’t say when that car might arrive in Canada. Even without that new model, Kia’s EV sales grew last year and sales are up again this year too.

More new rivals to the Niro EV are on the horizon though. Hyundai’s Ioniq 5 will arrive this fall and Chevrolet has a Bolt SUV coming soon too. It’s probably worth waiting to see how those vehicles stack up before making your choice. But, if you need a new budget-friendly EV right now, the Niro EV – while not the obvious choice it was just a couple years ago – still has impressive range, reliability and a practical cabin that make it a strong all-around contender.

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Tech specs

2021 Kia Niro EV

Base price: $44,995 before government incentives ($54,695 as tested)

Engine: Single-motor electric

Transmission/drive: single-speed transmission / front-wheel drive

Range: 385 km (EPA-rated)

Alternatives: Volkswagen ID.4, Tesla Model 3, Hyundai Kona Electric, Kia Soul EV, Chevrolet Bolt, Nissan Leaf, Tesla Model 3

Looks

You’d never guess it was electric. It looks good but instantly forgettable.

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Interior

There’s 1,804-litres of cargo space with the rear seats folded.

The dashboard layout is nice and clear, and there’s lots of storage, but there’s a lot of black plastic. The rear seats are more cramped than those on the VW ID.4.

Performance

Recharging the battery from 0-80 per cent takes 54 minutes at a 100 kW DC fast-charger, or more than nine hours on a regular 240-volt outlet. The base-model EX trim doesn’t come with a heat pump, while the higher-trim levels do. The Kia’s tiny EV motor puts the performance of typical four-cylinder turbocharged gasoline engines to shame.

Technology

Unlike newer rivals, the Niro wasn’t designed from the ground-up as an EV.

The screens are plenty big, but the look of the graphic interface is odd. The radio, for example, displays frequencies in what looks like vacuum tubes. Quirky, sure, but a random spattering of skeuomorphic design throughout the interface isn’t a good look.

Cargo

There’s 1,804-litres of cargo space with the rear seats folded, which is slightly less than the VW ID.4 SUV, and a lot more than a Tesla Model 3 sedan. A deep well under the trunk floor houses the charging cable.

Verdict

No longer quite the marvel it once was, but still a highly practical, reliable entrée into the EV world for those on a budget.

Although the Niro EV is far from old, it isn’t quite the marvel it once was.

Shopping for a new car? Check out the new Globe Drive Build and Price Tool to see the latest discounts, rebates and rates on new cars, trucks and SUVs. Click here to get your price.

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