From humble beginnings – and a scrape with bankruptcy in the 1990s – Seoul-based South Korean car maker Kia has become a global automotive mainstay and champion of the affordable, reliable people mover.
In Australia, it has been the fastest growing ICE (internal combustion engine) car company over the past decade and closed out 2020 at number six on the list of the nation’s top-selling cars, just a sniff behind Mitsubishi and Ford and ahead of VW, Nissan and Subaru.
For these reasons, the arrival in Australia of the all-electric Kia e-Niro seems like something to celebrate, as a lurch towards the mainstream in the nation’s so-far painfully slow transition to zero emissions vehicles … But then comes the price.
The top of the range Sport trim model that The Driven was given to test drive last week would set you back $70,990 to get on the road, which is around $25,000 more expensive than the mild hybrid Niro and $20,000 pricier than the plug-in hybrid version.
Next to the petrol Seltos – a comparable compact SUV that has become one of Kia’s most in-demand cars over the past year – the top of the range e-Niro is nearly $30,000 more expensive.
So once again the question becomes, is the higher price tag worth it?
In terms of the current Australian all-electric EV market, the e-Niro is a highly competitive new entry, particularly considering its decent cabin size and range anxiety-busting 64kWh battery that promises more than 400km of driving on a full charge.
The Driven’s test drive started in Keilor Park, about an hour north-west of home base, and headed another hour north into and around the lovely hills of Mount Macedon. After lunch there followed a nearly two-hour journey home, including driving on dirt roads, freeways and inner-city streets.
Three more days of suburban driving later – heater pumping in the cool late Autumn – and the battery was still sitting just above 50 per cent. Actually, we just stopped checking it.
But there’s a lot more to like about the e-Niro beyond its big battery. While it’s unashamedly an electric vehicle, it’s unassuming on the outside – the covered grille with charging port cap are the only outward giveaways – and driving it around the suburbs on the daily school runs or supermarket visits is to blend in with the traffic.
And it’s nice to drive. The Niro’s permanent magnetic electric motor, which delivers 150kW power and 395Nm torque makes the car feel light and lively on the roads in both “normal” and “sport” driving modes – “it’s like it’s floating,” observed one junior passenger when it took off from the curb. In economy mode it feels, well, a bit more like just a normal ICE car, but by no means sluggish.
On long stretches of road, cruise control is easy to set and, in this mode, the Niro offers a level of assisted driving that stiffens up the steering wheel and prompts the steering ever so slightly as the road curves ahead.
This can feel strange to begin with, and even slightly unnerving, but it is easily overridden if need be and, if anything, made this driver more alert to the driving conditions, rather than less.
The regenerative breaking, another key feature of electric vehicles, is also good. There are three levels of regenerative braking on offer that can be turned up or down easily using paddles on the steering wheel. The function can also be turned off completely.
For those unused to regenerative braking, which kicks in whenever you take your foot off the accelerator and can be a bit jerky and counter-intuitive at first, this allows for a gradual build up to the so-called “one-pedal driving” that many electric vehicle enthusiasts grow to love.
Perhaps to encourage people to give it a go, the Niro also has an “energy flow” setting (pictured above) you can pull up on the display behind the steering wheel that shows – using a basic diagram of the car – energy flowing from the wheels back to the battery every time the regenerative braking function kicks in.
The interior is comfortable and practical, with all the mod cons you might need – or expect – in any new car. Refreshingly, the navigation system offers a built in EV charger finder – some others still point the way to nearby petrol stations. Due to the Niro’s ample range, however, we had no cause to test this out before handing the car back.
The controls are basic and easy to use, from the dial used to change gears (drive, neutral, reverse) to the buttons used to go into park and apply and release the park brake, and the rear view mirror has an automatic dipping function. The infotainment screen in the centre of the dash is also pretty basic, but does the job.
So will Australians pay around $70,000 for an all-electric Niro that was first released elsewhere in the world three years ago? Like with the new Nissan Leaf e+, the answer to this question will most likely come down to a combination of individual taste and the sort of servicing and warranty support being offered.
Kia’s own electric vehicle transition plans are not unambitious. With its new logo, the carmaker revealed in January a plan to release seven dedicated electric vehicle (EV) models by 2027 – on top of previously announced plans to have 11 EVs on offer by 2025. It has a target of 25% of sales being electric by 2029.
So far, Kia has two fully electric vehicles on the market including the UK market-topping Kia e-Niro electric SUV and the Soul electric, which last year won the title of Urban Car of the Year at the World Car of the Year Awards. It also sells a plug-in hybrid version of the Niro and Optima.
For Australia to be included, finally, in Kia’s EV plans – albeit much later than other global markets and with a limited range of models – can be counted as a small win and, hopefully, a sign that the market is starting to open up to a bigger range of all-electric options.
Now they just need to come down in price.