Framed against the blue skies of Palm Springs, windmills — pristine white like this 2021 Kia Niro EV — spun in the urgent wind. Sand jumped onto the flat, dark sidewalk, and I covered it with dirt. Tire smoke choked the cabin, sour, as that utterly nondescript refrigerator on wheels did a front-wheel-drive burnout for what felt like a city block.
Full disclosure: Kia lent us this Niro EV with full power. He served dutifully screaming around LA for a week and to Palm Springs and back.
The Kia Niro EV makes 201 horsepower and 291 lb-ft of torque, with the latter figure available straight from a stoplight. It makes for a bit of a noisy car. It’s not drivetrain – like all electric cars, it’s virtually silent. The noise comes from the high-pitched squeal of the tires as you weave your way through all the intersections you can. It’s amazing; no car that looks like this should drive like this. Nothing so boring and sensible should be so silly.
To put that into a little perspective, the Niro is essentially a hatchback/mini-crossover version of the Hyundai Ioniq hybrid, which is kind of like Hyundai’s competitor to the Prius. These Ioniq are content with a 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine that develops around 140 hp with their hybrid propulsion. Similar models like the Kia Forte or the like have much the same bones and live with some 120 HP and 115 lb-ft of torque midway through the rev range.
The Niro EV doesn’t quite double that power figure, but it feels like it. It’s not like 200 horsepower and 250 lb-ft of torque is a lot in the abstract, but it’s certainly a lot for a Kia Niro. Overpowered is the word; mastered is the sensation. It is something like a very heavy hot tailgate. Well, hot sedans are light and nimble. Better said, the Kia Niro EV acts like a muscle car, just one that’s shaped like a box.
I’m not sure if I would be looking for a muscle car version of a fairly utilitarian sedan myself, but when I found myself dunked in the driver’s seat, I couldn’t help but cringe, skrrrt’making my way through Southern California like someone who had just signed the lease on a new Charger. With traction control off, the Niro EV is a deeply antisocial vehicle.
It wouldn’t be fun if the car wasn’t fully electric. This thing is supposed to be eco-friendly. It is the most environmentally friendly model in the Niro range. The sense. The I complete my Dr. Bronner’s cooperative version.
Let me digress briefly into a very practical Kia Niro EV review, for anyone particularly curious about what it’s like to live for a long time.
The ride is pleasant, as is the interior. It doesn’t present itself as extraordinary in any meaningful way; a Prius feels more special. It’s roomy and comfortable, but the trunk is smaller than you might think. The ground follows flat, and has no deeper recess like getting into, say, a Nissan Leaf. There is also no frunk! Instead, there’s a fake engine cover that takes up space unnecessarily. You might get a few cubic feet up there for groceries or bags you don’t want lugging around in your passenger seat, but Kia didn’t care.
I will also say that the range and charging of the Niro EV are excellent. The EPA rates it at 239 miles, and I’ve seen over 200 similar numbers in my driving time. I hardly had to worry about charging, even after a mysterious incident involving a confused Porsche Taycan driver trying to use the same charger as me, then me returning to find my car had not been charged. It was almost as if the Taycan driver had unplugged my car, plugged his in, loaded up and drove off.
But the car got me everywhere I needed to go, with range to spare. Sipping electricity around Southern California’s many chargers was no less convenient than driving a gas-powered car, and a bit cheaper. Good that it was – this particular Niro EV read $47,155 on the window sticker with the $1,100 Cold Weather Package. You get a battery warmer, heat pump and heated steering wheel, I guess if you drive up to the Sierras in the winter to see the snow once a year. The same trim on the hybrid version is over $12,000 cheaper.
Allow me to make another brief digression. For some reason, all of my Tangential-related automotive friends are momentarily obsessed with electric classic car conversions. You could take something old and cool but mechanically hopeless (my personal Volkswagen Beetle, for example) and shove a simple high-torque electric motor in its place. Make room for the batteries and you have a simple and reliable tire smoking machine. The Kia Nio EV follows the same basic principle: it’s an all-electric conversion of a hybrid made by Kia as a company, not by an underemployed engineer in his garage. That’s what it feels like: an ordinary car that has electric propulsion.
This Niro tells us two things about electric vehicles as they become more mainstream. One is that they’re inherently fun vehicles, better suited to American driving than any expert would have you believe. American driving is an endless loop of red lights, on-ramps, and then sleepy freeway slogs. The Niro EV does the last part very well, in near-silence. It makes the first two parts spontaneously fun, accelerating like a tuned Honda on mute. I don’t know how many people would fit the profile of “I want a car that does the job of a boosted 2000s CR-V but doesn’t piss off the neighbors,” but Kia certainly has the market covered.
The second is that electric cars have to give you something in return. The trade-off is that they’re more troublesome than gas-powered cars (although they hardly feel that way in Southern California amid soaring gas prices) and so they should give you the feels like it’s worth it. I don’t know how significantly I felt like I was saving the world, clogging the same freeways as everyone else in Los Angeles, smog or not. On the contrary, this Niro made me feel that electric vehicles are less environmentally friendly than I have ever felt before. The car does not ask you for any compromise; it has tons of range, the interior looks quite normal. There’s nothing behind the wheel that makes you feel like you’re doing a good deed. You’re just another asshole putting your right foot on the ground, ripping ass on the road.