Framed against the blue Palm Springs sky, windmills — stark white like this 2021 Kia Niro EV — spun in the urgent wind. Sand skipped across the flat, dark pavement, and I floored it. Tire smoke choked the cabin, sour, as this completely nondescript refrigerator on wheels did a front-drive burnout for what felt like a city block.
Full Disclosure: Kia lent us this Niro EV with a full tank of electricity. It served dutifully screaming around Los Angeles for a week and out to Palm Springs and back.
The Kia Niro EV makes 201 horsepower and 291 lb-ft of torque, that latter figure available right from a stoplight. It makes for a somewhat loud car. It’s not from the drivetrain — like all electric cars it’s virtually silent. The noise comes from the high-pitched tire squeal as you roast your way through every intersection you can. It’s stupefying; no car that looks like this should drive like this. Nothing so boring and sensible should be so silly.
To put this in a little perspective, the Niro is basically a hatchback/mini-crossover version of the Hyundai Ioniq hybrid, which is kind of like Hyundai’s competitor for the Prius. These Ioniqs make do with a 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine that makes about 140 HP with their hybrid drive. Similar models like the Kia Forte or whatnot have pretty much the same bones and live with 120-something 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 HP and 250 lb-ft of torque is a lot in the abstract, but it is certainly a lot for a Kia Niro. Overpowered is the word; overpowered is the feel. This is something like a really heavy hot hatchback. Well, hot hatchbacks are light and nimble. Better said, the Kia Niro EV acts like a muscle car, just one that’s shaped like a box.
I don’t exactly know if I myself would seek out a muscle car version of a fairly utilitarian hatchback, but when I found myself plunked down in the driver’s seat, I couldn’t stop myself cracking up, skrrrt’ing my way around Southern California like someone who had just signed the lease on a new Charger. With the traction control off, the Niro EV is a profoundly antisocial vehicle.
That just wouldn’t be funny if the car wasn’t all-electric. This thing is suppose to be eco. It’s the most environmentally-conscious model in the Niro range. The sensible one. The I’m refilling my Dr. Bronner’s at the co-op version.
Let me briefly digress into a very practical assessment of the Kia Niro EV, for anyone particularly curious about what it’s like to live with for an extended period of time.
The ride is pleasant, as is the interior. It does not present itself as extraordinary in any meaningful way; a Prius feels more special. It is roomy and comfortable, but the trunk area is smaller than you’d think. The floor follows flat, and doesn’t have a deeper recess like you get in, say, a Nissan Leaf. There is also no frunk! Instead there is a fake engine cover that takes up needless space. You could get a couple cubic feet up there for groceries or bags you don’t want to have hanging around on your passenger seat, but Kia didn’t bother.
I will also say that the range and charging of the Niro EV is excellent. The EPA rates it at 239 miles, and I saw similar 200+ figures in my time driving it. I hardly had to worry about charging, even after a mysterious incident involving a confused Porsche Taycan driver attempting to use the same charger as me and then me returning to discover my car had not charged. It was almost as if the Taycan driver had unplugged my car, plugged theirs in, charged, and left.
But the car got me everywhere I needed to go, with range to spare. Taking sips of electricity around the plentiful chargers of Southern California was no less convenient than driving a gas-powered car around, and a good 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 heater, a heat pump, and a heated steering wheel, I guess if you drive up to the Sierras in the winter to go see snow once a year. The same trim on the hybrid version is more than 12 grand cheaper.
Let me give another more brief digression. For whatever reason, all of my tangentially-related car friends are momentarily obsessed with electric conversions of classic cars. You can take something old and cool but mechanically hopeless (my personal Volkswagen Beetle, for instance) and shove a simple, high-torque electric motor in its place. Make some room for batteries and you have a simple, reliable, tire-smoking machine. The Kia Nio EV follows that same basic premise — it’s an all-electric conversion of a hybrid done by Kia as a company, not by an underemployed engineer in their garage. That’s what it feels like: a regular car that happens to have electric drive.
This Niro tells us two things about EVs as they become more mainstream. The first is that these are inherently fun vehicles, better suited for American driving than any expert would have you believe. American driving is an endless loop of stoplights, on-ramps, and then snoozy highway slogs. The Niro EV does the last part just fine, in near-silence. It makes the first two parts spontaneously fun, surging up to speed 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 offer you something in exchange. The trade-off is that they are more inconvenient that gas-powered cars (though it hardly felt it in Southern California in the midst of a spike in gas prices) and so they must make you feel like that’s somehow worth it. I don’t know how very much I felt like I was saving the world in any meaningful way, clogging up the same highways as everyone else in Los Angeles, smog or no. If anything, this Niro made me feel like EVs are less environmentally responsible than I’ve ever felt before. The car doesn’t ask any compromise of you; it has tons of range, the interior feels completely normal. There’s nothing from behind the steering wheel that makes you feel like you’re doing a good deed. You’re just another asshole putting their right foot to the floor, tearing ass down the road.