As I whipped the all-electric Kia Niro through a series of tight turns, the thought occurred, "If this is the future of the automobile, bring it on."
No, the Niro isn't particularly attractive, and it will be years before you can buy one in this neck of the woods. What is, however, is more important: Fast, smooth, quiet, well built, cheap to own and a hoot to drive.
Ninety-six percent. That's the ratio buyers of electric vehicles — hybrid, plug-in hybrid, or all-electric — who this year told Consumer Reports that if they had a choice, they would do it again. That's a visceral reaction keyed to perceived quality and value but it's also an important harbinger.
In a capitalistic society, winners are determined by competitive advantage. The next wave of electric automobiles, designed from the ground up as electrics instead of being modifications to vehicles designed to be powered by internal combustion engines, will have many.
For starters, they will be cheaper to build. Manufacturers, such as Volkswagen, will roll out a variety of EVs that ride on a single platform. Basically, it's a sled with a battery pack in the middle and motors at front, rear, or more commonly, both. This drastically reduces development costs and quickly reaches economies of scale.
They will require far less labor to build. EVs do not have engines with 2,000 or more moving parts, transmissions, or cooling systems (though batteries must be cooled). VW's new long-range hatchback is expected to sell for less than $33,000. Tax incentives will drop that to the mid-20s. At a time when the median new-vehicle price is nearing $40,000, that's a big deal.
They will cost much less to operate. The EPA estimates the annual fuel cost for our test Niro at $600 a year, or $1.65 a night to top it off while plugged into a wall outlet. That is just the beginning: No hoses, no belts, no liquids, no fuel additives, no spark plugs, no sensors. Brakes are used for regenerative power and can easily go more than 200,000 miles. Required maintenance in the first year of ownership: Change the wiper blades.
Electrics are also bullet-proof. Anyone who has driven past a field of pumpjacks knows that electric motors, with around 20 moving parts, last forever. Similarly, battery packs are proving they can go 200,000 miles or longer. I know, I have a 12-year-old Highlander Hybrid that can still get across town on electric power only and still gets 26 mpg at Texas interstate highway speeds.
Finally, Electrics are cleaner. If there is one bright spot in the COVID-19 disaster, it was that we all saw how quickly the earth can clean itself if we stop pumping pollutants into the atmosphere. When the public will to make that permanent will come, I can't say. I think technology and economics, however, will hasten that day.
Ugly Duckling lesson
One reason I bought the Highlander for the two or three weeks a year a new car isn't delivered to my driveway is the same reason you won't see the Niro EV for sale anytime soon. I call the Highlander "Duckling," as in ugly duckling, or the car no one wants.
I'd had my eye on it for a couple of months and wasn't surprised that, in this market, no one wanted it. I finally went in and bought it for about 60 percent of Blue Book. We noticed right away that gas mileage was terrible and presumed that the previous owner and dealership had decided the battery pack was failing.
Once we got under the hood, Boy Wonder found a broken air intake hose, which caused the mass air sensor to give a false reading, which caused the computer system to run the fuel mixture as rich as possible. That prevents damage to the Lexus-quality, 3.0-L V-6 which otherwise runs as well as the day it was built. Not only is that a great engine, the load reduction caused by the hybrid system — about 30 percent — added years to its life.
We fixed the problem with the internal combustion engine and the electric system went back to doing what it was designed to do. It gets the same 26 mpg it did when new. There are still times I park the demo vehicle and take Duckling out for a drive. It's one of the sweetest-driving machines I've ever laid hands on.
Just plain good
Not as sweet, however, as the Niro EV. With the heavy battery pack centered under the floor, the center of gravity is lower, and the car feels as balanced as a Mazda MX-5 Miata. Add the instant and silky-smooth delivery of power from the 365-Volt motor, which delivers 201 hp and 291-lb./ft of torque, and the effect is astonishing.
The car handles like a go-Kart, albeit a strong, quiet, perfectly-screwed-together go-Kart. Zero to 60 comes in a quick 7.8 seconds, and 45-75 comes in about three heart beats, making passing a log truck on a Farm-to-Market road downright exhilarating.
Around town, the car is a pleasure to drive. It is nimble in tight quarters, has the visibility of a compact SUV, and is as quiet as a moonbeam (though it emits a slight, high-pitched whine below 12 mph to alert pedestrians and bicyclists).
Guilty as charged
Kia says the Niro will go about 239 miles from full charge to empty. Consumer Reports hints it did better. We didn't get to find out.
Unfortunately, a prior, nit-witted automotive journalist — not this one — yanked out the charging cable without unlocking the car. This wrecks the cable. Our suspicions were confirmed at the local Kia dealership, which has several attractive Niros in stock, none of them EVs, but which nevertheless assigned a nice young mechanic to help us out.
The Niro's onboard system told us that the nearest fast-charge station, which could have charged up the car in less than two hours was in Shreveport. Actually, there was one half a block away at Orr Dodge/RAM. The mechanic drove over there and plugged it in over there. The system fired up, which told us the nitwit damaged the cable, but not the car.
With only 100 miles range remaining at that point, I parked the Niro so that the nice young man who came to get it might have a fighting chance to get back to Dallas.
Oh, I checked fast chargers at Olive Garden, but they are built for a Tesla, the only manufacturer not to standardize plug-in systems with utility companies across the country. If you're one of those who takes pleasure at parking your pickup in front of a Tesla charger, have at it. The things are largely useless.
Make no mistake, billions of dollars are being invested in fast-charge networks. An outfit called Chargepoint already has more than 110,000 of them. Tesla owners can buy an adapter to use them. I don't understand why traditional gasoline retailers are not among the investors. Anyone know where I can buy a buggy whip?
Several dealers have told us that consumer interest in EVs, PHEVs and hybrids has yet to reach critical mass in Texarkana. We would never tell general managers to stock vehicles no one wants to buy, but that's today. Forces outside our control mean change is in the wind and it will be here sooner than many think.