(Pocket-lint) - Cars have the ability to surprise and excite. It's one of the reasons people love cars so much, the thing that makes them more than just a commodity, greater than the sum of its parts.
You might not think this when you look at the e-Niro. Sitting between the Stonic and the Sportage in size, it's almost a generic-looking crossover. But while it might not capture your heart like the Tesla Model 3, it will capture you head - because it's an electric car that makes a whole lot of sense.
Here's why, having lived with one for a week, it's easy to love.
Designed to blend into the background?
We have to start with exterior design. Kia has totally reinvented itself in recent years. From rather ugly cars into real head-turners - it's been quite the transformation. The Niro launched as a hybrid in 2016 and the e-Niro sits in the same bodywork. It's a practical five-door crossover - not quite as large as the Sportage, the design being a little more muted too.
There's no avoiding that the Kia e-Niro sits close to the Hyundai Kona Electric, as these sibling companies offer much the same spec on cars. The Kona Electric looks more exciting, but the e-Niro is slightly cheaper.
The e-Niro makes a show of closing the front grille - it doesn't need engine cooling, after all - with just the panel to pop open and charge the car on the front. There's some highlighting in electric blue and with this review model being a First Edition, it comes in a fairly high spec. Apart from that, it looks like the other Niro models on the road.
For those not familiar with Kia, the number of trim levels is kept to a minimum. There are usually three choices and no further options list - because everything is bundled within those trim levels. There are no choices apart from the colour of the paint, which makes it really easy to see what you're getting, while keeping the price easy to monitor too.
The interior of this First Edition e-Niro is finished with leather seats and touch points (some is faux leather, not that you'll notice), but much of the cabin uses harder plastics. That's a hallmark of affordability, and while the dash is a softer-touch material across the top, once you get down to the door pockets, it's all plastic. That's great if you have kids, because it's easy to clean up, but it won't rival the premium interior you'll get in something like the Audi e-tron.
That perhaps doesn't matter at this level though. It's not interior quality that brings people to brands like Kia. It's value for money and practicality. And that's where the e-Niro hits it out of the park.
The ride height is well suited to urban environments, letting you see down the road, and there's plenty of space for passengers in the rear too. The rear seat is given space preference over the boot, which is similar to what you'd find in many hatchbacks, but at 451 litres the boot is still certainly big enough to stow the weekly shop, buggy or weekend baggage.
So from a design perspective, it's easy to pick at the e-Niro, it's easy to pick at the number of buttons or the gloss black surround to the centre-mounted display. But in reality, none of that really matters, because the character of this car shines through it all.
It feels like a real electric car
There's a huge divide in approach to electric cars at the moment. Some, like the Hyundai Ioniq, are unashamedly electric first. Others, like the new Mini Electric, wants to be as "normal" as possible. The e-Niro sits somewhere in the middle.
The most important thing here is that Kia has equipped this First Edition with a 64kWh battery, from which it can squeeze 282 miles combined range. According to our testing, that's not some pie in the sky figure either - at 80 per cent charge we had over 240 miles of range available. That's not just compelling, it's reassuring.
The other important thing about the e-Niro is the efficiency that comes with it. Not only is it a pretty big battery, but you'll regularly get up to 5mi/kWh. Even on the motorway we were getting over 4mi/kWh, where there's no real gain from regeneration, so the lasting impression is good and usable range.
To put this into perspective: there are electric cars with larger batteries but much lower range, because they are nowhere near as efficient when you're driving them. That really makes a difference when it comes to charging - if you're limited to 45 minutes on a 50kWh charger on the motorway, the more efficient car will be the one that then offers the most range at the end of the charge.
The Kia e-Niro supports charging up to 100kW, which would need 54 minutes to get the battery from dead to 80 per cent charge. Using the UK's predominant 50kW chargers on motorways, you'll need 75 minutes. Charging on a wall box at home at 7.2kW will take just under 10 hours.
There are also a couple of little things that help get those higher figures. There are driving modes accessed via a button, which cycles through Eco, Standard and Sport.
The car starts in Eco - and for many we can't see why you'd never leave it - but there's also an Eco+ mode accessed through a press-and-hold of that button. This will give you the maximum range by turning off the aircon, capping the max speed and dulling the throttle. And you could drive in Eco+ in urban areas most of the time.
There's also a "driver only" button on the climate control system. Again, this simple button takes into account the practical needs of EV drivers. Why blow air around the whole car when it's just you? It's little details that make the e-Niro feel special, considered and - largely based on its range alone - ultimately one of the best electric cars out there.
How does the Kia e-Niro drive?
With a motor driving the front wheels, the 0-62 time of 7.5 seconds might not sound fast, but it's still pretty nippy. You won't get that sort of performance if you're driving in Eco mode, but switch to Standard or Sport, put your foot down and you'll feel the front end squirming with the masses of available torque.
Even in Eco mode it drives perfectly nicely, with ample response from the go pedal. The steering is a little light and doesn't feel the most connected, but we doubt that will be a concern for those looking seriously at the e-Niro. The ride is comfortable enough, but you will feel and hear it if you hit a speed bump slightly too fast - it's not quite as well managed as the Nissan Leaf.
When it comes to braking, you're probably more interested in the regeneration, the aim being to recoup as much energy as possible when you do need to slow down. The e-Niro uses the same sort of system as you'll find in the Hyundai Ioniq, with paddles on the steering wheel you can use the change the level of regen, auto-applying braking to some degree as you remove your foot from the one pedal driving method.
It means you can decide how intense you want the regen to be when you lift off that pedal, on a scale from 0-3 (that's from off to increasingly higher levels of regenerative braking). While the default level 2 will suit most, it's a little heavy on the motorway when you'll see traffic slowing at greater distances and you're better to coast on level 0, for example, maintaining rather than losing speed.
It might seem like it's pouring attention into something you want to be happening in the background, but we actually really like it. And if that's all too geeky for you, you can set it to automatic and simply ignore it.
We also like that when you're driving in Eco mode you'll get a little indicator appear in the driver display telling you how much you just regained from braking. Again, little details, all of which make the e-Niro feel more natural as an electric car.
Generously loaded with technology
This being the First Edition it comes loaded with technology. It misses some premium features - there's no top-down 360 camera, only a reversing camera - but otherwise you're well served. The whole system is boosted by a JBL speaker system, which is a little lacklustre at low volumes, but it really sings when you turn it up loud.
The centre of the system is an 8-inch touch display. The user interface is a little janky, lacking the refinement of some premium manufacturers, which is the same criticism we applied to the Kona Electric. All bases are covered, however, from radio to satnav, with not only touch controls but dedicated buttons across those functions too.
Depending on where you sit on the divide, that either makes it easier to get to what you want by pressing the button, or it's visual clutter and a reflection that the user interface needs to be more efficient to get people to use it. Still, we don't mind the buttons as they bring simplicity.
The system also supports Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, so it's really easy to plug in your phone and use that for navigation and entertainment. We use Android Auto most of the time we're in the car - so we could navigate with Waze - but there's a happy integration between the two systems, for example being able to access Google Assistant via the voice button on the steering wheel.
Hyundai has a voice assistant of its own for when you don't have a connected phone, but, alas, it's not really up to the job.
There are also connected features offered, like live electric charging point locators. This requires an internet connection - something the car doesn't have, so will ask you to connect to a phone hotspot - making for a simple and effective enough way to guide you to a charger. It's no Tesla level of implementation, but it works well enough.
The result is a tech setup that will satisfy most people. There's nothing that's really missing and if you want to use your phone - which more and more drivers do - then it's ready to go.
What you're really getting from the Kia e-Niro is that practical crossover positioning, a big battery offering lots of range and efficiency, and a good level of spec for your money. While Europe has a smaller battery version, Kia decided to only offer the larger version in the UK - and we think that's a good decision.
The e-Niro feels like a car where someone has sat down and thought about what's being offered and what makes sense as an electric car. Sure, the interior quality or the entertainment system might not be as flash as some other manufacturers, but Kia kits the essentials in the e-Niro again and again.
So it might not appeal to the heart on first look, but it will appeal to your head. If you're in the market for a practical electric car, then the Kia e-Niro emerges as one of the best electric cars on the road. It's big enough for a family of four, has crossover appeal and it's loaded with convenient tech to make it easy to live with.
Alternatives to consider
Nissan Leaf e+
The Nissan Leaf is one of the most compelling electric car, but to compete with the Kia e-Niro, you'll need to take the e+ version with the 62kWh battery. That only comes in Tekna trim with a price of £36,990, so it's a little more expensive than the e-Niro and doesn't quite have the same range. However, the Leaf e+ has a higher quality interior and a slightly better native infotainment offering.
Tesla Model 3
The Tesla Model 3 is perhaps better looking than rivals - with that Tesla badge going a long way too. To get near the price of the Kia you'd have to select the Standard Range Plus at £36,490, which claims a similar range at around 254 miles. It supports faster charging however.