Automakers have appeared to have settled on two targets for their entry-level electric offerings: a range greater than 200 miles of range and a price point of about $40,000, roughly the cost of the average new vehicle. That’s precisely where the immensely popular Tesla Model 3 lives. Before you scoff that, the Model 3’s range is much more than 300 miles for some variants. Remember, that’s the EPA figure. In our 75-mph highway-speed range test, the best result we’ve managed with a Model 3 Long Range is 230 miles, which is just 20 more than these other two EVs on the affordable end of the spectrum that we’ve gathered here.
The Kia Niro EV starts at $40,265 and has been for sale for a few years, albeit only in 12 states. Adapted from the hybrid and plug-in hybrid Niro, the EV version doesn’t have some of the calling cards of a dedicated EV architecture, such as a front trunk. But it’s a practical, pleasant, and affordable EV nevertheless. Proving its greatness in a 2019 comparison test, the Niro’s platform mate, the Hyundai Kona Electric, won out against the Chevrolet Bolt EV.
Volkswagen’s first foray into EVs in the United States is the $41,190 ID.4, built from the ground up on the company’s EV platform that will spawn dozens of variants (although even so, it also hasn’t found the room for a frunk). Initially, it’s available with a single motor powering the rear wheels, although a more powerful two-motor variant will be added in the near future.
Both cars offer an identical 201 hp, more than 200 miles per charge, plenty of practicality, and, unlike Tesla, still qualify for the $7500 federal tax credit, which make them even more affordable. Let’s see how they stack up.
Kia Niro EV
Highs: Quiet, clever paddle strategy to adjust regenerative braking, impressive efficiency.
Lows: Power can easily overwhelm the front tires, budget interior finishes, smaller back seat and cargo area compared to the VW.
For the buyer who values acceleration, Niro claws to 60 mph in a quick-for-a-small-crossover 6.2 seconds, far ahead of the ID.4’s 7.6 seconds It also wins out in cornering capability with 0.88 g on the skidpad, a strong number considering the modestly sized all-season tires. But start hustling the Niro and things go awry. The Niro’s overworked front tires squawk with the ferocity of a scorned goose when trying to apply power out of a turn. Driving these two is a hands-on physics lesson on why the driven axle and weight distribution matters, particularly when it comes to torque-rich electric motors that can easily overwhelm the tires.
Although the Niro isn’t the handling champ, there’s still a lot to like, particularly when driven with less enthusiasm. We like the on-the-fly adjustability of the Kia’s regenerative braking. There are four levels including 0, which is coasting, that can be quickly adjusted via paddles on the steering wheel. And the current setting can be overridden temporarily by holding a paddle. Brake feel is often sacrificed on the altar of blending regenerative and friction brakes, but the Niro does it better than most and far better than the ID.4, whose brakes we found to be frustratingly non-linear.
EVs continue to experiment with the sounds they make to warn bystanders of their otherwise near-silent presence, and we hope Kia finds a better one than the Niro’s foghorn-like reversing alert (owner’s forums are awash in how to unplug their cars’ speakers to defeat it).
The relatively higher seating position in both front and rear seats is a tell from the Niro’s origins, the result of stuffing a battery pack underneath an existing architecture. Still, the Niro has an adult-habitable back seat, even though it’s not as spacious as the ID.4’s. We much preferred the more conventional and relatively lower seating position in the ID.4, too. The Niro’s hard plastics on the interior are a little too entry level as well, especially at the $47,145 price of our EX Premium test car.
The ID.4 also boasts a longer EPA range than the Niro (250 miles versus 239), but in our 75-mph highway test, they achieved an identical 210 miles. That’s a solid result, made a bit more impressive considering the Niro does it with nearly 20-percent less battery capacity than either the ID.4 (64.0 kWh versus 77.0 kWh) or the Tesla Model 3 or Y. The Niro also has an optional heat pump, part of the $1100 cold-weather package, which will improve mileage in cold temperatures, while the ID.4 doesn’t (although ID.4s in markets outside the U.S. offer a heat pump).
It’s really no surprise the older Niro comes up short against the ID.4. An older design, the Kia will soon be replaced by a purpose-built EV. Kia and Hyundai will soon offer the 2022 EV6 and Ioniq 5 on that dedicated architecture. When those land, we’ll see how they fare against the ID.4.
Highs: Refined and sophisticated to drive, more-than-200-mile highway range, lots of back-seat and cargo space.
Lows: Heavy, needs more battery to achieve the same range, slow-booting and often frustrating infotainment system.
The ID.4’s strengths are subtle enough that some might miss them. It doesn’t bowl you over with massive acceleration, or wow with a mammoth range figure. What it has is a sophistication that’s miles above the class norms of the compact-crossover segment.
Although both cars were similarly hushed in our 70-mph interior sound-level test, the ID.4 is far quieter in the real world of ever-changing road surfaces. Where the Niro’s tires and structure grumble over rough patches, the ID.4 is hushed and refined. That’s even more impressive considering that our loaded 1st Edition model was rolling on 20-inch wheels versus the Niro’s 17s.
Unfortunately, U.S.-market ID.4s have stability control that can’t be switched off, which means you can’t fully explore the dynamics of its mid-motor, rear-drive architecture. Although the stability control’s intervention probably held it back a bit in its 0.85 g skidpad result, it doesn’t get in the way of a brisk back-road blast. We kept marveling at the mannerly way its well-weighted steering and highly polished suspension kept it hustling. What came to mind again and again when driving the ID.4 is the old refrain about the joy that can be found in driving a slow car quickly, at working to conserve momentum over a challenging section of road, particularly one with rewarding and responsive dynamics. An additional benefit of not propelling the front wheels is that they can be made to turn farther, yielding a very tight turning diameter of 33.5 feet.
The stark dynamic differences are all that more surprising after the curb weights are revealed. Although the ID.4 does have more back-seat space, with plenty of headroom even with the large glass roof, and far more cargo space than the Niro, its slightly more generous dimensions and larger battery pack are still no excuse for its 4700-pound weight, nearly 800 pounds more than the Niro.
Although it takes more battery for the ID.4 to equal the Niro’s range, at least it can be replenished faster. We achieved the ID.4’s peak fast-charging rate of 125-kW, while the Niro only managed 74 kW of its claimed 100 kW. And charging from 10 percent to 90 percent charge, the ID.4 averaged a swift 82 kW versus the Niro’s 47 kW. That means that even though the VW’s battery is considerably larger, it’s total charge time of 45 minutes was 20 minutes quicker than the Niro’s.
Although less relevant, the ID.4’s included travel charging cable was particularly slow, drawing just 8 amps of 120-volt current, 50 percent below the allowable 12 amps on a typical 15-amp household circuit. That’s just further encouragement that with any long-range EV you want to maximize the use of the 240-volt Level 2 outlet. And there, too, the ID.4 wins with an 11.0-kW onboard charger versus the Niro’s 7.2-kW capability.
The ID.4’s 12.0-inch infotainment screen is larger and brighter than the Niro’s, but we’re less than won over by VW’s new infotainment. Not only is it slow to boot up at the start of every drive, it has layer after layer of submenus that feel like a maze. For example, the state of the heated seats are always displayed on the left edge of the screen, but, maddingly, you can’t turn them on and off by tapping there. Pressing that corner of the screen sends you to the menu with the heated seat controls, an unnecessary step in what was once a simple operation. Also, certain systems that we think should be able to be adjusted or switched off while in motion, such as lane-keep assist, can’t be disabled on the fly.
The ID.4 has just the occasional flourish, such as brake and accelerator pedals emblazoned with the symbols for “pause” and “play.” And there’s the thin strip of lighting that runs across the base of the dash. VW calls that interior light the ID, and it’ll do things like blink when you receive an incoming phone call and swoosh in the direction of an upcoming turn to reinforce the navigation system’s directions.
Quiet and subtle competence defines the ID.4, and that’s why it wins. It’s more practical, more refined, more rewarding, and simply the car we’d rather drive every day.
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