Electric Road Trip

An electric test drive: Kia Niro vs. BMW i3

The Electric Road Trip just passed an unusual intersection. Outside Indianapolis, I met a colleague (Jeff Tomich, our Midwest reporter) and a new car we would drive for the next stretch: a sporty red BMW i3.

I had traveled up from Louisville, Ky., in a Kia Niro EV. This electric crossover has been with us since the trip started three weeks ago in Houston, and will be with us until Detroit.

For the next few hours, Jeff and I would do an unusual sort of test drive. We would make our way to Columbus, Ohio, each behind the wheel of a different late model electric car. Halfway, we would stop to recharge and switch cockpits. We hoped to see how these two electric breeds compare.

Right off the bat we had to grapple with the i3's shorter battery life. The i3 has a 153-mile range compared to the Niro's 239-mile range. The first order of business was mapping out where to charge up during the 170-mile trip to Columbus.

As I fumbled around with PlugShare, the go-to app for finding charging stations, the dealer's resident technology guru tried to show us how to do the same kind of search using BMW's connected dashboard electronics. We realized we would have to bypass the fastest route, a straight shot up U.S. 70, through Dayton to Columbus. That route had surprisingly few charging options — one of the odd gaps that still exist on major interstates.

Instead, we would dip south to a Walmart Supercenter in Cincinnati. There, Jeff and I used two EVgo chargers, one a Level 2 and the other a fast-charger. Before long, we were on the road again (cue Willie Nelson).

The i3 and the Niro are like comparing a cat and a dog. Though both all-electric, they're made for different jobs. The i3's sporty and squat by design. It's built for zipping around town or commuting. The Niro's a family car, with a familiar crossover-cabin feel, and roomy enough for weekend trips.

The i3's clear upside was its quickness and firm handling. But on the range anxiety chart, we found ourselves scraping the red zone. The i3's range indicator bounced around a lot. The 50-mile buffer we built into the trip to Cincinnati sprang to 70 miles, then plunged to 30 miles, before bouncing up again.

The Niro's more predictable range indicator kept me a lot calmer.

Little things matter, too. The Niro's center console and twist-dial shifter were intuitive for anybody who's used to the gear shifts in combustion-engine models. The i3 placed its startup buttons on an arm off the steering wheel.

For me, the i3's switches were a little too well-hidden, though it might not have been a fair comparison since I had had days to familiarize myself with the Kia. I feverishly pressed buttons that might turn up the air conditioner. Just as well; I ought to conserve battery life by keeping the air off and rolling down the windows. Never know when the i3 might run out of juice.

In Columbus, it was the end of the Electric Road Trip both for me and the BMW i3.

For the BMW, the immediate future meant zipping quietly around Columbus on future test rides. Long term, it is the end of the line, since BMW recently announced it is discontinuing the i3 as it prepares other electric models.

As for the humans, I would leave the Electric Road Trip and fly back to Washington, D.C., while Jeff will continue with the Kia toward Detroit — driving longer distances than the BMW was prepared to give.

Electric Road Trip

E&E News reporters take a 6,000-mile road trip in an electric vehicle to explore how the switch from gas to electric transportation will change the economy, environment and daily life of America.
Load more posts