I think it’s fair to say that the new Kia e-Niro has caused a bit of a stir. Its 64kWh battery is the biggest currently fitted to an electric car from any of the mainstream brands and if you want to buy one, get ready to join a long queue. Supply difficulties notwithstanding, I managed to get hold of one for a few days with a view to finding out just how far it could go.
For my first test, I drove the e-Niro until it entered reduced power mode with an estimated eight miles of range left. I had covered 326 miles since topping up, so the implied total range was 334 miles. That particular run was a varied mix of motorways and dual carriageways, town driving and rural roads in East Anglia and the Midlands. I then carried out a second test on the range-friendly flat roads of my Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire back yard. That trip consisted mainly of rural single carriageways, smaller towns and un-bypassed villages, and I managed to edge the total implied range up to 346 miles, comprising of eleven estimated miles remaining and 335 miles covered.
In both cases, I drove gently but kept up with the traffic. I didn’t use any extreme economy techniques, although range-saving habits are now hard-wired into my natural driving style after years of eking extra miles out of short-range electric cars. The weather was just about perfect for maximum range – warm, with temperatures above 20 degrees Celsius, but not so hot that I couldn’t get away without using the range-sapping air-con most of the time.
So, what is the significance of mainstream electric cars cracking the 300-mile range barrier? Well it’s only seven years short ago that the benchmark for the first Leafs and Zoes was eighty miles or so, but I was able to persuade the e-Niro to travel around four times as far. That’s a transformative rate of progress of the sort you’d normally expect to see in the IT sector, rather than the relatively slow-moving motor industry.
But it’s not just a question of what the latest mainstream electrics can do compared with their predecessor models. It’s always been possible to buy an electric vehicle with fairly decent range if you are prepared to pay a lot of money, for something like a Tesla or a Jaguar I-Pace. Now that range advantage has been eliminated by the latest electric vehicles from mainstream brands, it must have some people worried.
And it’s not only range parity with more expensive electric cars that has been achieved. I recently ran an old petrol Mercedes-Benz I own until the fuel warning light came on, which it did at 363 miles, a result that was only twenty or thirty miles better than those I achieved in the e-Niro. The Merc may be a bit of a gas-guzzler, but it would never occur to me that its range rendered it unsuitable as a vehicle for long journeys.
Which brings us on to efficiency. Just as some petrol and diesel cars can go further on a gallon than others, so Kia seems to be able to squeeze more distance out of a kilowatt hour (kWh) of electricity than some other manufacturers. On my two test runs, I was able to achieve 5.1 and 5.3 miles per kWh respectively – excellent numbers, especially when sustained over hundreds of miles.
But my time with the e-Niro also got me thinking about how much range a car really needs, and in particular how much extra I’m prepared to pay for it. The e-Niro’s Hyundai sister model, the Kona Electric, is available with two sizes of battery; 64kWh, the same as the e-Niro, and 39kWh. In the same trim level, the price difference between the two Konas is about £4,000. In the case of the Nissan Leaf, the top E+ version with its 62kWh battery is £4,900 more expensive than a similar Tekna model with its smaller 40kWh battery. Assuming the bigger battery in each case buys about an extra one hundred miles of range, the only inconvenience associated with the smaller-battery models, in practice, might be the need to carry out a handful of extra top-ups on long journeys each year. How much is it worth spending out to avoid that?
But the good news is that those trade-offs will get a lot more attractive as battery packs get bigger and their cost continues to fall. That’s what you call progress.