All-electric Kia Niro powers through Duluth test

December 16, 2021 by · Comments Off on All-electric Kia Niro powers through Duluth test
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

On December cruise near Lake Superior, Kia Niro EV lives silently among gas-powered cars.

By John Gilbert
When Kia introduced the Niro a couple of years ago, I got a chance to drive one for a week and review it. The Niro was available in hybrid, plug-in hybrid, and electric — although the electric version was not out yet. It was an impressive vehicle in every way, with the same powertrain options as its partner, Hyundai, had put into its Ioniq sedan.

But this time, when I got a 2022 Niro to live with for a week, it was different. This time the vehicle delivery service in Chicago brought the Niro to me in an enclosed trailer, rather than driving it as they did with the first hybrid Niro. This time, the prize showed up and looked the part, in gleaming Snow White Pearl, and I couldn’t wait to drive it.

We’ve heard all the predictions and speculation about electric vehicles, and we all share the primary concern, called “range anxiety.” No, we won’t be using an extremely long extension cord. EVs run on battery packs, and every battery company is racing to build better battery packs, with quicker charging and more power delivery to allow us to drive for far more distance than the short-range of the original electric cars.

Face it, we are going to be buying and driving electric cars instead of internal-combustion-engine cars sooner than later, and I am one of those convinced advocates about going electric. But I have some questions of my own.

Small trap door on front panel hides lock-in recharging cable receptacle…and the timing of a Duluth snowfall (below) didn’t stop the Niro.

Having driven a few electric vehicles — or EVs — I understand that the efficiency of electric power means your maximum torque occurs at zero RPMs, so when you hit the gas, you virtually blast away in a flash. The Niro did exactly that. My major question is what happens to all that sweet electric power when you have to park your EV

outside in Duluth, Minnesota, when the temperature is single-digit cold overnight? It is similar to camera batteries, which tend to go from fully charged to warning you the battery is drained in minutes, when it’s cold out.

Now I could find out first hand, because this Niro was totally electric, with the electric motor under the hood where the engine used to be, and it powers the front wheels. Rolling out of its trailer, the Niro showed 237 miles of range. That’s a lot, and is a tribute to the LG Chem company in South Korea, which has worked closely with Hyundai/Kia to develop the lithium-ion-polymer battery pack that is cutting edge on charging, range and power output, and also is conveniently flat for packaging ease.

The lithium-ion-polymer battery pack has 64 kWh (kilowatt-hours) of power, and drives a 150 kW electric motor, and a 7.2 kW on-board charger. The battery pack itself lies flat, under the rear seat, making the Niro handle even better than it should, because it’s front-wheel drive but with the weight balance of a mid-engine vehicle.

Comfort in the Niro EV is enhanced with a heat pump, heated seats and heated steering wheel.

I drove down our hill and a short way up the North Shore of Lake Superior to shoot a few photos, and a bit more, just experimenting with the throttle and the silent potency. When I got back in, I pushed the button, knowing the response would be silent, and looked for the “Ready” indication on the instrument cluster. I was surprised to see that the range number had actually increased from when I left. I’m a strong believer that you slow down a good distance from your stop, and you descend hills knowing you can add regenerative electricity to the battery pack by braking lightly.

What I didn’t realize at first was that the paddle shifters affixed to the steering wheel are not just for up and downshifting the continuously variable transmission to a better range. When you pull on the left paddle to downshift, you also are intensifying the regenerative operation, so when I instinctively downshifted with the left paddle coming the mile down Duluth’s Lake Avenue, I inadvertently added to the battery’s power without even touching the brakes.

We were thoroughly impressed with the comfort and feel of the Niro, and with the power and efficiency. We don’t have a high-speed 480 outlet at home, although we would obtain one if we had an EV, so I plugged into normal household current overnight, from about 6 p.m. until 8 a.m. the next morning. The range-gauge told me I would have 213 miles before needing a recharge, and I was going to drive to the Iron Range and back, so 213 miles should be sufficient.

You need to be aware though, that the battery pack delivers the equivalent of 123 miles per gallon in town, and 102 miles of highway driving, so cruising on a trip at 70 miles per hour will use up your electric energy faster than if you were just driving to work and back. When I started my return trip, it showed I had 110 miles of range. Another neat little item on the information screen shows where the nearest high-speed charger is located with an arrow and distance. I learned from the car itself that there was such a charger in downtown Virginia. I already knew there were others in downtown Duluth and at UMD’s campus. I also knew I wasn’t that far from home, so I went for the long-range experiment.

With a full charge in an hour, the Niro EV will go almost 250 miles.

As I drove back and through Duluth, noting the range was decreasing, I headed up the mile-long hill toward our house. A little notification informed me I should be looking for a charge, because I only had 11 percent of my total remaining. No problem. It was cold out, and I pulled out the self-contained cord from the trunk, and plugged one end into our outside electrical outlet and opened the little trap door in the front body panel to plug the other end into the car’s receptacle.

That short-term charge was enough to improve our range, and we were going to see a UMD-Ohio State women’s hockey game at AMSOIL Arena down by the harbor, and about four blocks from the arena a row of parking meters includes high-speed charging stations. I pulled into one of those spots and activated the charger by plugging its cable into the front end receptacle, and we walked to the game. When we returned, it was chilly, with a nasty wind, but we got there promptly. When I unplugged the cable, the charging meter notified me that I had only gotten a partial charge because I was supposed to prepay with a credit card to get more, which I was unaware of.

Parked at a quick-charge station, the Niro was rejuvenated in less time than a nearby hockey game lasted.

I got into the Niro and hit the starter button: Silence, but life. And the instrument cluster said I had 184 miles of range. Impressive, especially since I hadn’t ordered a full charge. Parking outside again 10 miles away at home, where the temperature went down to about 9 degrees overnight, the car showed 172 miles of range. Not bad, considering the frigid weather hadn’t nicked it for much more than the drive home.

The next day, our final full day with the Niro, a snowstorm hit and kept coming through the night, reaching a total of about 7 inches up on our ridge. That gave us the full scope of what we might expect with an EV in Duluth winter. The Niro handled driving in the snow adequately, although the Michelin tires mounted were more for long-wear and high mileage than winter traction, which is a tendency of all Michelins except the company’s all-out winter tires.

Interior comfort was excellent, with roomy bucket seats and a rear bench covered with what Kia calls SynTex, which seems to be a tough but comfortable material. They are more comfortable when electrically heated, as the test vehicle’s seats were. A sunroof with a shade, all the company’s many safety lane-keeping and fore and aft parking warnings are in place, and so is smart cruise-control with stop-and-go, and a Harmon Kardon audio system that was extra impressive because there was no engine sound to interfere with the satellite music.

The $44,650 price tag for the EX Premier model was increased to $47,080, by the addition — thank you very much — of a “Cold Weather Package,” consisting of a battery heater, a heat pump, plus a heated steering wheel. The heat pump is greatly responsible for our interior comfort in the Niro. You could get everything going with auto-start, but I kept thinking it would warm up quickly, being all-electric, and I didn’t want to lower the range any more than necessary.

The Niro EV is the size of a compact SUV, with front-wheel-drive and room for five.

The week-long test was interesting, if too brief. I want more time with the Niro EV, and it would be fun to try the Niro Hybrid for comparison. With the hybrid or plug-in hybrid, of course, the 1.6-liter 4-cylinder engine works to recharge the battery pack and eliminate all the range anxiety, as well as the intrigue of daily cold-weather testing. But the pure-electric Niro was fascinating, and the Duluth weather, which can be harsh, was for once appreciated so we could give it a sun-cold-snow-long-range test within our week’s trial.

New Sienna is Toyota’s link to exciting future

December 8, 2021 by · Comments Off on New Sienna is Toyota’s link to exciting future
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

Toyota Sienna lights up the late autumn sunset in Duluth with style, hybrid and AWD for 2022.

By John Gilbert
It has been challenging but fun, to try to keep up with the flurry of SUVs on the market, and to discuss and debate the benefits of minivans compared to SUVs. My findings are that often minivans are the best family haulers because of their economy and versatility, and the wonderful competitiveness of the top of the line entries. The new Kia Carnival, just out as an advance 2022 model, might rank at the top, challenging the very impressive Honda Odyssey, Chrysler Pacifica, and Toyota Sienna.

But the more you expect things to stay the same in the automotive world, the more they seem to change. With that in mind, I got to spend a week in Duluth, Minnesota, with the 2022 Toyota Sienna, which comes in one flavor — spectacular.

Every aspect of every vehicle is open to challenging competition these days, and the Sienna has been a solid contributor to Toyota’s worldwide wealth despite going 10 years before its makeover, which came for the 2021 model year. It was a major change, with a new platform, body, powertrain and features.

The refined 2022 checks allo the boxes for family-hauler wannabes. For example, you want all-wheel drive? Check. The new Sienna XSE that I drove had electronic-all-wheel drive. You want a hybrid? Check. The new 2022 Sienna XSE is the top of the line, but all Siennas come with your choice of powertrains — as long as your choice is a very efficient hybrid.

Even the rear of the Sienna has stylish .contours surrounding its room for 7 occupants and storage space.

This particular hybrid consists of a 2.5-liter, dual-overhead-cam, direct injected  4-cylinder and with two electric motors, combining to direct 245 horsepower to all four wheels.

Toyota is pretty synonymous with hybrids, of course, and this one works through a continuously variable automatic that works smoothly and efficiently at all times and facing whatever driving challenges you might find. For me, it was scaling the steep avenues of Duluth, and the Sienna zipped up with ease, while still delivering just over 36.2 miles per gallon. The EPA estimate says 35 city, 36 highway, so we were a smidge over that.

The look of the new Sienna steps up in class, particularly to be as flashy test vehicle, which came in a stunning red exterior color called “Ruby Flare Pearl,” which is pretty expressive as names go. I found it looked especially good when parked with a colorful sunset lighting the sky in the background.

Rich fabrics and leather line the high-tech interior of the 2022 Sienna XSE.

Toyota fans have been wondering what the company has up its sleeve, to meet competition on the way to electric vehicles. All I knew was the promise that Toyota would be announcing some new directions toward EVs soon, just before the word leaked out this first week of December, 2021, by way of Automotive News, sourced from, of all places, Beijing. Yes, apparently Toyota is planning to work with an aggressive Chinese battery-maker named BYD to create and launch a small electric vehicle in China that could revolutionize the EV business.

Toyota stubbornly stuck with nickel-metal-hydride battery packs for its Prius, while the world pulled an end run and chose lithium-ion, and then lithium-ion polymer because the batteries were lighter, charged faster, retained power longer and delivered more power. Toyota finally gave in and started using lithium-ion battery packs, even in the Prius. Toyota’s eagerness to work with China’s BYD is its new concept, described as lithium-ion-phosphate Blade batteries. Even as Toyota is striving to develop its own batteries, BYD has started using solid-state lithium-ion cells for longer range and more efficient energy storage in what is called its Blade battery, creating thinner and lighter batteries than lithium-ion, and they have the advantage of not using cobalt or nickel, which are costlier, yet are less prone to overheating and have a longer shelf-life.

Reportedly, Toyota investigated a joint venture with BYD several years ago but did not go through with it. One of the issues is that Toyota has such rigid standards for testing and perfecting new designs, while BYD seems to charge ahead and turn its experiments into real-world vehicles. This time, the innovation has lured Toyota to the possibility of a joint venture to give Toyota the same technical advantages that Tesla already has attained; Tesla uses BYD-style batteries in its Model 3 and Model Y vehicles sold in China.

While that may be the most exciting news out of Toyota since the establishment of its Prius, the new Sienna indicates current Toyota vehicles are at a high level on their own.

The interior of the 2022 Sienna XSE includes comfortable and supportive bucket seats in front and in the second row, where occupants have their own wireless headphones and connectivity, with 11.6-inch screens.

Leather bucket seats and under-console storage are added features.

Control center on console and info screen are thorough.

The second row buckets are not removable, but stow low onto the floor, and they also slide more than 2 feet fore and aft, creating easy access and more room in the third row. The better to enjoy the upgraded audio system, which consists of 12 JBL speakers plus an amplifier and subwoofer.

Driving the Sienna is more car-like than truck-like, or even minivan-like. The XSE package adds to the full complement of safety features by also installing a sport handling suspension. The lane-departure alerts are now bolstered by lane-tracing capability to keep you following the best trajectory around curves.

My personal style while driving any hybrid is to think ahead and slow down before needing to stop, to reclaim regenerative braking power that feeds the battery pack. The Sienna also has a driving mode switch that allows you to choose a sport setting and also more economical or normal settings, and you also can click a switch that gives you dedicated electric power or focuses on the regenerative energy-capture.

All of these features, of course, come at a cost. The Sienna starts at a base price of $42,860, but remember you’re getting all-wheel drive and the hybrid powertrain, and loading it up with the XSE luxury touches such as leather seats and upgraded interior, all of which boost the sticker to $47,942.

With electronic all-wheel-drive, the 2022 Sienna XSE can venture wherever roadways might go.

Also, remember that competition is fierce, and the Carnival, Odyssey and Pacifica are worthy choices for customers. But no minivan — or SUV family-hauler buyer — should overlook a test drive in the new Sienna. Our test-drive beat the early December snowfall that hit Duluth, but knowing the S
ienna can be had with AWD, I want another chance!

2022 Suburban fills huge body with luxury

December 1, 2021 by · Comments Off on 2022 Suburban fills huge body with luxury
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

New Suburban blends OLD body on frame and new unibody design for better agility.

By John Gilbert

Whether it’s football season, hockey season, basketball season, or buying-a-new-vehicle season, we can all agree that the “American way” is to own something bigger and more imposing than anything any of your neighbors are interested in. That’s not always true, particularly from this column, where I’ve always stressed that buying a vehicle should mean you get the smallest version of something that’s big enough.

The 2022 Chevrolet Suburban can convince you otherwise — if you can afford it. With a base price of $58,800 and an as-tested sticker of $79,370, the 2022 Suburban I got to live with for a week was the Suburban AWD Premier model, and it did its best to spoil us throughout a November week that included a small dose of snow and slippery roadways in Northern Minnesota. It never slipped, and never missed a beat.

It pampered us as though the nastiest cold wind blowing out of Canada to us along the North Shore of Lake Superior might just as well have been a soothing breeze on the western shore of Key West, Florida. You are in a fortress on wheels — 20-inch wheels, at that — and you could get massaged into believing that you are impervious to any outside problems. Yes, it took on a personality, and if we owned it, we would have to bestow some fitting nickname on it

Squarish formal rear design houses large storage room with all three seat rows in place.

Going back to the sports analogy, it’s like your son grew up as a wide receiver and turned into a defensive tackle, or you planned on a quick-striking centerman and wound up with a hulking defenseman who appreciates the alternative term “policeman.” Or you envisioned an elusive, 3-point-shooting guard and instead raised a power forward who crashes, bangs and rebounds. But a successful team in any sport needs all the elements. Read more

Kia varies 2022 Carnival forms, prices

November 25, 2021 by · Comments Off on Kia varies 2022 Carnival forms, prices
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

Kia’s 2022 Carnival brings a new look and appeal to minivans.

By John Gilbert
We’re still a month away from 2022, but on Thanksgiving Weekend, we can be thankful for our health — if we have it — and for some early arrivals on the automobile scene, as 2022 models — if we can afford one. One of the notable newcomers is the Kia Carnival, which has jumped into the minivan segment and elbowed its way to the highest level of the tightly defined field.

Being able to stay warm as the temperature drops below freezing is important, of course, but so is the ability to see outside, and some of the wonders we’ve been witnessing in the spectacular sunsets on the North Shore of Lake Superior during autumn of 2021.

Sundown comes early, but spectacularly, along the North Shore of Lake Superior. — Photo by Jack Gilbert.

If you like to drive to Grandmother’s House for holidays and you have three or more kids, you will be thankful for the amenities in the Carnival. And while becoming a home on wheels for trips, the airiness and openness of the Carnival gives occupants in all three rows separation as well as room for their own space.

Regardless of how many vehicles I’ve been able to test dive, it’s always like coming home again to get into the newest minivans, and that has only been amplified by exposure to the new Carnival. Think about it. What better conveyance for the family to finish Thanksgiving dinner, watch a little football, and then load up the Carnival to go for a relaxing drive to check out sunset, and some neighborhood Christmas lighting? Read more

Best Prius yet adds AWD, Lithium-ion battery

November 15, 2021 by · Comments Off on Best Prius yet adds AWD, Lithium-ion battery
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

2022 Toyota Prius XLE with all-wheel drive adds to hybrid legacy.

By John Gilbert

Over the past couple of decades, the opportunity to test-drive the latest Toyota Prius has become a requirement in the auto-writing business, but for the upcoming 2022 model year driving the new Prius XLE is an absolute attraction more than a duty.

Nobody has done more to build, promote and sell hybrid vehicles than Toyota, and in its decades of long-range plotting and planning, two things have happened for Toyota. One is that for the first time, Toyota has become the No. 1 corporation in U.S. car sales. The second is that while the Camry midsize sedan, Corolla compact, and RAV4 SUV are all enormous sellers, but without attendant fanfare the Prius has supplanted all of them to become the most identifiable icon of Toyota.

The hatch lid has transparent upper lip to allow rear-view mirror visibility above and below the aerodynamic but subtle wing.

If you have withstood the urge to buy a pickup or SUV and still want a sedan, the most logical segment might be to seek a compact 4-door sedan with sleek aerodynamics, which will house four adults, have sporty acceleration and handling, and can achieve fantastic fuel economy. And, oh yes, see if you can find one with all-wheel drive, too, and include the technology to take us into an electrified future.

The 2022 Prius XLE AWD-e checks all those boxes, and for a surprisingly reasonable price sticker of $32,084, climbing from a base price of $29,575.

Lithium-Ion battery pack allows deep storage area.

The idea of a hybrid being a stodgy and boring ride is long-gone, in Toyota’s world. The company, after almost stubbornly staying with Nickel-metal hydride battery units for most of its Hybrid Synergy Drive vehicles, has made the major transition to the higher-tech and more convenient Lithium-ion battery packs. You first appreciate the difference when you open the hatch and see a large, almost cavernously deep storage space — right where previous Priuses had a high shelf covering the old and bulkier battery pack and leaving precious little room. The Lithium-Ion battery pack fits low on the floor, where it can efficiently feed the electric “traction motor” that powers the rear wheels in the clever all-wheel-drive system.

Up front in the bright “Supersonic Red” vehicle there is a familiar and dependable 1.8-liter gasoline engine, which creates the electrical energy for the main battery pack, which moves the vehicle, and to supplement the main battery’s drive system when you need more power to accelerate or scale a hill. The rear wheels are driven in perfect coordination with the conventional front-wheel drive up to 43 miles per hour, when the rears quit helping. Not bad, and seamless, although I’m wondering how Duluth winters will challenge that plan.

Presumably, if it’s extremely slippery a sane driver won’t be going over 40 mph so there will be no question; I just wonder about cruising at 65 on a wintry but clear freeway and hitting some ice where AWD would be more than welcome. My guess is that it would engage as you suddenly slow down. Read more

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