A Frozen 500-Mile Mad Dash Through Quebec Shows What The Kia Niro EV Can (And Can't) Do
What it’s like to drive an electric car through the desolate Canadian winter.
Just a few years ago, if you wanted to get great range from an electric car, pretty much your only option was an expensive Tesla. Today, however, there’s a nice selection of relatively affordable and capable EVs to choose from. You have choices like the Chevrolet Bolt EV, the new Nissan Leaf, the Tesla Model 3 and the recent trio of Korean offerings: the Hyundai Kona, Kia Soul and Niro EV, all of which will get you well over 200 miles of range on a single charge for under $40,000.
Furthermore, with charging infrastructure almost doubling within the last year in the U.S. and Canada, arguments against recommending these things are increasingly running thin. This made me wonder: Has the EV fully become as trustworthy as the gasoline-powered car? And not just for everyday use. I mean, can it really do everything a gas car can now?
It’s almost impossible to conclude that definitively. But I figured putting an electric car—in this case, a Kia Niro EV—through a long road trip during a harsh Canadian winter would be a good test. I’ve always wanted to visit the fascinating Daniel-Johnson hydroelectric dam up north, also known as Manic-5. I figured it was fitting to do it in an EV, given all the clean energy we have here in Québec. I also wanted to see if I could rely on an electric car for a spontaneous road trip during the cold season.
Turns out you can, but you’ll need to anticipate a few things before you head out into the frozen wild.
(Disclosure: I came up with this crazy idea of driving an electric car from Montreal to Manic-5, so I made some phone calls and I ended up with a Kia Niro EV and a Dodge Durango SRT in my driveway for the adventure.)
The 2020 Kia Niro EV, By the Numbers
- Base Price: $38,500
- Powertrain: Permanent-magnet synchronous AC electric motor | 64-kWh lithium-ion battery | single-speed transmission | front-wheel drive
- Horsepower: 201 horsepower (149 kW) @ 8,000 RPM
- Torque: 291 lb-ft of torque @ 0 RPM
- 0-60 mph: 6.5 seconds
- Top Speed: 108 mph
- Curb Weight: 3,919 pounds
The Kia Niro EV is part of a Korean triple punch to the EV world. While everyone is raving about Tesla these days, the fact of the matter is that the Hyundai Group, which also includes Kia and Genesis, currently sells four battery electric vehicles (Kona, Ioniq, Niro and Soul) and one hydrogen fuel-cell crossover called the Nexo. That’s actually a bigger lineup than Tesla right now, if you’re keeping track.
The Niro EV sits at the top of the Niro range, which also includes both a hybrid and a plug-in hybrid variant. Its 64-kWh lithium-ion battery pack allows its permanent-magnet synchronous AC electric motor to pump out 201 horsepower and 291 lb-ft of torque, enough to propel this 3,919-pound compact crossover from a standstill to 60 mph in a claimed 6.5 seconds. Range is EPA-certified at 239 miles, with a starting MSRP of $38,500 in the States.
Just note that’s the kind of range you’re likely to get in the best possible conditions, i.e. on a flat California road. Up here in Canada, where temperatures drop well below zero in the winter, EVs may not have such luck. Such conditions have tremendous effects on an electric car’s battery, where range drops from anywhere between 20 to 40 percent.
At the same time, Québec also happens to be one of the largest adopters of electric vehicles in North America. This is attributable to two things: government funded incentives and an overabundance of cheap, renewable hydroelectricity. An EV costing less than $34,000 USD is eligible for a further $9,800 in provincial and federal rebates.
The province also state-subsidizes its own electric charging grid called the Electric Circuit, allowing you to find a public charger with a free app on your phone. Pricing remains flat and relatively cheap at $0.75 per hour for Level 2 (240 volt), and $8.84 per hour for Level 3 (400 volt) charging. The higher the number, the more power on tap, and the quicker you're filled up and on your way.
As I write this, there’s a total of 2,402 public chargers scattered across the province of Québec.
Not many hydro-electric dams can brag about the fact that their main water source comes from a meteorite that impacted Earth some 214 million years ago, but this one can.
Manic-5 was not only built a few miles south of the fifth largest impact crater on Earth, but the structure itself is the largest multiple-arch buttress dam in the world, measuring 702 feet high, 4,311 feet long, 74 feet wide and holding up an 115,000,000-acre-ft reservoir.
Along with its second powerhouse, Manic-5 PA (PA stands for puissance additionnelle, or additional power), the Manic-5 hydro station can generate up to 2,660 MW of clean and renewable electricity, making it Hydro-Québec’s second most powerful installation after La Grande 1 (LG-1) in James Bay.
Combined with its sister plants, Manic-3, Manic-2 and Manic-1 (there is no Manic-4), this marvel of engineering helps supply the entire province of Québec, parts of Ontario and New Brunswick, New England and New York. A chunk of New York City also relies on this grid during peak hours. According to Hydro-Québec spokesperson Pamela Minville, “In 2018 alone, Hydro-Québec’s clean energy exports have avoided 8 million tons of CO2 emissions.”
To get to Manic-5 from Montreal, one needs to embark on a 12-hour drive past Québec city and over the Saguenay Fjord (yes, we have fjords in Canada, too) by ferry boat. You’ll need to add at least three hours to that trip for charging times in an EV.
Thankfully, Québec’s north shore has a good amount of Level 3 fast charging stations. This would allow me to fill up to an 80% charge within 45 minutes. The trickiest part of my trip, however, would not be finding charging points, but rather ensuring optimal range in the cold.
And once past Baie-Comeau, the last dot of civilization en route to Manic-5, a frozen hell would await me: Route 389, the 133-mile long service road that leads to the dam where there’s no cellular service, no towns, villages; or even worse, no charging stations in sight.
Since I didn’t want to have a mental breakdown from severe range anxiety, I decided to have a support team and vehicle follow me in my adventure. A Dodge Durango SRT would prove handy for psychological reasons, but also to bring us places during charging. The big HEMI could also tow the little Kia to safe ground if need be.
There’s a reason I chose the Kia Niro EV for my adventure, and not a Bolt, a Leaf, a Kona or even a Soul. I drove the Niro EV last Fall and I was delighted by how clever, fun and cool this little crossover actually is. It’s roomier than a Kona due to a slightly stretched wheelbase, looks arguably better and is filled with handy storage compartments to throw your junk into—more so even than a Soul. For urban commuting, this is a brilliant little machine with plenty of pep off the line and more than enough range for a week’s grind.
Its only real flaw is the lack of all-wheel-drive, which can be a little annoying on snow and ice. There’s only so much winter tires can do when nearly 300 lb-ft of torque is sent to the front wheels via an electric motor. I would have also preferred non-leather seats in this cold.
I took off from the South Shore of Montreal at 5 a.m. and aimed at getting to Manic-5 before midnight. Once there, I would sleep at the only motel on location as the car would charge up overnight on the Level 2 charging station on site. Unsurprisingly, getting to Baie-Comeau from Montreal proved relatively free of drama due to the charging network. The only real mishap I encountered was the gradual drops in temperature as we moved further north, impacting how far I could drive on a single charge.
At its best, when temperatures would hang between 32 and 14 degrees, the Niro’s onboard computer would display 200 miles with the heater on. However, once we’d fall below -4 degrees Fahrenheit, we were lucky to pull 155 miles. These drawbacks further extended the trip and had a tremendous impact on my mental state, which I’ll go into more later.
Four charge cycles down the road, we arrived at Baie-Comeau at approximately 9 p.m. where the last Level 3 charger on our itinerary awaited us. As the car juiced up, we grabbed dinner and prepared for the trip’s final and toughest leg.
When I removed the charger from the Niro’s frozen schnoz, it was -32 degrees Fahrenheit. The instrument cluster only read 167 miles. Off I went into the dark Canadian wilderness, not really knowing how things would end for a car that didn’t belong to me.
That got me thinking about how spoiled gas-powered cars have made us, how dependent we are on energy—whether it be petroleum or electricity—and how much of it we mindlessly consume without ever wondering if we’ll run out.
Driving on Route 389 at night during glacial February feels like you’re on another planet. Because there are no urban centers or cellular service, you’re all but alone as you drive through a murky veil of frozen tundra.
It’s a treacherous highway thanks to its remote location, yes, but also because of its configuration, composed of no less than 419 corners and constant elevation changes that beat you up for three straight hours. The tarmac is covered in ice and snow, and strong crosswinds sporadically hit your car’s flank, destabilizing its trajectory if you’re not paying attention. Every three miles or so you spot an emergency telephone, reminding you of your voyage’s risky nature.
“How long would it take for someone to even come get me?” I thought as I passed another phone. The only vehicles you cross on that windy stretch of asphalt are diesel-powered rigs covered in salt and muck, storming down from the white north like a bat out of hell.
It’s a scary, unsettling place where you suddenly feel extra tiny, vulnerable and helpless against Mother Nature’s overwhelming supremacy.
As I continued marching forward, the AC motor ensured smooth and quiet forward locomotion, unaffected by atmospheric pressure, temperature or elevation.
The Niro EV is a witty piece of engineering, one that scans for nearby charging stations—in this case none—and it regenerates its batteries to three different levels of braking resistance. It also allows you to configure its HVAC system for optimal range. It’s surprisingly comfortable, front and back, roomy too, and handles impeccably well thanks to the grounded feel of a heavy battery pack sitting in the middle of the car’s floor.
That said, even with all this handy tech at my disposal, and the presence of a big Dodge to quell my EV insecurities, range anxiety inevitably creeped through. Because the car’s navigation system couldn’t pinpoint the dam, I had no idea where I was, or if I was arriving soon. Meanwhile, the range kept dropping at an exponential rate.
At this point, outside temperatures dropped to a downright dangerous -40 degrees F. The car’s windows were frosting up from old man’s winter’s persistence. I didn’t dare crank up the heater by fear of losing more range. I was now under 60 miles. Paranoia was slowly making its way into my brain.
I informed my colleagues through a walkie-talkie that I’d finish the rest of the leg with the heater off in order to ration all the battery life I had left. I felt like an astronaut who had just realized he doesn’t have enough fuel to return home.
I put on my gloves and toque, zipped up my winter parka, and crossed my icy fingers in hopes I would one day make it to Manic-5 without turning into a popsicle.
The Finish Line
We eventually arrived at the dam at 11:15 p.m. Total range was 12 miles and the thermometer read -48 degrees, the kind of persistent cold that penetrates your bones within seconds even if your body is covered in state-of-the-art winter gear.
There it was, Manic-5. It’s a quiet yet powerful illuminated concrete structure that stands tall above the dim “Quebecois” fauna. It’s a magical, yet intimidating contraption that appears to have been forgotten. No civilization in sight, just wilderness, constantly reminding you how much we rely on electricity to survive. In conditions like these, that realization hits you like a ton of bricks.
The next morning the charger by the motel wasn’t powerful enough to provide a full charge in such extreme conditions. We basically didn’t have enough to get back, so we hopped inside the Durango and visited the plant while the Niro charged up.
As I stared at the concrete colossus from one of its observation decks, I congratulated myself for having pulled this off. I think I might be the first person to have driven an electric car from Montreal to Manic-5 in winter, within a single day’s time, a record that will undoubtedly get shattered as EVs and charging infrastructure improve.
A couple years ago, such an endeavor would have been impossible. Yet, here I was, 500 miles away from home, in the middle of a glacial nowhere, with an automobile that relies on no fuel at all. It’s certainly an impressive feat.
Also, without that Durango acting almost like a safety net, I’m not sure I would have ventured out alone up there with an EV. The risk factor was just too high and the battery’s limitations in the cold wouldn’t give me enough confidence. What I learned is that while EVs have evolved tremendously, they can’t yet fully recreate the liberties gasoline cars have provided humanity for over 100 years. At least, not up in the frozen hellscape that is northern Canada.
Because while I was scared shitless I wouldn’t make it, fiddling with the HVAC controls to ration my range, my colleagues in the Durango were fine. For them, it was just another road trip, heater on full blast, reassured by the seemingly infinite amount of gas stations that allowed them to refuel in minutes.
Fine. Most EV drivers will not do what I did. Out in the urban jungle, where charging infrastructure are plenty, it’s totally doable to daily drive an EV.
But hey, who knows. Maybe within the next five years I’ll be able to go even further in an electric car and feel more secure. Hell, perhaps an even more luxurious car, a Mercedes-Benz, for instance, powered by some new, state-of-the-art solid-state battery that’ll provide more range, more heat and quicker charging times.
Wait, isn’t that what Hydro-Québec and Mercedes-Benz are working on?
William Clavey is an automotive writer based in Montreal. His work has appeared on The Drive, Jalopnik, The Car Guide and more.
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