We Drove a Kia Niro EV to the Middle of Nowhere
Turns out you can rely on an electric car for a long winter road trip.
The arrival of the electric automobile has spawned two types of individuals: those who embrace it and see it as the answer to our problems, and those who absolutely hate it by fear it’ll one day replace their oh-so-precious fuel-sipping machines.
As far as technological progress goes and, well, moving forward as a species, I prefer standing in the first crowd. Whether you like it or not, EVs are the future, and they’re taking over fast.
To put things into perspective, just under five years ago, your only option to travel far in an electric car was behind the wheel of an expensive Tesla.
Today, there’s a good variety of relatively affordable and plenty capable electric automobiles that’ll get you up to 400 km of range for under $50,000 – things like the Chevrolet Bolt EV, the new Nissan LEAF, the Tesla Model 3 and the recent trio of Korean crossovers: the Hyundai Kona Electric, Kia Niro, and Kia Soul EV.
What’s more, with charging infrastructure having more than doubled in Canada since last year, the argument that gasoline is more reliable than electricity is slowly becoming obsolete.
I was genuinely curious to find out if one can simply replace their gasoline vehicle with an electric car to set off on spontaneous road trip. To find out, I set out in the most extreme automotive adventure I have ever embarked on: I drove from Montreal to the Manic-5 five hydro-electric power station up in northern Québec—in winter—behind the wheel of an all-electric Kia Niro EV.
You read that right. That’s more than 1,600 km of cold and grueling French-Canadian roads in a vehicle that consumes no fuel at all. Turns out it can be done, but you’ll need to factor in a few things first.
Why a Niro EV?
I chose the Niro EV because I believe it to be one of the best of the current sub-$50,000 electric vehicles. It’s a car, in my opinion, that deserves a lot more praise than it currently gets, as I explained in my review of the thing last fall.
Yes, it rides on the same platform as a Hyundai Kona and a Kia Soul, but its wheelbase has been slightly stretched, so it’s a tad more spacious inside. It’s also filled with smart storage compartments, notably the enormous center console which will gobble up anything from smart phones to a pair of gloves. I also personally find it more attractive than a Kona or a Soul, but that’s subjective.
Power comes from a 64 kWh battery and front-mounted permanent-magnet synchronous AC electric motor. It’s good for a claimed 201 horsepower and 291 lb-ft of torque (149 kW/216 kW), with maximum range certified by the EPA at 385 km.
Pricing kicks off at $46,905 CAD, which means it’s not eligible for the federal EV $5,000 rebate. However, I’m told Kia dealerships have a rebate program, which allows the vehicle to drop underneath the $45,000 threshold. If you live in the province of Québec, you’ll get an extra $8,000 off your electric Kia, for a grand total of $13,000.
That’s One Big Dam
The Daniel-Johnson hydro-electric dam, also known as Manic-5 proved an adequate location for two reasons. One, because it’s one of the main powerhouses that supplies clean, renewable energy to the province of Québec, parts of Ontario, New Brunswick, and New England.
Two, because of its location. The facility is located 860 km north of Montreal, literally in the middle of nowhere, where there’s no urban center or even cellular service in site. This would prove to be the ideal conditions to test out the reliability of my electrified Niro.
The dam itself sits right smack in the middle of the Manicouagan river which is fed by the fifth largest impact crater on Earth, created by a meteorite that hit the area more than 214-million years ago. The crater essentially filled up with water over time, creating the Manicouagan reservoir.
Commissioned in 1970 shortly after Québec premier Daniel Johnson’s death, Manic-5 is the largest multiple-arch buttress dam in the world. From its base, the structure is a staggering 214 m high, 1,314 m long and 22.5 meters thick and responsible for holding up a 142 km3 water reservoir. If it were to collapse, the flooding would cause a tsunami large enough to submerge the entire city of Baie-Comeau.
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 energy, making it Hydro-Québec’s second most powerful installation after La Grande 1 (LG-1) up in James Bay.
Make Sure There’s a Charger
To get to my destination I had to first make it past Québec city, over the Saguenay fjord by ferry and along the Saint-Lawrence river’s north shore to Baie-Comeau by way of route 138. In a gasoline car, it’s a twelve-hour car ride. Add at least three hours to your trip for charging times. Also, make sure you’ll have chargers all along your route.
In my case, I had the luxury of relying on Québec’s Electric Circuit charging grid, which currently has more than 2,000 level 2 (240 volt) and level 3 (400 volt) public chargers scattered across the province. They’re all accessible via a free mobile app, except for the ones that are located where there’s no cellular service, something I found out later in my trip.
Thankfully, there were several fast chargers along my route, which allowed me to get an 80% charge within 45 minutes. So, getting to Baie Comeau from Montreal wasn’t much of an issue.
My biggest challenge was maintaining battery life in the cold. The Niro EV may be good for a 385-km range on a full charge, but once that thermometer drops below zero, you’ll be lucky do 300 km. At -20 degrees Celsius, that range drops to no more than 250 km.
Once I’d arrive at Baie-Comeau getting to the dam would prove to be the toughest part of my trip as route 389, the service road that leads to the dam, would be a 220-km car ride in the frozen wilderness with no towns, no cellular service and even worse, no charging station in sight.
And away we go
As expected, driving to Baie-Comeau proved non-dramatic. The only real issues I encountered were the waiting times related to charging and the significant drops in range as temperatures dropped. When I took off from Montreal at 5 a.m., outdoor temperature was at 0°C, with maximum range being 325 km. Including my initial charge, I went through a total of five charge cycles along my route, each time on a fast level 3 charger. I arrived in Baie-Comeau at 9 p.m.
During that last charging cycle, I went out for dinner to adequately prepare for the final and toughest leg of the trip. Because of the risky nature of my adventure, I made sure to have a support vehicle follow me if I ran out of juice. Furthermore, since there was only one level 2 charger at the dam, I had to make sure it would be available when I got there.
I therefore summoned Hydro-Québec spokesperson Pamela Minville, who lives in Baie-Comeau and graciously offered to drive up to the dam the day prior to my arrival. She ensured the charger was available and operational. She also informed me that because it wasn’t connected to a cellular network, the only way I could operate it was by way of a pre-paid card, which I made sure to acquire before heading north.
One hour later, the Niro was fully charged, with total range indicating 252 km. There was 217 km left to go.
Driving on route 389, at night, in the middle of February is an unsettling experience. The road begins with a steep downhill plunge into the wilderness and a road sign telling you there won’t be a gas station for 200 km. It’s a dangerous bit of asphalt due to its remote location, limited access and also its 419 corners, elevation changes, and frozen tarmac often covered in snow.
It’s a three-hour car ride that beats you up the entire way, where the only vehicles you cross are semi-trucks speeding down from the great white north.
What’s more, since the car’s navigation system couldn’t pinpoint the dam, it was hard to know where I was and if I was arriving soon. The only way I could guess was by way of the car’s trip computer.
What I learned from driving several electric cars is that range anxiety is real, and it creeps up on you a lot faster than in a gasoline automobile. Think about it, when was the last time you panicked because the gas light turned on in your gauge cluster?
In an EV, however, the moment you fall under 100 km of range, things start becoming stressful, especially out there in the middle of nowhere. And since a car’s heater is what drains the most energy, I also had to ration my heat, which became more and more difficult as temperatures dropped.
At 30 km of range left, I started to panic. So, I turned off the heater, zipped up my winter coat and prayed I’d make it to Manic-5. Outdoor temperatures had now dropped to -31°C.
And yet, I made it! But let me tell you, it was close. Leftover range at my arrival was 19 km and the temperatures with wind chill felt like -48°C. It’s the kind of cold you feel penetrating your bones minutes after walking outside. Nevertheless, I had made it. I am the first person to have accomplished such a feat in winter.
As I stared at the illuminated concrete structure that sums up Manic 5’s fascinating presence, I couldn’t help but contemplate how reliant we human beings are on energy for survival. I was also impressed with how much electric vehicles have evolved in such little time. Five years ago, such an endeavour would have been impossible. Who knows, maybe some day I’ll make it on a single charge? It might happen sooner than we think.