COAL Twofer – 2019 Kia Niro And 2021 Honda CRV – New Beginnings

California Here I Come

My final COAL installment brings us to the present day.  After selling the Forester and trading in the MKX, we acquired two new vehicles with the knowledge that we would soon be moving to California after the pandemic to start a new chapter in our empty-nest life.  Thanks to an extended work from home, our move was delayed and both cars reached the 1 year milestone at which we would no longer have to pay the California sales tax difference on vehicles brought in from out of state, thus saving us a few thousand.  When it was finally time to move in the spring of 2022, we put both cars on a transport and sent them westbound.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, it seems that every other vehicle is a Tesla.  But I wasn’t quite ready to jump to an EV, since in Michigan they’re still quite rare, and our living situation in California was unknown at the time including whether there would be a charging station available.   I didn’t want to deal with that, and opted for a pair of hybrids instead, wanting to save some fuel in a state where a gallon costs $5.00 or more.  Our two hybrids couldn’t be more different, but they both remind me in their own unique ways of my first and favorite car, the 1980 Honda Civic.  

The Kia Niro is my 1980 Civic reincarnated.  It’s a daily driver, happiest and most efficient when it’s commuting in stop and go traffic.  40 years of automotive progress have made the Niro vastly more advanced than the old Civic, but in its most elemental state this little Kia embodies the spirit of my first car, a cheap and cheerful little hatchback that is charming in its unpretentious simplicity, easy to own and drive.  It’s a hybrid disguised as a regular gas engine car, with a 1.6L engine barely larger than the 1.5L Civic engine from years ago, but packing 55% more power and further boosted with a 39 hp electric motor.    

Everything about this car drives and feels like a normal car, except when the engine shuts off at low speeds and the car glides into a residential street or parking lot on only electric power.  Even its electronically synthesized pedestrian warning, with its curious warbly burble, imitates a gasoline engine.  The 6 speed automatic with a real gear shift lever delivers tactile upshifts and downshifts like a “real” car, all while getting an astonishing 58 MPG. 

Flick the shift lever into Sport mode, and the car instantly changes character from a lazy cruiser into a high strung, quickly responsive little runabout perfect for a squirt in and out of heavy traffic or a useful sprint onto a busy expressway.  The Niro’s mission as an economy-minded hybrid means that it’s far from a hot hatch VW GTI in terms of driving dynamics, but it’s competent in the corners and I’ve certainly driven much worse.

Call me old fashioned, but I like the normal car interior with real gauges and real buttons, not a giant TV screen in the dash.  Nothing about this car shouts “look at me, I’m saving the planet!”, except for two subtle “Eco/Hybrid” badges, one below the rear taillight and one on the dash.  The styling is conventional, pleasant but a bit bland, certainly not a screaming sci-fi project like a Prius or Tesla.    The Niro’s tidy size and sheer conventionality evokes memories of college days and my long-departed but beloved Civic, which is why it holds a soft spot in my heart even though it’s far from perfect.  

CR-V on an overcast day at Pebble Beach

After 12 vehicles and a lifetime of admiring Honda’s, I’ve come full circle, with my latest car being a Honda.  The CRV is my 1980 Civic all grown up.  A totally different vehicle from that tiny little hatchback from 40 years ago, nevertheless the CRV exudes some of the qualities that made the original Civic a phenomenon in its day, engineering excellence and superior space utilization.  It’s been accused of lacking any kind of personality, but it has also grown up from its adolescent roots to be a sophisticated, mature, responsible, mainstream AWD crossover that’s comfortable and capable on any road in any condition.  

On 17 Mile Drive near Carmel, CA

Ours is a hybrid EX-L, one rung down from the top Touring trim level, missing only a subwoofer, built-in navigation, and extra large wheels.  It subtly communicates its hybrid status by a couple of badges on the fenders and a gimmicky pushbutton shifter; otherwise it looks like any of the millions of CRV’s now on the road.  The hybrid aspect of the CRV is the least satisfying part of this vehicle, returning a disappointing 33 mpg, only slightly better than the gas engine version.  The hybrid system uses a CVT which provides a seamless, unobtrusive, and disconnected powertrain engagement from the road.  It’s a gasoline-powered vehicle that feels like an electric, the engine only making itself known when power is demanded and it revs up furiously to keep the batteries charged. 

On steep mountain inclines, the Honda VTEC engine screams continuously at high rpm all while emitting a satisfying mechanical symphony, reassuring the driver “don’t worry about the noise, all is well underhood.”  The non-hybrid list of complaints on the CRV is short.  The infotainment system has a dated interface and occasionally hangs up, but the upgraded sound system is excellent (but still no match for my Lincoln’s THX system, sigh).  And when the vehicle is in full electric mode it emits Honda’s annoying, fingernails on a chalkboard screeching sound to warn pedestrians that “an EV is coming”.   

California’s biggest money grab – even new cars have to do this


Otherwise, there is little to fault Honda’s excellent and popular crossover.  That the CRV has been Honda’s best-selling model year after year attests to its inherent goodness.  It’s remarkably spacious inside, especially the huge cargo compartment that was able to move our son and all of his worldly belongings to the East Coast when he took on a new job.   It’s got a full suite of driver aids that work well; with accurate lane-keeping and adaptive cruise control, freeway cruising is a relaxing, low stress affair. 

The CRV has been our long road trip car, a comfortable long distance cruiser that we keep busy exploring the wonders of the Golden State.  It’s confident on the winding roads of California Highway 1 and the hairpin turns of the Sierra Nevada mountains, and the powerful electric motor provides plenty of juice to power up San Francisco’s steep hills.  Full EV mode is perfect for tiptoeing pollution-free through majestic redwood forests, and the spacious interior is a welcoming place to come home to after a long day of hiking in the Santa Cruz foothills.  From the extreme conditions of Death Valley to the towering Tioga Pass at Yosemite, the hybrid CRV does it all, capably and competently. 

Taking a break near Morgan Hill, CA

We’ve had a lot of adventures so far with our two rides, the Kia less so since it has the thankless job of mainly slogging in and out of Silicon Valley’s rush hour traffic.  Going on 2 and 4 years old now, both have been flawlessly reliable so I’m looking forward to a long and enjoyable relationship with both.  We have a lot of adventures ahead of us, and we’re only getting started.