I’ve been California dreamin’ and I’m all abuzz with that west coast feeling.
Songs about the Golden State snake through my mind – Ventura Highway, Going to California, L.A. Woman, California Gurls. The magical light, warm sun and exotic vegetation always make me wish everyone could live here. Well, me at least.
I’m grateful for the two-day visit to the fine city of San Diego, though, as winter begins its merciless creep across Canada.
I’ve been invited by Kia Canada to experience the launch of the 2023 Kia Niro, the second generation of the ‘cute ute’, first introduced in 2016.
Kia has redesigned the Niro, making it a striking ‘green’ vehicle that now comes with a choice of three electrified powertrains.
We would have the opportunity to try out the HEV (hybrid electric) and BEV (battery electric) versions on a round-about route from sunny San Diego to the seaside gem of Laguna Beach, just south of Los Angeles. Tough job!
The Niro’s personality slots easily into an urban environment. With an electric range of about 410 kilometres, though, longer road trips in the Niro EV are entirely possible. And that’s what we are setting out to do.
Before leaving our chic digs at the Hotel Republic in the middle of San Diego’s business district, I made use of the coolest feature in my spacious room – a yoga mat – to stretch out the kinks before a day of driving. Cool feature number two is the window bench, a perfect perch for gazing out at the southern city’s skyline.
We cover the smooth tarmac out of San Diego up through the twisty roads of the Santa Rosa mountains, flying through the valleys, drinking in the azure sky and the arid, rocky hillsides dotted with coastal sage and chaparral.
First up is the Niro HEV. The 1.6-litre four-cylinder engine has its work cut out for it on the ascents. Inside, the eco-friendly cabin has a headliner made from recycled materials, the paint of the window switches is BTX-free, and the seats are wrapped in a bio-synthetic leather with fibers extracted from eucalyptus plants.
“I think those were eucalyptus trees back there where we stopped for photos,” I mused, as we pulled into Dudley’s Famous Bakery and Café in Santa Ysabel.
For 60 years, through many challenging times, Dudley’s has treated Californians, and those of us from further afield, to comfort foods like fluffy sweet jam-centered cookies, artisan breads and delectable Italian biscuits (I only had two, honest).
Kia has challenged itself to take over the most critical product segment in Canada, the compact SUV, as well as keeping electrification top of mind. The goal is seven electrified vehicles in the brand’s portfolio by 2025.
With the Niro as number four and an expectation that 70 per cent of the sales of Niro will go to the EV version, Kia is well on its way to meeting the challenge.
I guess you could say the host at our next stop knows a challenge as well. For more than 20 years, Ricardo Breceda has been welding metal into colossal fantastical creatures, including a 350-foot-long sea serpent, and displaying them in his open-air art gallery at the edge of the Anza-Borrego Desert in Aguanga.
There are over 130 of the giant whimsical and mythical beasts, and even a couple of bespoke Kia signs the artist handcrafted to welcome us to his fantasy garden.
Back on the road, we are treated to spectacular views of valley oases as we descend out of the mountains and get to lunch at the charming and tranquil Temecula Creek Inn.
After lunch, we switch into the 2023 Niro EV. Kia sure has a winner on their hands. With instant power, the EV version feels nimbler than the HEV. The added 600 pounds (270 kg) makes the EV feel planted.
Throw in the i-Pedal feature, where one-pedal driving allows the battery to recharge when you release the accelerator, and the Niro EV is pure fun to drive.
It seems downright medieval to use the brake pedal at all!
A late-afternoon stop at Kia America’s sleek headquarters in Irvine gives us the chance to see the HabaNiro concept car and meet Christopher Coutts, Exterior Design Manager, to hear how the HabaNiro inspired many of the design features we see in the second-gen Niro today.
As the California sun slips into the Pacific Ocean, we roll quietly into Laguna Beach, a seaside town where time seems to have stopped.
We turn away from the ocean and wind our way into a tranquil narrow canyon, the scent of sage grasses wafting into the open windows. The canyon widens and reveals the Ranch, where we turn in our Kia Niro EV and sadly end our electric road trip.
The Ranch at Laguna Beach is at the opposite end of the spectrum of the slick Hotel Republic we left that morning in San Diego.
With vintage design elements, heavy luxe furnishings and walls lined with old photographs depicting the quintessential California beach blanket bingo vibe of the groovy ‘60s, I’m digging the laid-back luxury of this refined, secluded hideaway.
As the shimmering sunset lengthens the shadows in our cozy canyon, I recall the sunny visions of the day’s drive and appreciate Kia’s green, lean, eco-machine, the 2023 Niro, for getting us around southern California’s twisty mountain roads in such style.