Even three years ago, the realistic choices for a pure electric family car were something expensively Tesla-shaped or the Nissan Leaf. Possibly a Renault Zoe if your kids were particularly undernourished. These days, you can’t move for manufacturers committing earnestly to be entirely electrified in the next 10 years, pretty much all of them some variety of the much-abused ‘SUV’ catch all. And yet a couple of big hitters have been notably quiet.
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Photography: John Wycherley
Nissan had always been at the forefront of electrified mass production with the Leaf, but while that car quietly soldiered on, there was a distinct lack of electric freshness on the Nissan menu. October 2019 first saw the Ariya concept, but it wasn’t until 2022 that we actually got our hands on a car. Similarly, Toyota – pioneer of semi-electrification that it was with the Prius – hedged its bets so severely that it feels late to the party; everyone’s already fully engaged and the grand entrance of the ev-specific e-TNGA platform is a bit lost in the noise. Conservatism often looks exactly like apprehension. Or industrial-grade dithering. But Toyota’s here now with the bZ4X – co-developed with the Subaru Solterra – and the company needs it to be noticed and taken seriously, a tough ask in a market awash with the new and shiny.
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On the flipside, Kia has performed one of the biggest brand glow-ups in history and has used electrification as its main springboard; the EV6 is a car that’s making the legacy manufacturers look leaden, and it’s been selling as fast as Kia can make them. So which mid-size, five-seat, pure electric family SUV is the best?
In this case, we’ve opted to go for the longest-range versions with single axle drivetrains and one motor. All three are optionable with two motors and all-wheel drive, with the Ariya also featuring a smaller 63kWh battery on its pricelist. The Nissan is the most expensive at £59,280 for this 87kWh Evolve, the Kia is £49,820 for the heat pump-equipped 74kWh GT-Line we have here and the Toyota is £50,475 for this 71.4kWh Motion. In these specs all three come with heat pumps as standard (a clever way of heating the cabin that’s around three times more efficient than a ‘normal’ heater). In general terms though, this is what you’re looking at if you want the most range and decent kit.
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So let’s start with the Nissan. The Ariya actually looks much more striking in real life than it does in pictures – mainly because there’s a lot more subtle detail once you see it in the metal. The blanked-off front section is finely detailed, and the long fangs of the daylight running lights look swish. Yes, it’s a little bit deep-sided to look anything other than bulky, but the kicked-up rear is neat and crisp, and there’s a pleasing Japanese design flavour. Which helpfully continues on the inside – a big bank of two melded 12.3-inch screens dominates the forward view, but backlit ‘Andon’ fretwork appears in the doors and bottom of the dash, making the car feel like a posh hotel. There’s excellent quality throughout, a nice mix of materials and plenty of technology, though none of it feels particularly hard to decipher. Ridiculously deep-pile carpet, too.
The Toyota bZ4X, on the other hand, immediately feels more utilitarian. There’s more bare plastic – especially looking down the barrel of the surround for the driver’s display – and though it all feels nicely hardwearing, it hasn’t got the plushness of the Ariya. Still, the large central display works well, there are neat features, and the lack of glovebox isn’t the big deal some would have you believe. There are slight issues though; the steering is designed to accommodate a yoke system with fully variable rack, but the chopped control hasn’t been fully homologated yet, and with a full wheel, the rim obscures the bottom of the driver’s display. Not ideal.
On the outside, it’s actually quite striking. Obviously there’s a lot of RAV4 family features, and some people feel the bare plastic arches look unfinished, but mostly it just looks a bit more rugged. There are good shapes in the metal, and a kind of angular arrogance that suits it. Again, it looks better in real life than in pictures.
The Kia EV6 sits somewhere else again, neither a traditional SUV or a saloon, but a striking thing nonetheless. It’s larger than you think, but lower than the other two, has less room in the back but a bigger boot and 52-litre frunk where the other two have none. Like the Ariya, there’s a doubled bank of 12.3-inch screens with a decent user interface, lots of tech and generous storage underneath the big floating centre console. It also has haptic buttons and switchable bits, and in quality terms feels better than the Toyota if not quite as solid as the Nissan. It’s a good performance though.
But that’s enough styling subjectivity. One thing that most electric car owners obsess over is range and charging, and bluntly, neither Japanese car can hold a candle to the Korean EV6’s 800V architecture. With more sophisticated heat management, an 800V system can handle more power for longer, meaning that the EV6’s 74kWh battery can deliver a 10–80 per cent charge in just 18 minutes on a big enough public charger – and by that we mean above the Kia’s 233kW max charge rate. A full battery should offer up 328 miles of WLTP range, which probably means 250–275 miles in the real world – the lower end of which is what we were getting on a cold winter’s day in the UK countryside.
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The Ariya has a bigger battery at 87kWh, but only offers 329 miles of WLTP range, meaning the Nissan is less efficient in real terms. With 130kW DC charging, it’ll run from 10–80 per cent in 35 minutes – nearly twice the time of the EV6 – for roughly the same real world range. On this model there’s 22kW AC charging as standard, which means you can make the most of any available AC charging – even three-phase industrial outputs – so the Nissan gets points back there.
And then there’s the Toyota; very respectable 150kW DC charging and a 32 minute 10–80 per cent charge time for the 71.4kWh battery. The bZ4X has the smallest battery, so the WLTP range is obviously a little less – but not devastatingly so at 317 miles. That means the bZ4X should be happily efficient – though we didn’t get quite the figures Toyota suggests. In fact, all three cars managed largely similar miles per kWh figures of 3–3.4mpkWh on test – which are fine, rather than impressive.
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When it comes to driving, it’s surprisingly the Ariya that falls short. Electric cars all tend to be weighty, but where most present their mass low, the Nissan feels top heavy. Pitch into a corner and it feels as if it leans forward and down across the diagonal, and the front-wheel-drive format gets reined in by the electronics hard and early if it’s anything other than bone dry. Add to that a ride that’s not as plush as you’d hope, and it’s actually a car that’s best sampled at lounging speeds on smooth roads. Nissan’s missed a trick here; if the Ariya had forgone any sporting pretension and aimed at Range Rover-ish suppleness, it could have been a winner. Saying that, the brakes are strong and the steering’s accurate, though the new brake regen system – called e-Pedal Step in this iteration – isn’t as aggressive as the old Nissan e-Pedal, and the worse for it.
The Toyota is better, but again, you’re looking at a front-wheel-drive arrangement that requires a bit more finesse with the throttle compared to a non-electric; if you’re heavy with the right foot, you’ll be constantly waking the traction control fairies. But once on the move, the bZ4X is competent and solid, if not exciting. There’s even a little bit of hustle hidden in there, if you can be bothered to find it. The ride is fine, the brakes are good, the steering similarly good enough to remain unnoticed – it’s a decent midfield operator. One thing to note though; the AWD bZ4X has proper off-road modes and ability away from tarmac – and one suspects the USP of the bZ4X might lie somewhere over in that direction. It’s good, but nothing to write home about.
The EV6 is the only car here to drive the rear axle, and it’s night and day compared to the others. No, it’s not particularly fast, but there’s a perkiness to the delivery and willingness to adjust through a corner that makes it the only one on nodding terms with the idea of fun. It feels lighter through the wheel, more deft, and although it manages generous lean angles if you’re pushing, it’s playful rather than annoying. It also feels a good deal lighter, even though it isn’t. Yes, you still get traction scrabble from a greasy junction, but somehow that’s less annoying with rear-wheel drive, and if you turn the traction control off, it’ll be quite silly. Suffice to say there’s only one choice here for anyone who cares about dynamics.
It’s an interesting and accelerated market, this. Manufacturers are scrabbling to deliver on the money making premium mid-size SUV segment, and there’s now a decent slew of choice. So much so that oftentimes when buying a new electric car you end up with a strange kind of choice paralysis: you can talk yourself into anything. The same could be said here, in that all three cars have excellent reasons for signing on the dotted line. The Ariya has a lovely interior and looks interesting, the Toyota is a solid choice with a genuinely brilliant ownership prospect: a 10-year warranty if the car is serviced at a dealer, and you can wind in everything from insurance to servicing from the manufacturer, making it hassle free if not notably cheap. Be interesting how those efficiency tweaks add up though.
These are not bad cars, but lean heavily on preference to overlook some of their shortcomings. But Kia’s EV6 remains the TopGear.com choice, thanks to a combination of efficiency, style, dynamism and charging ability – plus it’s competitively priced and has a seven-year warranty to back it up. The looks might be divisive, but the results aren’t. In fact, the EV6 looks set to be a favourite until the similarly priced Hyundai Ioniq 6 ‘streamliner’ (Premium RWD £46,745/Ultimate RWD £50,245) promises to up the ante and muddy the waters, precisely because it doesn’t immediately follow the blueprint of raised ride height. That and a bit more range at 338 miles WLTP. Bring on the next generation.