EVs like Kia’s EV9 are shaking up the 3-row SUV market, and that's a good thing

Kia EV9
(Image credit: Myriam Joire)

There’s no denying that America is in love with SUVs. And models with three rows of seats are quite popular, especially with larger families. These vehicles are modern-day minivans with better off-road ability and higher towing capacity. While three-row SUVs generally provide more space and utility, they are also large and heavy, making them less fuel-efficient and more dangerous for other road users.

Safety is a difficult problem to solve with larger, heavier vehicles, but electrification is a great way to fix the fuel efficiency issue. In addition, since SUVs are more expensive than smaller, lighter crossovers to start with, the additional cost of electrification has less of an impact on the overall price of the vehicle. As such, electric three-row SUVs are gaining traction with people interested in switching to EVs.

Now don’t get me wrong. I want to see more affordable (sub-$30k) EVs come to market, but I believe that here in America, electric pickup trucks and three-row electric SUVs are more likely to convince American consumers to buy EVs – at least in the short run. I came to this conclusion recently after driving Kia’s brand new EV9 three-row electric SUV, a vehicle that gives Rivian’s R1S a run for the money.

Rivian R1S: the ultimate adventure vehicle

Rivian R1S

(Image credit: Rivian)

Rivian is, alongside Tesla and Lucid, one of the three American EV startups disrupting the auto industry. Like its peers, it delivers some of the best EVs on the market today. These software-defined vehicles (SDVs) are designed from the ground up to be electric and include the R1S, a three-row electric SUV that’s the ultimate adventure vehicle, and the R1T, an electric pickup truck that’s the swiss-army knife of EVs.

With prices ranging from $78,000 for a dual-motor (AWD) model with the standard battery pack (260-mile EPA range) to $99,000 for a performance dual-motor (AWD) version with the max battery pack (400-mile range) – including quad-motor (AWD) and large battery pack (352-mile EPA range) options in-between – the R1S is expensive. But you get what you pay for: an outstanding blend of performance, comfort, and utility.

Rivian R1S

(Image credit: Rivian)

The R1S is as quick, luxurious, and practical as an Audi RS7 Avant, more off-road capable than a Jeep Wrangler, and as tech-forward as any Tesla. Plus – and this is subjective – it looks great. Bottom line: if you can afford it, the R1S is the three-row electric SUV to beat. While I haven’t tested the R1S yet, I drove the R1T electric pick-up truck for a day and was extremely impressed. And I’m not a truck/SUV person.

On the tech front, the R1S features a 15.6-inch infotainment touchscreen (powered by Unreal Engine), Level 2+ ADAS, and full support for over-the-air updates (OTAs). It also comes with a flashlight hidden in the driver-side door and a removable Bluetooth speaker that slides into the center console. In addition, the R1S (and R1T) will get Tesla Supercharger access sometime in 2024, plus a NACS connector in 2025.

But what really sets the R1S apart from the competition is the standard fully independent air suspension with adaptive dampers (for up to 14.9 inches of ground clearance) and the optional quad-motor drivetrain. These features make this electric SUV an absolute beast off-road. The R1S also packs twin 120V power outlets and an air compressor on-board, along with an 11 cubic-foot frunk under the hood.

Kia EV9: 80% of the R1S experience for $14.1k less

Kia EV9

(Image credit: Myriam Joire)

Kia, Hyundai, and Genesis (which all fall under the Hyundai Motor Group), are three traditional car brands that are taking EVs seriously and offering products that are competitive with those made by the three American EV startups. The resulting E-GMP (Electric Global Modular Platform) -based EVs, Kia EV6, Hyundai IONIQ 5 / IONIQ 6, and Genesis GV60, are wowing reviewers and consumers alike.

And Kia’s new EV9 is no exception. This three-row electric SUV delivers 80% of the R1S experience for $14,100 less – $63,900 for the EV9 Wind (AWD, 280 miles) vs. $78,000 for the base R1S (AWD, 260 miles). EV9 prices range from $54,900 for the Light (RWD) model with the 76.1kWh battery pack (230-mile EPA range) to $73,900 for the GT-Line (AWD) version with the 99.8kWh battery (270-mile range).

While the EV9 is no match for the R1S off-road, it does include locking differentials, 7.8-inches of ground clearance. The EV9 also offers slightly more room for third-row occupants than the R1S but gets a much smaller frunk (only 1.8 cu.ft). In terms of performance, comfort, and utility, the EV9 GT-Line is quite similar to the base R1S. But the EV9 includes Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, which are missing on the R1S.

Kia EV9

(Image credit: Myriam Joire)

Speaking of tech, Kia’s 12.3-inch infotainment experience isn’t as polished as Rivian’s, but the rest of the EV9’s tech is solid, and includes Level 2+ ADAS. Unlike the R1S, the EV9 isn’t a full SDV (software-defined vehicle), but Kia claims this new EV supports OTA (over-the-air) updates for the majority of the vehicle’s systems. In fact, the company already offers a Boost update that improves acceleration (0-60mph in 4.5s).

Another update delivers a selection of five unique lighting patterns for the LEDs embedded in the front grille. Like other E-GMP-based EVs, the EV9 supports V2L (vehicle-to-load) functionality up to 9.6kW via a pair of 120V power outlets and will get access to Tesla’s Superchargers later this year. The EV9 can even power your home in an emergency – assuming your electrical panel is properly outfitted.

Overall, I enjoyed driving the EV9. The exterior design is sharp and modern (it looks like a concept) and the interior is quiet and comfortable (it feels premium). It’s also pleasant to drive, with a compliant ride and confident handling. Performance is impressive for such a large, heavy vehicle – which is also true of the R1S. With the EV9, Kia is both going upmarket and making three-row electric SUVs more accessible.

My takeway

Rivian’s R1S and Kia’s EV9 are just two compelling three-row electric SUVs available today. But more are on the way, including the Volvo EX90 Electric, Hyundai IONIQ 7, and Cadillac VISTIQ. And that’s not counting electric crossovers like Tesla’s Model X and Y, which are available with a smaller, optional third-row that’s best suited for children. Frankly, considering the gasoline alternatives, this is a good thing.

While I’m still concerned about the dangers large, heavy trucks and SUVs pose to others on the road, driving Kia’s EV9 was an eye-opening experience. Same with Rivian’s R1T. If it takes electric pickup trucks and three-row electric SUVs to convince American consumers to buy EVs, I’m all for it. Hopefully, this doesn’t distract car manufacturers from bringing affordable (sub-$30k) EVs to market as well.

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Myriam Joire
Freelance Contributor

Myriam Joire (tnkgrl) was born wearing combat boots and holding a keyboard. Moments later she picked up a soldering iron. On weekends, she rally-raced with her father. She's been stomping, typing, hacking, and driving ever since. After spending years being a code-monkey in the video game industry, she joined Engadget as Senior Mobile Editor and later Pebble as Chief Evangelist. Today she hosts the weekly Mobile Tech Podcast, makes videos on YouTube, writes about tech and cars for TechRadar and other major publications, and advises startups on product/media strategy. She's based in San Francisco.