Cruising in a Kia Niro in Santa Monica


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LA podcaster (and Uber driver) Tony Pierce test-drives the Kia Niro — and takes his passengers hotel-hopping in Santa Monica.

Bluedot Living LA will regularly take electric vehicles for test drives around some of our city’s favorite neighborhoods and landmarks. 

When visitors come to Los Angeles, next to Disneyland and Venice Beach, almost all of them ask me to take them to Santa Monica, home of the iconic pier that stretches into the Pacific. My most recent guests, Bluedot’s LA editor Lily Olsen and photographer Randi Baird, were no exception. 

Lily and I are both LA locals, but with 88 cities and nearly 300 neighborhoods in LA County, there’s always something new to experience. 

I cover those neighborhoods on my ridiculously ambitious podcast, Hear In LA, where we’ve visited more than 40 neighborhoods and given 88 Angelenos their own hour-long episode.

Santa Monica is a city of course, not a neighborhood, so it was a pleasure to go somewhere with Lily and [photographer] Randi Baird that I can’t cover in Hear in LA.

I’m also an Uber driver, and I travel about 175 miles per day on the job. I daydream about ditching my gas guzzling Mercedes sedan for an electric car, so I’ve set out on a quest to find out which one I should purchase. I decided to make this Santa Monica tour the inaugural test drive, borrowing my brother John’s 2021 Kia Niro.

What most thrilled me about this car was its estimated range of 253 miles per charge, more than enough to get me through those long days of Uber driving. While the Kia Niro EV no longer qualifies for federal rebates, there is a $2,000 rebate in place in California until March 2024. John’s spacious, sporty all-electric SUV looks, from the outside, like it shrunk in the dryer, but once inside it has legroom and comfort for days — perfect for exploring a tony beachside city and hotel-hopping with Lily and Randi. 

Tony Pierce with a Kia Niro in Santa Monica.

Yes, hotel-hopping! Over the past few decades, Santa Monica has slowly shuttered dance clubs and music venues. Even the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, which hosted the Oscars several times in the 1960s, sits abandoned most of the time, save for the occasional dog or cat show. For this reason, outside of shopping and nibbling on Bubba Gump shrimp on the Pier, both locals and tourists find themselves brunching, drinking, and entertaining themselves at new and classic hotels.

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My brother John’s spacious, sporty all-electric SUV looks, from the outside, looks like it shrunk in the dryer, but once inside it has legroom and comfort for days — perfect for exploring a tony beachside city and hotel-hopping.

We were no different. Randi and I tried the breakfast at the newest hotel on the Westside, the ultra-chic Proper on the corner of 7th and Wilshire. The upscale property sits a little more than a mile from the Pier, which may burst the bubble of first-time visitors who assume all Santa Monica hotels are beachside. If only!

But that’s not why people stay at the Proper. It’s all about the minimalist, muted, and often funky interior design — a cross between a Kardashian mansion and a desert getaway. Inside the vibe is cool, hip, and maybe too LA, if you aren’t ready.

Is that a celebrity whose name escapes you sipping coffee in a nook? Probably. Just be cool. 

The three of use headed west down Wilshire to the classic Fairmont Miramar, a Santa Monica mainstay for more than 100 years. Several years ago, the property received a breath of youthful fresh air with Bungalow, an indoor/outdoor lounge. Young adults from as far as Malibu and Marina Del Rey venture to this night spot and rub shoulders with recent UCLA and USC grads to laugh, drink, and dance.

A few years ago, the city partnered with Blink Mobility to put EV cars on the streets for the sole purpose of providing short-term rental options. Ever since, there have been over 100 rentable electric vehicles in LA, which are parked on the side streets of East Hollywood, Koreatown, Echo Park, Boyle Heights, Chinatown, DTLA, and other neighborhoods, when they’re not being rented.

Known for its 80-foot, 143-year-old fig tree that greets guests entering the spacious driveway, the Fairmont will soon undergo a half-billion dollar renovation that finally made it through 14 years of local politics, red tape, and compromises. The nearly five-acre landmark on the corner of Wilshire and Ocean will increase its number of rooms to over 300, add parking, and also offer condos for sale.

The temporary closing of Bungalow during the renovation will be a blow to the young folks of Santa Monica as the city has done its best to throw a wet blanket on nightlife that could possibly get loud and disturb the well-heeled residents. As a whole, the community is more than happy with young people making their way to West Hollywood and Hollywood (about a half-hour away) for clubbing and partying. 

Driving south on Ocean Ave., we engaged in an impromptu photo-op in front of  the Art Deco masterpiece of a hotel, the Georgian. It turns out I am not meant for the glamour end of the lens. Randi asked me for fun poses and all I could muster were the old-school “elbow on the open window pose” and the “hey look at me sticking my head out of the sun roof.”

The stars, clearly, were the car and the hotel. Just about 10 years younger than the Fairmont, the Georgian is currently going through its own, far-less-expensive remodeling. Many of its 84 rooms have spectacular views of either the glimmering nearby Pacific Ocean or of the Santa Monica Mountains. Those mountains, by the way, once doubled as Korea in the award-winning TV show M*A*S*H. Talk about Hollywood magic. 

Mere blocks from the Pier, the Georgian’s South Beach-meets-Old Hollywood style stands eight stories high, which, believe it or not, made it the tallest structure in Santa Monica for years. During Prohibition, the hotel was notorious locally as a speakeasy frequented by “Bugsy” Siegel, Clark Gable, “Fatty” Arbuckle, Carole Lombard, and many other entertainers and bigwigs. To honor that past, their restaurant is aptly named The Speakeasy. Also, it’s reputed to be haunted, so heads up! 

Continuing south then making a sharp turn west on Pico, we’re greeted literally on the sand by none other than Shutters on the Beach. A reporter for a Condé Nast magazine joked that all of the 186 rooms are “decorated like a wealthy grandmother’s East Coast manse, with breezy decor, big windows, and artwork by Robert Motherwell and Roy Lichtenstein.” That fictional nana is actually interior designer to the stars, Michael Smith, whose timeless aesthetic pairs beautifully with the luxury hotel’s signature pool, which stretches out onto Santa Monica Beach. Certain rooms even have views of the Pier’s colorful ferris wheel.

Whether modern, Victorian, old school, or colonial, all of these posh hotels have one thing in common: Overnight parking will run you in the neighborhood of $60+ a night. The good news is they all have EV charging stations, most of which are free for guests (and pricey for locals).  

Tony Pierce with a Kia Niro in Santa Monica.

After our tour, we chose to do a little due diligence and see what other EV charging options there were in Santa Monica, if say, the hotel chargers were being used, or were inoperable or otherwise inconvenient. It turns out Santa Monica, part of “Silicon Beach,” could also be nicknamed “EV Beach” as there are more than a dozen locations to power up less than a mile from the Pier. This includes a handful of separate Supercharger spots for Teslas. EVgo, SemaConnect, ChargePoint, are also all represented, so take your pick. 

We cruised over to an EVgo on 5th and Arizona near Philz Coffee and a branch of the Santa Monica Public Library and saw plenty of available chargers, so we pulled into a spot and topped off our battery. Being LA, to the left of us was a gentleman charging up his custom painted $100k Porche Taycan while talking on his phone. To our right was another local performing what he called his “weekly charge” of his shimmering all-black Audi E-tron.

Because it was on the way to DK Donuts — as seen in the Hulu documentary The Donut King — we also stopped by the Tesla Supercharger station on Santa Monica Blvd. and 14th that boasts a whopping 63 stalls, bathrooms, and vending machines. Soon this station will expand to service more than just Elon’s cars. The Federal Government is footing the bill to diversify Tesla Superchargers to include all sorts of electric vehicles. 

The whole reason we were driving around in a borrowed Kia  — it’s nice to have a younger brother who owns an EV to call in a favor from — is we were stymied when we tried to rent an EV.

Let me explain: A few years ago the city partnered with Blink Mobility to put EV cars on the streets of the city for the sole purpose of providing short-term rental options. Ever since, there have been over 100 rentable electric vehicles in LA, which are parked on the side streets of East Hollywood, Koreatown, Echo Park, Boyle Heights, Chinatown, DTLA, and other neighborhoods, when they’re not being rented.

Using their app, one can sign up for a membership for as low as $1 a month and qualifying Angelenos who fall below a certain income level can rent a vehicle for as little as $1 an hour. One of the goals is to allow low-income residents and students an inexpensive way to cruise the city in a green way. Foolishly we thought the process would be as easy as renting one of those electric scooters, but alas the background check typically takes about a week. When we called customer service to attempt to expedite the process, we were told the rules are the rules. 

True to their word though, several days later we were approved, so stay tuned for more news about that unique LA option. Until then, if you want to try one of these vehicles, plan ahead. 

The Facts: 2021 Kia Niro

Available in: hybrid and fully electric

Approximate cost: From $39,090 for the EV EX

Range: 239 miles

Battery charge time: 9.6h at 240V

Battery: 64 kWh lithium-ion polymer

Motor horsepower: 150 kW

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Tony Pierce
Tony Pierce
Tony Pierce is a longtime LA resident who has been a Senior Editor at the Los Angeles Times, Los Angeleno, and KPCC/LAist. He enjoys tacos, loud music, and short walks on the beach.

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Randi Baird
Randi Baird is a Martha’s Vineyard-based editorial and commercial photographer specializing in food, lifestyle, and portraiture. Her work as a photojournalist for Greenpeace International informed and guided her passion as a champion for the environment through her lens. For over 30 years, she has used her photographs as a means for communication, education and social change. She has photographed three cookbooks to date, including WHOLE IN ONE, by Ellie Krieger; Simple Green Suppers, by Suzie Middleton; and Three Island Chef - By Deon Thomas. She co-founded Island Grown Initiative in 2006, a non-profit who’s mission is to increase local food production, reduce food waste, and expand access to healthy, affordable food throughout the Martha's Vineyard community. Her images have received worldwide attention distributed by the Associated Press, United Press International and Getty images. Randi is a backyard grower of fruits, vegetables, poultry and tends bees with her family in West Tisbury, MA.

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