If the mainstream media in America talks about battery electric cars at all, it usually has something to do with the latest outrageous pronouncement from Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk. However, unless you live in the wealthy enclaves of Silicon Valley or southern California, chances are pretty good that you’ve never even seen a Tesla Model S much less driven one. Most of the rest of us will never be able to afford a Model S even we could find a place to buy one. For the rest of us that want to drive emissions-free there are a number of very good and increasingly affordable options including South Korea’s first entry into the segment, the Kia Soul EV.
Back in 2012, Kia dipped its toes into the battery electric waters with a home-market-only, low-volume supermini called the Ray EV. After delivering a couple of thousand Rays, last fall, Kia began exports of a battery-powered version of the Soul MPV. Here in the U.S. market the conventional Soul is actually Kia’s second-best seller, trailing only the midsize Optima sedan. The combination of its popularity with a tall, boxy configuration that facilitates battery packaging makes the Soul Kia’s best choice for conversion to electrification.
The Soul was completely redesigned for the 2014 model year with a look that was decidedly evolutionary from the first generation. Not that that’s a bad thing, of the box cars that came to the American market in the latter part of the last decade including the Nissan Cube and Scion xB, the Soul was arguably the best looking and definitely the best driving. With the Cube discontinued last year and the xB going away by the end of this year, the closest remaining competitors to the Soul are probably the Ford C-Max and Honda Fit.
Despite, it’s relatively tall stance and a much smaller battery, the plug-in hybrid Ford C-Max Energi has less than ideal packaging with the battery located in the cargo area behind the seats and consuming most of the useful storage space. Kia on the other hand has taken advantage of the tall roof (actually 0.8 inches lower than the C-Max) and upright seating to package the lithium-ion battery below the floor, in much the same way as Nissan builds the EV-only Leaf and Volkswagen packages the e-Golf.
However, compared to the Leaf and e-Golf which each pack 24 kilowatt-hours of electrical energy, Kia has managed to stuff 27-kWh into the Soul EV. This extra capacity makes up for the fact that the Soul comes up a bit short in energy efficiency with an EPA rated 32-kWh/100 miles compared to the current leader the BMW i3 which gets by on just 27-kWh/100 miles. However, the extra energy storage means that the 93-mile Soul has the longest driving range of any current battery-electric-vehicle (BEV) that doesn’t have a Tesla badge.
While Kia and corporate partner Hyundai were previously dinged by the EPA for overstating fuel economy on conventional models, they definitely didn’t do this with the Soul EV. The Soul was delivered with about half a charge on the battery and after topping it off overnight, I drove it to Detroit for the reveal of the 2016 Chevrolet Cruze the following day. There was nowhere to plug it in during the day and I took the freeway, setting the cruise control at the 70-mph limit. Despite this less than optimal driving for an EV, I arrived home that evening after a 75-mile round trip with 26 miles still showing on the range meter. Fortunately, 70 degree temperatures meant I could get away without using the air conditioning which saved energy. Even if you want to use just the ventilation fan, Kia minimizes electrical energy consumption with a switch on the dash that triggers a smaller fan that blows only on the driver’s side.
Like Volkswagen, Kia takes advantage of a heat pump to reduce the draw on the battery when do need to use the heat or air conditioning. A 60 mile round trip to the Chrysler proving ground with the A/C on during the return trip still left 40 miles on the range estimate while another 60 mile trip on a rainy day with wipers, defogger and headlights on left 35 miles on the clock. Driving in severe winter weather conditions would certainly draw the battery down more, but in anything less extreme the Soul EV is a realistic 100-mile BEV most of the time.
With its upright stance, the Soul EV is very comfortable for four adults and there is no significant intrusion from the battery. With 18.8 cubic feet of space behind the back seat, there is plenty of space for a week’s worth of groceries and 49.5 cubic feet with the seats folded, most of the big stuff you want to bring home from Costco or an estate sale will fit just fine.
On the road, the Soul EV is refined, but not quite as silent at highway speeds as the e-Golf. In typical EV fashion, even mild application of the accelerator brings brisk initial acceleration thanks to the 210 lb.-ft. of instant on torque. Consumer Reports recently did some instrumented testing of the Tesla Model S and Dodge Challenger Hellcat and the acceleration curves they measured show why EVs feel so quick. Because of the instant torque of the electric motor, the car builds to peak acceleration almost immediately and then gradually trails off. The supercharged V8 of the big Dodge coupe takes longer to builds up but then sustains its performance throughout its acceleration run.
The absolute numbers of the Tesla are much higher than the Soul but the general behavior is similar with rapid build up of acceleration that drops off from the peak giving an impression of performance that goes well beyond what you might expect from just 109-horsepower. Nonetheless, as a day-to-day commuter, the Soul EV like other modern battery-powered cars will not disappoint.
The Soul EV is available in two trim levels, base and + with the upper trim levels adding features such as projector fog lamps, front and rear park assist sensors, heated and ventilated front seats and leather upholstery. Every Soul EV gets both the SAE J1772 charging port that lets you plug in from all standard home and public chargers as well as a CHAdeMO port for 400-volt DC fast charging. The electric Soul gets four unique exterior color combinations, white, grey, blue with white roof and accents or black with red roof and accents. The base model starts at $34,525 before the $7,500 federal tax credit with the + going for $2,000 more. That’s a lot more than the $16,100 starting price of a gasoline-fueled Soul but if an electric vehicle fits in your lifestyle, with its real 100-mile range, the Soul is an excellent first effort from Kia. If you live in one of the six states where it is currently available; California, Oregon, Washington, Hawaii, Texas and Georgia – the Soul EV is well worth consideration compared to the Leaf, e-Golf, Fiat 500e or Ford Focus Electric.