The upcoming 2015 Kia Soul EV is not only the Korean carmaker's first battery-electric vehicle sold in the U.S., it's also one of less than a dozen all-electric cars offered for sale.
Launched last week at the Chicago Auto Show, it adds a new and much greener model to the very popular second generation of the Kia Soul "tall wagon."
At the Chicago show, Green Car Reports sat down with three Kia executives to dive into the background of, and prospects for, the first plug-in Kia.
We spoke with Orth Hedrick, Kia's vice president of product planning, and Stephen Kosowski, manager of long-range strategy and planning, and the product lead for the Soul EV, overseen by James Hope, Kia's national manager for product communications.
What follows is a condensed summary of an hour-long discussion about the Soul EV, its technology, and how Kia views the car.
Why now? Kia has been watching the plug-in electric car market evolve and develop, and saw a sudden increase in marketplace interest--especially in California--last year when lease prices came down substantially.
Electric cars are becoming more mainstream, as opposed to only those "more fringe elements" who were interested in plug-in cars as part of a lifestyle.
Kia maintains a large portfolio of products developed in South Korea and sold globally, with different models and powertrain technologies used in North America, South America, Europe, China, and the rest of Asia.
2015 Kia Soul EV launch at 2014 Chicago Auto ShowEnlarge Photo
Based on its sales volume, Kia won't become subject to California's mandate to sell a certain number of zero-emission vehicles until 2018.
But its growing volumes meant it couldn't ignore those mandates, and four years ago, it chose to get out ahead of the regulatory requirement and start development of the Soul EV.
Cool, hip, desirable
Why the Soul? It felt like the right car, and the taller shape gave more flexibility in packaging a large battery pack compared to a car like its Forte compact sedan or hatchback.
More than that, the Soul has a cool, iconic, desirable image in the market, and an all-electric version would fit nicely into that profile.
Much of the technology, including the electric motor, was developed in-house by the shared Hyundai and Kia research and development group. (The two brands compete fiercely for sales in all their markets.)
One goal of the Soul EV is to gather information on the "acceptability" of battery-electric cars in real-world use. The Kia executives said they felt fairly "bullish" on its prospects, but that it was "better to start our homework early" to get market experience well before the mandate kicked in.
Dealers will be qualified to sell the Soul EV, with technical training and additional tools required, and they will have to dedicate a portion of their dealership to installation of charging stations.
There's some flexibility in where on the property those will be located, but Kia hopes its dealers will be "good neighbors" and permit all electric vehicles to charge at those EV-qualified premises if needed.
Because they're still in the process of qualifying dealers, the company isn't going to say how many Soul EV-approved dealers it will launch with.
Dealer reaction has been good--and very strong in areas like California where electric cars are already familiar.
Because some Kia dealers are paired with franchises for Chevrolet, Nissan, or Ford, those locations have a head start because they understand more aboutwhat works and what doesn't in selling plug-in cars.
Is the Soul EV a compliance car? "We're very interested in the car succeeding," Hedrick said, while declining to specify any volume targets for the Soul EV.
"We will support it, it will be part of the Kia Soul family, and we think it'll be a success if our dealers can reach the buyers--if we can get them engaged--in key markets."