At the very first automaker press conference of the Chicago Auto Show, Kia pulled the wraps off its Trail'ster Concept: an all-wheel-drive hybrid versions of its Soul that uses an electric motor to power the rear wheels.

Bolder styling cues, a ride height more than 2 inches higher, and a fully retractable cloth roof differentiate the Trail'ster Concept from the standard--and very successful--Soul tall wagon.

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Developed at Kia's design studio in Irvine, California, the Trail'ster turns the practical, front-wheel-drive compact Soul into an off-road crossover utility vehicle that Kia says is "intended for urban escape and mountain adventures."

The intended buyers for this "rugged runabout," Kia says, are the "city-dweller-turned-outdoor-adventurer[s]" who want to "escape their urban environs in search of higher-elevation playgrounds where snow, mud, streams and trails abound."

The Trail'ster's AWD capability is underscored by numerous Kia references to outdoor sports: "mountain activities, from skiing and snowboarding to camping, hiking and mountain biking," followed by "trekking up to a high, snowy summit" and then "traipsing down a muddy fire road to a piney trailhead"...and so forth.

Kia Trail'ster Concept, 2015 Chicago Auto Show

Kia Trail'ster Concept, 2015 Chicago Auto Show

But this isn't just a design exercise; it likely previews an upcoming version of the Soul fitted with electric all-wheel drive to turn it into a tall, boxy utility vehicle.

“The Trail’ster concept is a near-future look at how the production Kia Soul would logically evolve into an AWD-capable version,” said chief designer Tom Kearns from the Irvine-based Kia Design Center of America.

You can't get much plainer than that in telegraphing a future product.

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The Trail'ster's engine is a 185-horsepower turbocharged 1.6-liter four putting out 185 lb-ft of torque, paired with a six-speed automatic transmission.

The standard 2015 Soul on sale today comes with a 130-hp version of the same engine, sans turbocharger, and there's an optional 164-hp 2.0-liter four as well.

But the most interesting technology on the Trail'ster is its electric all-wheel-drive system, which uses a 27-kilowatt (35-hp) electric motor on the rear axle that produces 100 lb-ft of torque, powered by a 1.2-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack under the rear cargo floor.

Kia Trail'ster Concept teaser image, 2015 Chicago Auto Show

Kia Trail'ster Concept teaser image, 2015 Chicago Auto Show

This makes the Trail'ster Concept a so-called "through-the-road hybrid," with two separate powertrains, either or both of which can power the vehicle, with coordination achieved via control software optimized to provide appropriate power from the most efficient combination of power delivery.

If a production version of the Trail'ster were to arrive, Kia suggests, it would achieve fuel-economy ratings 25 to 30 percent higher on the city cycle and 5 to 10 percent higher on the highway test over the 2.0-liter Soul--which is rated at 26 mpg combined (23 mpg city, 31 mpg highway).

That could translate to ratings as high as 30 mpg city and 34 mpg highway, with a combined rating of perhaps 31 mpg--not bad for an AWD compact crossover with the interior volume of the Soul.

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As well as compensating for any turbo lag from the engine, the rear motor offers "low-speed assist, enhanced launch acceleration and improved traction in inclement weather or off-road situations," according to Kia.

Total output of the combined powertrains is 220 hp and 285 lb-ft, Kia says.

 

The 1.6-liter turbo four also has a hybrid starter-generator system that provides start-stop capability and charge the battery pack on overrun, along with an electric air-conditioning compressor that continues to run on battery power even if the engine is switched off.

The AWD Soul concept can move away from a stop under electric power alone, under light throttle, with a range of 2 miles or more at low speeds solely on electricity. It also acts as a generator to recharge the battery on deceleration.

Kia 2015 Chicago Auto Show teaser image

Kia 2015 Chicago Auto Show teaser image

In normal driving, the rear motor provides hybrid assist to the front gasoline engine, just as in a standard hybrid. It also provides added traction on wet pavement or off-road if front-wheel slip occurs.

If two and a half inches more ride height weren't enough to differentiate the Trail'ster from a standard Soul, the colors will. The two-tone exterior uses Terra Bronze Metallic for the roof and front and rear bumper fascias, with body sides, hood, and tailgate in Polar Pearl Snowdrift white.

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Further touches include armored aluminum skid plates and fire-red accents on the 19-inch wheels fitted with Pirelli Winter Carving snow tires.

Inside, the "earthy but upscale" interior features brown leather-trimmed seats and aluminum used both for floor-mat inlays and other accents. The interior, Kia says, was inspired by snow-sports gear and equipment.

The full-length rool-back canvas roof is accompanied by standard roof-rack fittings with aluminum cross rails for a variety of aftermarket equipment and cargo carriers.

Kia points out that the cloth roof, in addition to opening the vehicle to the skies, also reduces the weight of the vehicle and lowers its center of gravity.

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