Palo Alto, California - Route 84 in Northern California doesn’t seem like the best road for an electric car. We’re piloting the 2015 Kia Soul EV along this twisting, scenic two-lane highway that goes up through the hills of Silicon Valley among the huge redwood trees and beautiful vistas, expecting this Korean-built EV to feel completely out of its element.
The perception of EVs as urban-oriented, golf cart-like vehicles with a limited driving range still persists, even though automakers such as Tesla are trying their best to change people’s minds. While this $34,500, 109-hp Kia Soul EV is a far cry from the $90,000-plus, 416-hp Tesla Model S P85 electric luxury sedan, something surprising happens along the twists and turns of this coastal mountain road: We start to have fun.
Why electrify the Soul?
Less surprising is Kia’s decision to use the funky Soul hatchback as its first electric car for the U.S. market. The Soul followed the Scion xB and Nissan Cube when it made its debut in 2010, but it has proved to be the only one of these box cars to have any staying power. Although the discontinued Cube and languishing xB quickly fizzled out, the Soul has sustained its popularity and now dukes it out with the Optima midsize sedan and Sorento crossover for the best-seller spot in Kia’s lineup.
Unlike EVs made from existing gasoline car platforms with retrofit electric drivetrains, Kia says it planned an all-electric model from the moment it began developing the second-generation Soul. That explains the 2015 Kia Soul EV’s clever packaging that mounts the thin, relatively unobtrusive battery pack under the front and rear seats for better weight distribution and a minimal reduction in cargo space. Charging works through three different ports, ranging from 120 volts to a 480-volt quick charger that can bring the battery from empty to 80 percent full in 33 minutes.
This Kia’s lithium-ion polymer battery technology is also slightly different from most other EVs’ standard lithium-ion cells, affording better heat regulation and energy density. This makes for an EPA-rated driving range of 93 miles, which beats all competitors save for the significantly more expensive Tesla Model S. That’s all the more impressive when you consider the Kia’s unremarkable aerodynamics (the drag coefficient is 0.35, to the Nissan Leaf’s 0.28), no doubt the result of its boxy front end and squared-off rear hatch.
New alloy wheels and a closed-off grille opening make the 2015 Kia Soul EV more aerodynamic than the standard, gasoline-powered Soul. It otherwise features the same funky design aesthetic that defines the Soul, with its exclusive two-tone color options and LED headlights and taillights. We like the modern, lighthearted looks of our test car’s Caribbean Blue/white roof combination, as the EV’s tweaks provide some extra visual interest but don’t make too bold a statement.
The Soul EV’s power output of 109 hp might not seem like much but, as with all electric cars, torque is the real story. The 90-kilowatt electric motor provides 210 lb-ft of thrust, enough to make this electric Soul feel peppier than the standard car’s 1.6- and 2.0-liter four-cylinder gasoline engines. EVs also don’t lose steam with higher altitude, meaning that the Soul EV has no problem climbing the hills of Route 84 around La Honda as we approach Half Moon Bay.
The latest gas-powered Kia Soul hatchback is relatively composed and refined, yet we didn’t anticipate much of a fun factor through the twisties from this 489-lb-heavier electric version. As it turns out, the lower center of gravity afforded by the floor-mounted battery pack more than makes up for the extra mass, and the Kia Soul EV exceeds expectations with its stable, planted set through corners and lack of body roll. Credit additional torsional rigidity and well-sorted suspension tuning for the Soul EV’s satisfying ride-handling balance, although the slightly numb steering is a bit of a letdown.
Of course, most owners -- or lessees, as a majority of Soul EV customers are expected to lease -- won’t often drive the electrified Soul on roads like Route 84. EV drivers are more likely to stick to streets like University Avenue in downtown Palo Alto. Lucky for them, the same agility that surprised us in the mountains impresses around town as well. The stable handling in combination with the Soul EV’s abundant off-the-line acceleration makes for a near-ideal urban runabout.
Cooler than a Nissan Leaf
The 2015 Kia Soul EV is a refreshing entry into the growing pool of electric vehicles. It keeps all the positive elements of the standard Soul hatchback -- fun exterior styling, a relatively upscale interior, and lots of cargo space -- while adding more entertaining driving dynamics and a capable electric powertrain.
Tesla proved with the attractive, powerful Model S that creating an electric vehicle doesn’t have to mean sacrificing a car’s emotional appeal. Kia’s first EV makes a similar point for a much more approachable price. Sounds like a winner to us.
2015 Kia Soul EV Specifications
On Sale:October 2014 (California), Early 2015 (Northeast), Other Markets TBA
Motor:AC permanent-magnet synchronous electric, 109 hp, 210 lb-ft
Layout:4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, front-wheel-drive hatchback
EPA Mileage:120/92/105 mpge (city/highway/combined)
EPA Electric Driving Range:93 miles
L x W x H:163.0 x 70.9 x 63.0 in
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