2015 Kia Soul EV review: Kia creates eco-karma with electric Soul
Update: We were able to spend more time with the 2015 Kia Soul EV+ for more extensive testing of its range and performance. The review has been updated to reflect our impressions.
The first things that you notice about any electric vehicle is just how quietly it moves as well as the seemingly effortless acceleration. The Kia Soul EV is no exception. With a zero-to-60 time of about 12 seconds and a top speed of 90 mph, the Kia isn't mind-bogglingly fast, but something about the lack of powertrain noise or vibration and the delivery of torque without interruptions for gear changes makes the EV feel more nimble than the numbers imply.
Silent, but torquey
So how about those numbers? The 2015 Kia Soul is powered by an 81.4kW AC synchronous permanent magnet motor that outputs a stated 109 horsepower and 210 pound-feet of torque. Like all full-electrics, the Soul EV's party trick is that it is able to deliver all 210 pound-feet of that torque from a dead stop, which makes it feel more responsive than a gasoline-powered engine of similar spec, simply because you never have to wait for it to build engine revs and power.
Kia tells me that the Soul's motor uses multilayer magnets to boost efficiency and reduce the engine whine, but it would probably take back-to-back rides to tell if the electric Kia was actually any quieter than the Ford Focus Electric or the Nissan Leaf. Suffice it to say that the Soul EV was extremely quiet during my testing at both city and highway speeds. At speeds below 12 mph or when reversing, the Soul gets a bit artificially noisy, thanks to an audible Pedestrian Warning System that softly beeps to announce the vehicle's presence.
Despite weighing in at 302 pounds more than the gasoline-powered variant, the electric Soul surprisingly felt more planted. This is possibly due to the lack of weight transfer that comes with the interruption of power between gear changes -- because the Soul EV uses a single-speed transmission between the motor and the front wheels -- and possibly due to the 620-pound battery pack mounted under the floor, lowering the tall, compact crossover's center of gravity.
The Soul EV's suspension has been updated to compensate for the increased weight and altered weight distribution of the EV powertrain. The electric power-steering system features three different settings that adjust the amount of assistance offered by the servos. Comfort offers the lightest touch and the most assistance, Normal is the baseline, and Sport has a weighty feel, thanks to slightly reduced assistance. Steering feel is pretty good in the sport mode, but this is no sports car. Low-rolling-resistance tires are probably the weakest link to the EV's handling, but also potentially a boon to its highway cruising range.
93 miles of real-world range
The flat 27kWh battery pack is composed of lithium polymer cells and affords the Soul EV a stated range of about 93 miles from a full charge. During my initial testing over an approximately 40-mile trip supervised by Kia, I was pretty spot-on with the automaker's estimate, finishing up with 56 percent of the battery's reserve remaining and the trip computer estimating a range of 56 miles more.
The 40 miles of that test took me through the suburbs of Palo Alto, up to highway speeds, and onto a nice and twisty bit of road as we made our way across the San Francisco peninsula to the coast. I tested the Soul's top speed of 90 mph and I hustled the EV up a steep and twisty road through the Santa Cruz mountains -- I basically drove like an auto journalist. This wasn't 40 miles of hyper-miling, so the Soul's ability to deliver on its advertised range was even more impressive.
Knowing full well that 40 miles isn't nearly enough testing to get a full picture of the Soul's range, we recently revisited the EV for extended testing. I personally added over 160 additional miles to the EV's odometer during my testing, running the battery down to about a quarter of its capacity twice.
My first day behind the wheel was a long one, packed with 81.1 miles of running errands and commuting. The computer was indicating 27 percent battery remaining and about 28 miles of range when I plugged in for the night and turned the keys over to CNET's video crew for a few days. Doing the math, that put me about 3 miles above the EPA's estimate for the day.
Later, I rejoined with the Soul EV and, over the course of an entire weekend without charging, put in an additional 79.1 miles of mostly highway driving in moderate traffic. When I plugged the Soul in at CNET's offices on Sunday night, the battery sat at 19 percent capacity and the dashboard indicated 14 miles of range. That's about 4 miles below the budgeted range -- possibly due to a few stoplight zero-to-60 test runs I did just before testing -- but balances out with the 3-mile surplus of the previous trip to land me pretty spot-on with Kia's estimate.
And although 93 miles of range is an acceptable number for an EV, the range limitation, well, limits its appeal mainly to city drivers that don't venture too far from the range of a network of easily accessible charging stations. (To be fair, this is the case with all of the Soul EV's competitors, so the range is not so much a knock against the Kia as a reality of current EV technology.) Kia knows this too, which is why it's limiting the Soul EV's availability to certain California markets at launch.
That said, the Soul's range is about 17 more than the recently tested Ford Focus Electric, which may not sound like a lot, but makes a huge difference psychologically and practically. In the Ford, getting to my destination to find all of the charging points filled was mildly terrifying. In the Kia, I was a bit more confident that I could make it further and back between charges.
Around town, where zero-to-30 is more important than zero-to-60, the Soul EV's ample torque made itself apparent when pulling away from traffic lights and coaxing squirts of acceleration for passing. One of the best bits of the Soul's performance is that I didn't have to drive it like an "eco car" with an eggshell pedal. The silent motor meant I could be a bit more aggressive with the Soul's capacity for acceleration without fear of attracting much attention -- a nice byproduct of the electric motor, but also probably a bit beside the point.
In addition to its standard D-for-Drive and R-for-Reverse shifter positions, the 2015 Soul EV featured a position B, for Battery...or is it Braking? I wasn't sure, but the upshot is that when in this position, the EV's regenerative braking system became more aggressive, shaving speed more quickly when the accelerator pedal was lifted rather than coasting. This allows the EV to recapture more of the vehicle's kinetic energy as electricity without the driver having to touch the brake pedal. I found this mode a bit odd at first, but after a few trips I learned to love how it encouraged me to use the energy regen more than the friction brakes.
There's also an Active Eco button on the center console that adjusts aspects of the EV's system, including the sensitivity of the throttle, to squeeze a bit more efficiency and a few more miles of range out of the powertrain. I didn't find that it helped my range at all, but I have a pretty light accelerator foot anyway.
Plug it in, plug it in
When it is time to juice up the Soul EV, you'll have choices.
The fastest method is the ChaDeMo DC fast-charge port. Using one of these level 3 (480V) charging stations, the Soul EV can quick-charge up to 80 percent capacity in about 33 minutes. Kia states that it will be installing these quick-chargers at the 17 California dealerships that will have the Soul EV available, but that drivers can also make use of the growing network of public stations.
Additionally, the Soul will be able to charge in about 4 to 5 hours on on the more common SAE J1772 level 2 (240V) charging stations, which can be found at most public charging sites and can be installed at private residences. In a pinch, the EV can be charged at any 110V wall outlet with an included cable, but with a 20-plus hour charging time, this method should only be a last resort or quick top-off.
Eco gauges and recycled materials
Inside, the Kia Soul EV comes about as well-equipped as a fully loaded gasoline version. The dashboard, which is finished in white, glossy plastic reminiscent of the first-gen iPod, is highlighted by the 8-inch touchscreen for the Uvo infotainment and navigation system, which we've seen (and loved) on the gasoline Kia.
The system features excellent voice control for everything from audio source control to navigation and more and adds a few additional Uvo Services screens that allow the driver to monitor the battery level, available range and efficiency. Connectivity through Kia's smartphone app will allow the driver to check these parameters from outside of the car while monitoring and controlling the vehicle's charging cycle.
Just ahead of the driver, the low-power OLED instrument cluster features a pair of gauges. On the left is a combination gauge that displays the battery level, range, and an eco driving guide. One the right is a combination digital and analog speedometer.
This instrument cluster is simultaneously simpler than the dual-screen SmartGauge cluster found in the Focus Electric, but displays no less information. I found the Kia's display to be easier to digest at a glance and felt like I spent less time gawking at the graphics and more time driving. A small central LCD displays trip computer information or audio source data.
The Kia's powertrain isn't the only thing that's "green" about the Soul EV. The interior makes use of reclaimed materials for many of the interior bits. All in, about 52 pounds of "bio-based organic" plastic is used in the Soul EV's door panels, headliner, seat trim, roof pillars, and carpeting. The headliner is the most obvious: it looks like it's made out of recycled cardboard. Fortunately, I don't spend much time looking straight up when I drive.
The step-up EV+ trim level that I was able to test adds leather seating surfaces, an audible parking-assist system, a heated steering wheel, heated and ventilated front seats and heated outboard rears.
The Kia Soul EV will be available starting at $33,700. This pre-incentive price, when you consider the base level of tech and performance, is competitive with the Nissan Leaf SV and the Fiat 500e. The Ford Focus Electric is less expensive due to price drop for the 2015 model year, but the Kia has about 20 percent more stated range. The step-up 2015 Kia Soul EV+ trim level that I was able to test tops out at $35,700. North American availability will be limited to select California markets (read: Los Angeles and San Francisco) with plans to expand availability into more major metropolitan areas through 2015. (Availability outside the US hasn't been announced at this time.)