2015 Kia Soul EV Prototype

Spend a few days chatting with the good people of Seoul about their neighbors to the north, and you'll find a pattern emerges. When they first start talking, South Korea's citizenry speaks openly and ardently about seeking reunification with their North Korean brothers and sisters. Yet once you get beyond casual conversation, you'll find that those hopes and wishes aren't all that they first appear to be. Quite reasonably – and despite everyone's best intentions – there's genuine fear that opening the border with communist North Korea would severely tax South Korea's finances, infrastructure and daily lives. It's almost as if reunification feels like something the general public has to say they want, even if they're really not buying into the reality.

It's kind of like the way American consumers and the media have been crying out for electric and hybrid automobiles, yet when it comes time to vote with their pocketbooks, their hearts just aren't in it. There are potential financial and infrastructure concerns, along with lingering worries about how well EVs will integrate into their daily lives. Today, hybrids and plug-ins make up about three percent of new vehicle sales, and the vast majority of those models are gas-electric models – one in particular. Pure electrics aren't yet even a drop in a very large bucket. It's exactly this uncomfortable dichotomy that rings in our heads as we drive through the traffic in Namyang at the wheel of a 2015 Kia Soul EV prototype.

Of course, one can't blame Kia for developing an electric car – it has California's zero-emissions mandates to meet, regardless of whether the segment's sales suggest there's a sound financial strategy attached. Kia officials we spoke with at this early drive of the company's electrified 'box' car seemed to tacitly acknowledge the Soul EV's difficult business case, but pointed to the company's effort to reduce its CO2 output as part of its reason for being. And besides, their beancounters' industry-wide projection for global EV sales in 2018 is 600,000 units, so there's got to be room to grow, right?

2015 Kia Soul EV Prototype2015 Kia Soul EV Prototype2015 Kia Soul EV Prototype

The company is also claiming better range with a target of 124 miles.

At the very least, Kia's got a great platform to electrify – the gas-powered Soul is all-new for 2014 and it rectifies just about every lingering concern we've had with the popular model – mostly criticisms that centered on noise, vibration and harshness, interior refinement and ride quality. And critically, the engineers have managed to substitute in all the E-bits without compromising the Soul's interior packaging one iota. That's right – there's no higher load floor in the cargo bay, no awkward carpet humps in the footwells, just the same spacious and well-designed accommodations found in the regular Soul. Better yet, the engineers on hand promise that not only have they preserved interior room, they've also managed to improve ride, handling and crash performance; a remarkable assertion.

For starters, instead of finding a 1.6-liter or 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine up front, Kia has substituted an 81.4-kilowatt electric motor with 109 horsepower and 210 pound-feet of torque fueled by a 27-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack. The latter is outwardly similar to what is used in Kia's Optima Hybrid, but its chemical makeup has been altered for improved power density and charging characteristics. Of course, it's also much larger. In fact, Kia maintains that the Soul EV's battery has 46-percent better energy density than its chief rival, the Nissan Leaf. The company is also claiming better range with a target of 124 miles, although real-world figures are likely to be only somewhat better than the Leaf's 75-mile envelope (90 miles or so would be a reasonable expectation in EPA testing). Thanks to the additional heft of the sub-floor battery pack, the Soul EV is tipped to be about 440 pounds heavier than the regular Soul, so figure on a curb weight of around 3,150 lbs, some 140 less than the Nissan.

2015 Kia Soul EV Prototype

Kia is targeting a sub-12-second 0-60 mph time.

Despite its substantial torque bump (the larger gas engine only has 151 lb-ft), all that extra weight takes its toll on acceleration, so Kia is targeting a sub-12-second 0-60 mph time. After our day driving a prototype on Kia's Namyang proving grounds in the exurbs of Seoul and out on neighboring city roads, we think 11.5 seconds is achievable. And that's with a particularly robust-feeling 0-30 mph thanks to the motor's instant-on torque, an ideal characteristic for the stoplight-to-stoplight urban grind. Top speed is pegged at 90 mph.

Throughout our drive, the Soul EV's ride felt particularly buttoned down, delivering almost fullsize sedan levels of comportment. With limited drive circumstances, we didn't have the chance to seek out a properly challenging road to assess its handling chops, but we suspect prospective owners will seldom attempt any canyon carving or apex clipping, especially on such modest 16-inch Kumho Solus low-rolling-resistance rubber. We're still not crazy about the lack of weight and feel from the electric power steering, but engineers assure us that calibrations are an ongoing discussion.

Kia Soul EV

We did notice the car's extra weight during a moment of full-on panic braking.

At least the Soul benefits from a next-generation regenerative braking system (the previous iteration was deployed on Kia's only other production electric, the Korea-exclusive Ray), and it's quite natural in its engagement, with only a little of the low-speed snatchiness we've experienced in other electrics and hybrid vehicles. Let off the gas, and there's quite a bit of inherent regen slowing the car down. Once you get used to the sensation, it actually makes for an entertaining way to drive, but there won't be much coasting. We did notice the car's extra weight during a moment of full-on panic braking (from what we've observed, Korean drivers have an occasionally cavalier relationship with certain stoplights), but the specially tuned ABS and stability control inspired confidence, as does use of even more high-strength steel than in internal-combustion Souls.

Predictably, an absence of engine and exhaust din combined with the new Soul's stiffer and better-sealed structure means that this is one quiet EV, despite its upright proportions. Even at elevated speeds, we didn't find the road or wind noise to be off-putting. That quiet extends to the outside of the vehicle, as well, so Kia has fitted a pedestrian alert system that emits a tone when backing up and at speeds up to 12 mph.

2015 Kia Soul EV Prototype

We've seen a prototype sans camouflage and can tell you that there's a fair bit of exterior differentiation, particularly up front.

How will you know a Soul EV on the street? Well, you certainly can't tell from our prototype's disguise, but we've seen a prototype sans camouflage and can tell you that there's a fair bit of exterior differentiation, particularly up front. A taller and larger "Tiger Nose" that accommodates dual charging ports is the primary styling change, but you'll also note a redesigned lower fascia, aero-pattern alloy wheels and contrasting trim color on the grill surround, mirrors and roof. The car may also receive a unique set of taillamps, but that decision remains up in the air, as do paint colors (Kia is planning on marketing the Soul EV in a pair of novel two-tone color schemes, but it may add more).

Our prototypes sported disguised interiors, but production EV cabins will include a greater complement of environmentally sensitive materials, including plastics, foams and fabrics derived from bio-friendly materials like cane extract. Everything from seat covers to the carpeting and headliner will be rendered in the stuff, and there will be special trim differences, too. Functionally speaking, the most noticeable changes will come from a unique gauge cluster and through different menus on the infotainment screen (charging supervision, range reports, etc.). One novel feature: the driver has the ability to shut off climate control to unoccupied seats, in order to save energy.

2015 Kia Soul EV Prototype

Kia is still determining things like where it will be offered and whether sales will include purchasing, leasing or both.

That's just one of dozens of special measures designed to optimize battery life, including things like a heat pump to reduce load on the climate control system and a battery heater that speeds charge times in cold conditions (it's said to save 50 minutes at -4º Fahrenheit). Of course, there's also the expected smartphone-based HVAC precooling and preheating features, along with charging functions.

With the Soul EV over a year away, there's still some finessing of ones and zeros to be done, but what we experienced on our first drive was very encouraging. There is perhaps more work to be done on the marketing and dealer side. Kia is still determining things like where it will be offered and whether sales will include purchasing, leasing or both. Officials we spoke with admitted that there's a unique challenge in getting dealers excited about selling EVs, as these models (and customers) tend to have very different sales and service expectations, not to mention limited after-sales $ervice potential.

Like the Korean citizens we spoke with about reunification and like the average American car shopper, Kia's dealers have real financial and infrastructure concerns, along with lingering worries about how EVs will integrate into their daily lives. That's going to be an interesting hurdle to clear, but after driving the Soul EV prototype, it definitely appears to be a worthwhile one.