Mention the idea of electric vehicles in SA and most people scoff. Eskom does not have the infrastructure for them. The distances we travel are too far. They are too expensive. They baulk at hills. Designs are weird.
There are many reasons for the critics to have a field day, and many of them are justified. Over the past few years I have driven various electric vehicles (EVs), from electric bicycles to an electric supercar. A few of these have been in SA where I have been acutely aware of all these issues. Currently only one full EV is on sale in SA in the form of the Nissan Leaf. BMW has put back its launch of its new i3 and i8 until March next year but its marketing onslaught has begun. Even SA had a go but the less we say about the ill-fated Joule the better.
So I was very surprised when I got a call from the PR of Kia SA to ask me to drive the new Soul EV. It has not even been launched in the rest of the world yet but there it was, standing in the workshop of the brand’s green dealership in Clearwater, Johannesburg. It was an appropriate place to have it. The dealership is completely off the grid and there is even a small water recycling plant on site. Kia has brought the vehicle in as a bit of a marketing exercise. Based on the facelifted Soul which launches here in November, the EV version will go sale in Europe at the end of the year and locally the company is considering making it available in 2016, provided it gets positive feedback. By that time we will have a better idea of whether EVs are taking off in the market and what they are like to live with. Nissan is battling to sell its Leaf, with only a handful of units finding their way to trend-setting types.
The price is a major issue. Green technology costs plenty of green. Even hybrids cost way more than their regular equivalents. The Leaf will set you back R450,600 plus the R30,000 for a home charging unit. The BMW i3 is expected to be around the same with home charging units ranging from the basic thirty grand option to a full solar panelled car port that has the potential to also take your home off the grid for about R120,000. At today’s prices, you can expect the Soul EV to be in the same ballpark as these rivals. First up, a bit of tech. The Soul EV features an electric motor generating 81.4kW and 285Nm of torque. It boasts a next generation 27kWh lithium-ion polymer battery pack mounted beneath the cabin floor in a similar style to rivals. It is the battery technology that is key to the future of electric vehicles. In this case, engineers have developed a system that is said to reduce electrical resistance and allow more efficient energy discharge.
Rather than the usual lithium-ion batteries we are all used to, the lithium-ion polymer ones developed by Kia and its partner, SK Innovation, in Korea, have an increased energy density and simpler structure. This benefits heat management, efficiency and also reduces the cost. In order to achieve the best range possible, reducing the weight of the vehicle is also key. Some of this has been done by adopting a number of green material strategies. It uses bio-based plastic and bio-based organic carbon. In fact there are lots of bios — bio plastic, bio foam, bio fabric and something called bio pet felt. I daren’t ask… In essence, all this means lots of recycled materials but fortunately you do not have a dashboard that looks like it is made of grass or trim inserts that resemble recycled toilet paper.
What you do get is a regular looking Soul, if you can call the Soul regular looking. This is the facelift version so it moves on from the already funky looks of the first generation. It looks bigger but more grown up, while at the same time having a super cool look about it. The interior is the same and as with the new model coming, you can customise it to your individual requirements. The big question, though, is how does it drive? Push the start button and silence reigns, although at low speed it does have a very gentle buzz to it in case a granny walking across the car park needs to hear you coming. Push down on the accelerator and the torque is typically instantaneous. It is not rapid, with the 0-100km/h mark coming up in a shade under 12 seconds, but it feels responsive and left a few people behind at the traffic lights quite happily. I chose a route that took me up the steep hill from the dealership into Roodepoort and to my surprise the range indicator hardly dropped at all, even when I switched on the aircon.
Range anxiety is a major problem and I have been in other cars where going uphill results in a rapid decrease in the range. Kia engineers are aiming to provide a 200km range but with 86% charge in the batteries when I left, it said 136km. Despite the occasional heavy foot, some steep hills and plenty of traffic, the range barely dipped below 130km after around 25km of driving. That was impressive. Partly this is because the downhill sections allowed for lots of regenerative braking to top the batteries up a bit. The new interior was comfortable, the suspension was good and while I was not chucking it into any corners, the whole thing felt very stable courtesy of that centrally mounted battery pack. The Soul EV certainly felt like one of the best I have driven. Like the BMW i3 it all felt remarkably normal and ate away just a little bit more at my initial petrolhead’s phobia of EVs.
The Soul EV shows a good direction for the future and once again acts as a reminder to the government and private industry that change is coming and we need to put the infrastructure and incentive support in place to allow for it. Kia has come up with something that is both cool and funky without being nerdy. Dare I say it, the company has created a real world electric vehicle with soul.