In case you weren’t watching, one half of the Hyundai Motor Group has taken flight in recent years. Between 2010 and 2014, Kia increased sales by nearly two thirds, giving it higher totals than Dodge or Subaru can muster in America. With an electrified concept unveiled and the Soul EV outperforming expectations, the Korean brand has begun wielding electric vehicles as a weapon to expand U.S. market share. Here’s a look at the green side of Kia and its effect on the brand’s performance.
Record Kia sales in 2014
Jeep and Subaru had extraordinary years in 2014, but Kia joined the party with 580,234 sales, a record for the automaker and 63% better than its performance in 2010. Over half of those sales belonged to Optima, the brand’s best seller (159,020 units), and Soul, which gained 23% in 2014 over the previous year with 145,316 sales.
Taken together, the brand posted 8.4% growth on the U.S. market. Among its most conspicuous debuts was the Kia Soul EV, the first battery electric model from Hyundai Motor Group and the green version of the popular city car. Released with low expectations as a way to address consumer complaints about Kia’s lack of green cars, the Soul EV has taken on a life the automaker never predicted.
Electric vehicle strategy
According to Michael Sprague, a marketing executive for Kia, it wasn’t long ago that consumers considered Kia “environmentally unfriendly” because there were no hybrids or EVs in the product lineup. Sprague told USA Today in August 2014 that Kia consciously brought both the Optima hybrid and later the Soul EV to America to address that conception. Even before sales on the pure electric car began, the company was bullish on its new product.
“The Soul EV is lifting the entire brand,” Sprague said in an interview with USA Today. “It will serve as the focus of our Clean Mobility campaign.”
Just four months into sales of the Soul EV, company officials were going on the record saying they were shocked at the very positive reception to the electric Soul. Orth Hedrick, Kia’s VP of product planning in America, told AutoblogGreen that though the EV was “more than [a] compliance [car]” and was fully intended to grow Soul sales, the early returns had made it “a huge hit.”
As a result, Hedrick said the rollout of the EV would expand beyond the original five-state plan and aim at a larger U.S. market, with confirmation coming as early as the New York Auto Show in April. At press time, sales remained limited to California.
Anyone who wants to look into the surprise success of the Soul EV may simply glance at some reviews of the funky electric car. By most accounts, real-world range has exceeded the automaker’s expectations and the EPA figure of 93 miles on a full charge. Most remarkably, HybridCars.com tests ran the Soul EV to 125 miles with 9 miles left to spare according to the battery gauge.
Likewise, drivers using the Soul EV in city driving (i.e., where it is recommended) have noted it regularly clocks over 100 miles making the rounds in California. The enthusiasm for the car seems to be pivoting on this surprising performance, which prompts the word-of-mouth boosting that has become essential for EV sales.
On the heels of this success, Kia released a daring concept version of the Soul called the Trail’ster that features electric all-wheel drive (AWD) at the Chicago Auto Show in February. More powerful and, using that electric-AWD assist, more efficient than any gasoline version of this car, Trail’ster was an upscale surprise from Kia, hinting at the brand’s momentum from its previous green experiments (the Kia foray into high-end sedans, the K900, flopped with 1,330 sales in 2014).
Whether or not Trail’ster arrives or informs the standard Soul, it appears the path forward for Kia is paved in green. Between the high demand for the EV and the great reception for the Trail’ster concept, maybe that focus should remain on the brand’s funky city car as well.