A big showdown is coming, if you believe the car-business chatter: General Motors (GM) is about to challenge Tesla’s (TSLA) dominance among electric-car makers. Toyota (TM) is planning to take on Tesla, too. And don’t forget Honda (HMC), Ford (F) and Nissan (NSANY). Telsa-battlers, all.
Tesla is the most prominent name in electric vehicles, yet beneath the radar, virtually every big automaker has built some kind of EV, with more on the way. This is happening not because car buyers are clamoring for electrics, by and large, but because governments around the world are raising the pollution standards automakers must meet, essentially forcing them to build cars that don’t burn gasoline or diesel.
The Kia Soul EV is at the opposite end of the spectrum from Tesla, whose cheapest Model S sedan starts at about $70,000, minus a $7,500 tax credit most buyers qualify for. The Soul starts at around $32,000, or $24,500 after the tax break. That makes the Soul one of the cheapest EVs on the market. Tesla’s “mass-market” car, the Model 3, is due in 2017, but it will probably start at $35,000 at least, meaning the Soul will still undercut Tesla by a fair amount.
Tesla models go further on a charge, but with a maximum range of 93 miles, the Soul still outpaces most EVs—including the Chevrolet Volt, with an all-electric maximum range of just 53 miles. Kia isn’t trying to sell the Soul EV to everybody. “It’s a niche, for sure,” Steve Kosowski, Kia’s manager of long-range strategy and planning, tells me in the video above. “It works globally in urban markets like New York City, Los Angeles, Seoul, Frankfurt.” Like many EVs, the Soul has peppy torque off the line, and all Soul models generally get strong reviews for crisp handling, a roomy interior and good value.
While Tesla is on a mission to electrify the entire auto industry, Kia (KS) only sells its electric where people seem to want it. The Soul EV is only available in about a dozen states, and Kia only markets it in areas where buyers have previously shown interest in the Kia Optima hybrid, which went on sale in 2011. No point trying to strong-arm buyers who don't want a newfangled car or don't live where there are adequate places to charge.
Low gas prices have delayed the ascent of electric vehicles, with overall sales down 23% this year, compared with 2015. Kia has barely sold 150 Soul EVs so far in 2016, according to Inside EVs. That's well below the 2015 pace of 85 sales per month.
But gas prices fluctuate and electrics may yet come back into fashion. Later this year, Chevrolet will introduce the Bolt, a new EV able to travel more than 200 miles on a charge, which approaches the range of the Tesla Model S. That will generate plenty of hype and bring EVs back into the news. Further technology breakthroughs ought to continue bringing down the price of electrics, perhaps making them comparable on cost with gas models at some point. And if none of that happens, well, Kia has a gas-powered version of the Soul, and 10 other models.
Rick Newman’s latest book is Liberty for All: A Manifesto for Reclaiming Financial and Political Freedom. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.