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Kia’s Future In Hybrids and EVs

Talking with two of the guys who know best.

Chris NelsonwriterSandon Voelkerphotographer Automobile Staffphotographer

Kia debuted two new hybrids at the 2016 Chicago Auto Show, the Niro and the plug-in Optima hybrid. They're two of the four alt-powertrains Kia promised to have in place by this year—the other two are the Soul EV and standard Optima hybrid—with about a half dozen more on the way, debuting by 2020. We sat down with Michael Sprague, COO for Kia Motors America, and Orth Hedrick, the automaker's vice president of product planning, to talk about how Kia sees its future in EVs, hybrids, and other alternative powertrains.

AM: What's Kia's take on the state of hybrids, plug-ins, and EVs? Is Kia planning on being at the forefront of any alternative powertrain development?

OH: The ultimate goal is … EVs with greater range than we have today. The steps to get people there are hybrid, plug-in hybrid, and eventually extending that to EV. We see the mindset of the market going that direction. Millennials are really interested in doing something different. They've grown up around the concept that our planet's in trouble. When I was growing up, we didn't even recycle. Now you have three trashcans in your kitchen. It is just part of their world. But it's going to take us awhile to move away from gasoline—we're talking at least five years.

AM: Tell us how the market has responded to the Soul EV?

OH: So far, so good. We rolled it out in stages. First a few markets in California, then up the west coast, and now we're on the east coast. With fuel prices so low, we're seeing it's more of a lifestyle product for people who are really into making a statement and having an ecologically sensitive life. There's a loyal, fervent group of buyers for EVs. They're like groupies.

MS: It's really impacted the brand in a sense. The Soul is a phenomenal vehicle from a design and packaging standpoint, and it's an electrified Soul. Some people may not want to own an electrified Soul, but they like the fact that we're offering consumers an environmentally friendly vehicle.

OH: I want to put a Soul EV next to a Chevrolet Bolt. You know, GM has a huge presence in Korea because of Daewoo, so a lot the development work with the big battery suppliers was done in Korea. I'm wondering how close the architecture is, because the Bolt's footprint and battery placement are a lot like a Soul EV's. Maybe it's just a coincidence …

AM: What do you see as the thing that sets Kia apart from a future full of extremely similar EVs?

OH: Ours is design, and the other we're working hard on is making the car easy to live with.

MS: I believe our "value story" will continue to play a role in this as well. We're a global company, so we're developing these cars for global consumption. The investment we're making is significant, so we need to make sure we spread the costs to maintain our value proposition here and in other countries.

AM: Will we see another dedicated EV from Kia anytime soon, or is the Soul EV holding that torch for a while?

OH: For the time being Soul EV is it, yeah.

AM: So, the plug-in Optima hybrid—that must've been in the plans from the get-go, right?

OH: If you look at our range, you jump from a gas car to the Soul EV, which can be too much for some people, with issues like battery range and such. Now we're creating a series of steps that make sense, and the plug-in is a natural progression of the Optima hybrid we had before. The next step is a dedicated hybrid [which is what the Niro is]. We were able to build the Niro around a brand-new platform developed around the hybrid architecture, which let us play with packaging and optimize the interior so the customer has a "normal car" experience. There's no strange lump in the cargo area.

MS: We introduced the Telluride concept [at the 2016 Detroit auto show] as a hybrid vehicle. Based on our history of concept vehicles that often come to market, I think that would probably be a pretty good candidate for something.

AM: Why isn't the Niro a plug-in?

MS: We did say it would be eventually.

AM: What's the holdup?

OH: Manufacturing. One plant makes all of these cars. The plug-in has been engineered and is ready to go, but it has to wait for its place in the sequence.

AM: So at some point in the future, one could assume all of your hybrids will be plug-in hybrids.

OH: Yeah, we could do that. But the issue with plug-ins is that the battery is bigger and the cost is about ten grand more, just because of the size of the battery.

AM: But once battery size and cost come down …

OH: Right, absolutely. But what we've heard and researched is that a lot of people don't even plug in their cars. I'm not sure customers understand the advantage of the plug-in. I think they forget to plug it in when they get home. I think there will be more interest once fuel prices go up. It's a learning curve.

AM: What technologies out there excite you?

OH: Software development. We have a power control module [on the Niro] that manages all of the 48 volts going through the motor and battery, and just through software, just by changing code, we were able to eliminate the need for a 12-volt battery. Everything seems like we're moving toward more electronics and developing more control systems. It doesn't sound sexy but if you can code … well, it's like "The Matrix."

MS: All of this is migrating toward autonomous vehicles. Our infotainment system needs to be integrated into our safety systems, which have to be integrated into our hybrid and EV systems. All of these are coming together, and it's all software.

AM: Before we forget—wouldn't it be cool if Kia had a hybrid sports car?

OH: That would be cool. A hybrid or an EV sports car?

AM: Either. Anything. Just give us a sports car.