First Korean Electric Car Goes on Sale in the US

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by Kawoon Kim
The Kia Soul EV debuted at the 2014 Chicago Auto Show in March, as Kia became the first Korean auto company to unveil a vehicle at the iconic US auto show. Image:

Kia, the subsidiary of Hyundai-Kia Automotive Group, recently began selling an electric vehicle (EV) in the US for the first time, and is the first Korean auto company to do so. The vehicle, named “Soul EV,” went on sale in California in October.

California is the most eco-friendly auto market in the US. It is the top EV market thanks to robust environmental policies, making eco-friendly vehicles such as electric cars a solid option for California drivers. As a result, California has the biggest EV market in the world with a total of 42,000 EVs in 2013. The state now boasts the largest battery-charging infrastructure in the world, accounting for 21% of the world’s total. As a result, Kia’s entry into that market is a big step for Korea’s second-largest auto-maker.

Kia’s first major investment in the US was in 2009, when the Kia Motors Manufacturing Georgia (KMMG) started mass producing the 2011 Kia Sorento. Since then, it had produced over 500,000 vehicles within two and half years, and continues to show a profit. However, when it comes to “eco-friendly” products such as the Soul EV, this is Kia’s first attempt. For now, the Soul EV is being manufactured in Korea for export to the US, and production began in June 2014.

Soul EV has some strong advantages over the competition, such as the fact that it can run 92 miles on a single charge, 8 miles farther than the range of the Nissan Leaf’, the top selling EV in the US. In addition, the Soul EV has more interior space, a shorter acceleration time to its top speed, and shorter charging time on average than the existing 19 electric vehicle models on sale in the US. Despite those features, it remains in the same price range as the other EVs on the market.

While the prospects for the Soul EV in the US market look quite promising, the Korean market is likely to be more challenging. This is because the Korean government does not yet have policies in place across the country to help support the burgeoning domestic EV industry in the face of competition from overseas manufacturers. Jeju Island, where a hefty subsidy for purchasing an EV is provided and the right infrastructure is in place, represents a good template for Korea to make progress, but the island’s small population means that it cannot support the domestic EV industry on its own.

Kia also recently started selling the Soul EV in the UK, and aims to expand sales soon to the rest of the US market and into Europe. Kia believes that positive performance in the US and UK market will serve to improve its reputation and performance at home in the Korean market, as well.

Kawoon Kim is an Asan Academy Intern at the East-West Center in Washington.