The fully-electric Kia Soul EV is elegant in its simplicity. With huge windows and silent operation, the car feels more like a thing you’re wearing than driving. It’s a comfortable, if slightly sterile, way around town. But without charging infrastructure at your house, getting low on power can be pretty stressful.
(Full disclosure: Kia needed us to drive a Soul EV so badly they loaned us one for a few days. Neat, huh?)
We can thank Tesla for how we view much of electric car-dom, currently. But even though we’ve ridden in Tesla’s future “everyman” car, the company’s current offerings are out of reach for average Americans at about $100,000 a pop.
But many of us can buy fully-electric economy cars today. And we can get them from companies that have been around more than a few minutes like Kia, Chevy, Nissan, Volkswagen, Fiat and BMW. Well, at least we can in California, where many of these inexpensive EVs exist to satisfy regulatory requirements.
While these electrics have somewhat modest range limitations, generally they’re all good for at least 80 miles. That will get most people to work and back with a grocery run in between.
It’s certainly nice if you can recharge your car at the office, but being able to power up at home is pretty much essential to EV ownership. That’s not really an issue for people who own or rent houses with easy access to an outlet. A “regular wall plug” might be the slowest way to charge a car, but it’s better than nothing... which is exactly what the rest of us living in apartments with unpowered garages or street-only parking have.
That brings us to my experience with the Kia Soul EV, which was defined by my struggle to find a place to plug it in. I am lucky enough to live in a decent apartment, with my own underground parking space. But there’s no provision to plug a phone in down there, let alone a car.
As I intimated at the beginning of this post, the driving experience itself was solid, if forgettable.
The Soul’s standout feature isn’t so much a singular function, but the amazing airiness of the cabin that’s at once gloriously open but remarkably devoid of wind. Even with the windows and roof down you get plenty of sun, and the breeze and visibility of a penthouse apartment.
I did not care for the car’s helicopter-mom parking sensor system, which wails in terror when you’re still a solid three feet from an obstacle. It makes parallel-parking in Los Angeles more exciting than it needs to be.
The driving experience itself is hard to describe, since it’s so far removed from anything I’d typically describe as “driving.” It’s more like riding in an elevator. The gas—or I guess I mean “go” pedal—is as instantly responsive as a volume knob and the brakes are effective. The suspension’s dialed enough to keep you from any egregious lean or slop in normal driving, and the steering, well, the wheel in front of the driver controls the direction of the car.
To an enthusiast it’s oppressively bland. For somebody trying to move four people and about three roll-aboard suitcases in the most simplistic possible way, this car is pretty much perfect. It’s better, I’d say, than the traditional gas powered model by virtue of its quietness and instant-power acceleration.
And as for the power, an electric motor moving the front wheels gives the car 109 horsepower and an impressive 210 lb-ft of torque. A 27 kWh battery feeds that motor for as much as 120 MPGe if you don’t torture the low-resistance tires with too many stoplight launches, translating to a maximum range of about 93 miles.
My informal test of the Kia yielded a realistic range of about 80 miles bombing around LA. (Just for context, the Chevy Bolt has a 60 kWh battery, as much as an old base model Tesla Model S, each with more than 200 miles of range.)
Supposedly the car can go from zero-to-80-percent-charge in half an hour with a 480-volt “Fast Charge,” but I couldn’t find anything like that in my arduous search for electricity. With a regular wall-plug home outlet at 110 volts, you need a full 24 hours to charge the car. With a 240 volt charging station, like most you might see in nicer parking structures, a full charge is supposed to take five hours.
So I already mentioned my apartment building doesn’t have provisions for car charging. I know I’m not the only one with this problem. In fact, none of the apartments I’ve ever been to here have had EV chargers.
My friends and I would not be considered wealthy, but pretty much everyone I know could afford a Kia Soul EV. Many of them were intrigued by the prospect of having an electric car and have their travel habits in sync with its abilities. Except they don’t, because none of them could charge at home.
Still, this is Los Angeles! This is a theoretically progressive and obsessed with automotive technology. Surely, I thought, a solid public charging infrastructure is in place here.
With that in mind, pour yourself a beverage and tuck in for the tale Andrew’s hunt for electricity. I’m going to try and sell it as a screenplay or kid’s book after I finish this post.
I started looking for a place to power up with about 30 miles left on the car’s range meter, which is basically the most prominent piece of information on the dashboard.
With clear eyes and full heart, and a “find charging stations” function on the Soul EV’s navigation system, I had complete confidence I’d be powering up the car while I sipped a latte and swiped at my digital device in no time.
My first stop was a charging station I’d seen many times in the Culver City Trader Joe’s parking lot. I’d just stick it in the socket while I sucked down free samples in the store and be on my way with a full charge and everything else on my grocery list.
But I got there and—sorry, this charging station’s a different brand. The plug fit of course, they’re universal, but I had access to prepaid power from the EV charging network ChargePoint, not whatever this charger was. And this parking lot charger wouldn’t let me pay on the spot, either.
Annoyed but undeterred, I stuck the Kia in a regular parking space and cheered myself up with a thimble of free coffee anyway.
Now realizing that “where you have an account” determines where you can refuel, I fired up the ChargePoint app I’d been shown by Kia’s representative a few days prior and looked for the nearest station. It was a few miles away.
Over I buzzed, to another parking garage. With a $20 minimum parking fee.
Obviously the Kia was going to take awhile to power up. Over two hours in fact, according to the Soul EV’s infotainment display. So it’s not like I could swoop in, spritz the car up with juice, and leave in time to convince the attendant I was just turning around.
Anyway, there had to be a cheaper garage than that around. So I followed my ChargePoint app about another mile to the next garage that was apparently equipped with one of its stations. The gate was marked “RESIDENTS ONLY” and required a key to open.
At this point I was getting grumpy, and no amount of rainbow-blinking from the car’s “mood lighting” feature was going to turn my frown upside down. So I did what any go-getting man’s man would do—I drove home disgruntled and bitched about the whole thing to my girlfriend.
“The garage at school has electric car chargers,” she said. “You can park it there and work in the library while you’re waiting.”
Perfect. And I could just pull her parking pass off my Acura.
But four miles to Westwood later I learned, yes, you can park in the garage, but no, you can’t use the charging station. I had the wrong parking pass for that.
At this point the plight had just become funny. Which sucked, I thought to myself, because the Kia Soul EV is really too decent to be reduced to a joke.
But then there was the fact that I did indeed need power, and had already burned 15 miles of now-precious range looking for it. Good thing I had one more trick to try: the car’s own navigation system’s “find a charging station” function I mentioned earlier. With a healthy smattering of waypoints popping up in my proximity, I figured I was in business.
The first place I headed to was on “Electric Avenue.” That had to be good. And it was! Parallel to Abbot Kinney in Venice, thereby near Blue Star Donuts, I would have no trouble killing a couple hours while the car suckled on the power grid’s teet.
But when I finally found the electric car parking spots, they were guarded by a dead-eyed valet attendant who insisted the spots were reserved for people at some bar. “But I need power!” I pleaded. He surveyed the lot and sized up how many cars he’d have to move to let me near the plug. Turned back to me and shrugged.
There were at least two more stations within a few miles, I figured could find a situation with a little less attitude.
The next spot I tried to track down was at a marina. Or at least, that’s what the GPS claimed. I circled and circle and parked and walked around and still it eluded me.
Third waypoint: I followed the car’s route to another garage I couldn’t get into because I wasn’t a resident.
Fourth: I found myself at a Harley-Davidson dealership. Which had an EV charging station! Which was broken.
Then and only then did my saving grace appear; a Ralph’s grocery store with two charging ports “for customers only.”
Sure, I could wander those refrigerated halls for a couple hours. At this point I was ready to build a damn hamster wheel and run in place next to the car to make sure I’d have enough juice to get home.
The plug wasn’t a ChargePoint, but thankfully this outfit was smart enough to take my money anyway. I jammed the plug down the Kia’s throat and walked away with the kind of annoyed relief you feel when you realize you overreacted to something. I walked around the store, bought a pastry, walked around the block, meandered down the sidewalk. You know, had a really productive couple of hours, which is how much time I had to kill to recoup the power I’d used looking for power.
I spent something like four hours and 20 miles, over a period of two days, searching for a place to plug the car in. Then I killed even more time waiting for it to charge, since I couldn’t find a charger to seamlessly integrate into my life. The easy solution to the whole problem is to just get a plug at your house. The problem is, for many urban dwellers for which a Soul EV is otherwise extremely appealing, that’s often impossible.
As far as “good places to own an EV” go, Los Angeles seems hard to beat. You get great tax rebates, access to the high-occupancy highway lanes, and a decent selection of EVs at dealerships.
But even though the Kia Soul EV is within my price range and capable of satisfying most of my transportation needs, and I actually found it pretty pleasant, it’s not practical because of where I live and where I park. And most of my peers would be in the exact same logistical situation.
If my experience is anything to go by (and I think it is) EVs are great, if you happen to live the home-owning lifestyle that carmakers envision you having.
For the rest of us, though, the charging situation isn’t quite there yet.