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The electric age

Friday, December 16th, 2016
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Pics: Kunda Dixit

Pics: Kunda Dixit

As a journalist writing on environmental issues, being seen driving an electric car a decade ago was supposed to be a statement. Then, with chronic fuel shortages and last year’s Blockade it became a necessity. Now, with the next generation of battery-powered crossovers coming into the market, there is no need anymore to punish yourself to be green.

The early model Reva bug was the size of a Mercury spaceship, and it took the dexterity of a cosmonaut to get in and out. But it was pain we were willing to inflict on ourselves to forsake fossil fuels. The joke was on the drivers waiting for days in petrol queues at Sajha or Army pumps as the Nepal Oil Corruption ensured a never-ending petrol shortage.

Taking a Kia Soul eV on a test flight to Bhaisepati last week, it seemed that all the sacrifice of the past ten years was worth it. Here, finally, is a battery car that has all the comforts and perks of the latest SUV for a fraction of the price because taxes on electric vehicles have been slashed. Besides, if you are a climate denier and embarrassed in the Age of Trump to flaunt a green image, then the Soul eV looks exactly the same outside and inside as the fossil Soul. No one need know you have gone green. The car even has a virtual engine sound to fool neighbours.

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After driving tiny semi-experimental battery guinea pigs for a decade, it is good to see that environmental awareness and advances in lithium battery technology have propelled electric vehicles to go mainstream internationally. At the top of the food chain you have the high-caste Tesla S and X. In the mid-rung, Tesla is unveiling the Model 3 and the Toyota Mirai. The third tier is populated by the likes Chevy Bolt, Volkswagen e-Golf, Nissan Leaf and the subject of our review today, the Kia Soul eV.

The Soul is a four-door hatchback with a range of up to 180km, with an interior as spacious as a SUV with plenty of leg and belly room. The 109HP motor under the front hood is powered by 32.7kWh of lithium ion polymer batteries located under the rear seats. Like all electric vehicles, the torque is phenomenal especially when zooming off from stationary position.

Full charging with the supplied 10A plug takes about 6 hours, but the car is also equipped for a DC CHAdeMO which allows full fast-charge in 30 minutes. Kia is trying to install the first of these in Kurintar so you can charge your Kia while having lunch on the way to Pokhara.

To appeal to customers used to luxury crossovers and the finer things in life, Kia has added gimmicks like heated and cooled seats (even at the back), heated steering wheel (so you don’t need gloves in winter), keyless entry, full sun roof, mood lighting like in 787 Dreamliners, and an autohold so that you don’t slide backwards downhill on the Bhaisepati slope. (The Soul doesn’t have handbrakes!)

For those of you with fancy cars accustomed to envious looks from pedestrians, the boxy Kia’s goofy demeanour will be a bit of a let-down. This car doesn’t get wolf-whistles. But, hey, beauty is in the eye of the beholder and as long as the interior is comfortable who cares what other drivers think — let them wait in the petrol lines.

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Internationally, however, the Soul will face stiff competition from the Tesla Model 3 which is priced even cheaper than the Soul eV at $35,000, is sleekness personified, and has a 300km range. The Soul will also have to upgrade its battery to keep up with the range offered by next-gen Bolts and Leafs which are in the same price category.

After the Nepal government, in its infinite wisdom cut taxes this year, electric vehicles are suddenly more affordable. The Soul eV+ (with sunroof and other accoutrements) is priced at Rs 5.8 million and the standard Soul eV is Rs 5.6 million – compared to the Rs 8.5 million for the petrol Soul. Taxes for electric vehicles are now down to 23% while fossil fuel cars are still at 243%. Savings in petrol and the annual Rs 30,000 road tax also make the Soul very cheap to operate.

Hybrids like Prius and Insight never made it to Nepal, and Tesla won’t be here for a while. So, as the only electric car besides the Mahindra e2O (reviewed for comparison, below) currently available in Kathmandu, the Soul makes you swoon.

e2O adds doors

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Anyone who has been driving a Mahindra Reva e2O for a while knows the kind of contortions passengers have to make to get into the back seat. While most things about the first battery car in the Nepal market was perfect for Kathmandu, it was getting in and out that was a problem. Mahindra has solved this with the five-door e2O Plus which was launched in India last month and will soon be in showrooms here.

We have reviewed the e2O in this paper before and there isn’t much to add, except to highlight the new features in the Plus version. Speaking of doors, the other inconvenience of the standard e2O was that the hatch had to be opened to plug the car for overnight recharge. The socket is now outside to make it look like a refueling inlet.

Mahindra has made a wise decision to upgrade the e2O rather than convert its unpopular Verito model to battery, and which didn’t sell well at all. It has kept the aerodynamic silhouette while adding trademark Mahindra grille in front, redoing the rear end, and making the car look much snazzier.

The other important improvement is that the 72V lithium battery pack in the P8 variant which gives the motor a peak torque of 91Nm and 40 HP. The P8 therefore has a top speed now of an impressive 130km/h and a range of 140km, 20 km more than the standard e2O. Other additions are an anti-rollback and a REVive ‘limp home mode’ of 10km when the battery runs low.

The P4 variant is 40% less than the cost of the P8 but has a range of only 110km. Win some lose some.

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