As the price of petrol slowly creeps upward and environmental legislation keeps pushing down CO2 limits, car manufacturers and car buyers will soon have to confront the question of “what’s the fuel of the future”. For Kia Australia, the solution is combustionless and electric.
It’s a brave approach for a carmaker in this country. Other manufacturers have cited Australia’s large distances between major cities and high average commute distances as obstacles to a purely-electric product plan, but Kia’s local office sees things differently.
“There was a decision made that we weren’t going to take a half-step, we’d take a full step,” said Kia Australia spokesperson Kevin Hepworth. “We would go straight to battery-electric”.
“If you asked Damien [Meredith, Kia Australia’s COO] five years ago, he’d have said hydrogen is the way forward. But there were too many issues with supply [of hydrogen].”
And regarding the idea of bringing in a plug-in hybrid to help alleviate so-called ‘range anxiety’, Hepworth said it was something that Kia Australia considered – and ultimately rejected.
“There was a lot of argument that it [PHEV] wasn’t that effective,” Hepworth said.
“It wasn’t just a matter of bringing them in, you have to then set your network up to do that, and then you’d have to do that process again if you wanted to go electric. We weren’t going to sell many hybrids anyway, so we decided to do the socially responsible thing and go straight to electric.”
“It’s not a social experiment or anything, but if you’re going to do something and you can do something good, do that.”
Kia Australia will kick off its venture into battery-electrics with the e-Niro small SUV roughly one year from now. Two more EVs will follow it into Kia showrooms.
“We’re confident we’ll have the e-Niro here by the end of next year, and that will be followed by a small passenger vehicle and a larger SUV”, Hepworth said. Timing for the latter two vehicles is still unclear, with Hepworth only stating they would be introduced on a “managed time scale”.
The company is also conscious that it needs to address other, more mundane, issues in order to spark EV sales: after-sales care and charging infrastructure.
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“We don’t want three or four main dealers in the city to be the only ones capable of servicing them. We need to make sure that each dealership, of the 134 that we have, all have a trained EV service person,” Hepworth said.
“And what we really need to avoid is a situation where Nissan have their own kind of plug, we have one, Tesla have one, Hyundai have one… that’s ridiculous. At some stage there has to be agreement.”
But with the e-Niro projected to boast a single-charge range of nearly 500km – and even more when driven at urban speeds – Kia Australia reckons energy storage technology is at the point where range is no longer a hindrance on adoption:
“The current Kia battery has a range of about 485km, then 620 for city use. So that solves the previous problem of ‘no range’. The next one is infrastructure.”
While little is known about the small car and larger SUV that are slated to follow the e-Niro to our shores, Kia is hoping that a new design direction for its alternative-fuel vehicles will help pull buyers away from petrol and diesel options. With unique styling made possible by their electric underpinnings, these cars are expected to be overtly different from their combustion-engined brethren.
That should also help justify their price premium, which Kia is hoping to keep to a minimum but is nevertheless open about the fact that EV tech requires additional outlay.
“Talking to the design team at Paris [motor show], the exciting thing for them is that with a bespoke electric platform there’s new design opportunities with space, styling,” Hepworth explained.
“There’s a lot that they can do. People should recognise that these are electric vehicles. Even though the e-Niro shares a name with the Niro, it will be on an electric platform.
“They won’t be priced premium simply because of the fact that they’re electric. They will be marketed with the ever-present, unchanging Kia philosophy of ‘great value’.”