Chicago Auto Show, Part I: An ill wind blows some good

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We can’t wait for the day when the powers that be decide to move the Chicago Auto Show to sometime in August, but, until then, journalists braved the sub-zero temperatures and the bitter winds to see what fun and exciting vehicles awaited them in the third biggest city in America. While this show isn’t known for the most reveals, it is a favorite due to the nice facilities and the more laid-back approach. Here are some of the highlights from our trip. Check out Part II for the rest of the story.

Kia Optima Hybrid

2014 Kia Optima Hybrid

While the Kia Optima Hybrid has been around for a while, and is a wonderful vehicle (under normal driving conditions, our last test model got over 37 mpg!), a handful of upgrades make it even more competitive in the hybrid-vehicle arena. What’s new is a mild refresh, including front and rear fascia redos, new wheels, upgraded lighting, and a unique grille. All modifications were made to improve aerodynamics and, hence, fuel efficiency. For 2014, the Optima Hybrid’s front bumpers now feature vents to help with airflow. Both the 16- and 17-inch wheels are more aerodynamic, look great, and are lighter weight. Front LED headlamps are only on the Hybrid model, and this fuel-sipping sedan also gets updated badging.

Optima H badgeInside, there’s a new instrument panel with a TFT LCD cluster, and in the center stack, an optional eight-inch touchscreen. Kia also is offering an optional, classy white leather package (families with children, purchase at your own risk). No pricing has been announced yet, but expect one soon, as the vehicle goes on sale within the next month.

Kia Niro concept

Kia Niro Concept

We like when Kia introduces a concept vehicle; besides looking cool and unique, it eventually turns into something good. Case in point: Track’ster to Soul. In Chicago, Kia unveiled the Niro Concept. Kia tags it as an urban lifestyle vehicle, which may morph into a vehicle that will compete in the up-and-coming B-segment small-car category. First unveiled at the Frankfurt auto show last fall, the Niro is a smooth blend of unique looks and fuel-efficient power.

The design comes from Kia’s Germany design studio in Frankfurt, and looks dramatic and urban, ready to go off-roading or street racing at a moment’s notice. For those of us with a long memory, the image of Isuzu’s Vehicross came to mind immediately. The Niro features “ice cube” square headlamps, a two-tone exterior with black on the bottom and a brushed stainless steel roof, running boards that Kia is calling “blades,” and a stance that makes it look as wide as it is long. The Niro will stand out mostly for its dihedral butterfly doors that include a big chunk of the roof as well. Oversized 20-inch wheels are dressed with 224/40 low-profile rubber.

Kia Niro Concept interiorInside, the Niro is firmly planted in fantasy, as only a concept can. It’s a 2+2 design, and when the rear seats are folded, the carbon-fiber cargo area provides plenty of room. The front seats are quilted silver fabric, and the dash and instruments are black and aluminum for a dramatic look.

Motion is provided by a turbocharged 1.6-liter I4, good for 160 horsepower, and mated to a dual-clutch seven-speed transmission. Those power the front wheels, while an electric hybrid system powered by regen braking helps the rear wheels make 45 horsepower for more go when road conditions are less than ideal. It’s a unique system that, in theory, can be produced. We look forward to the production version of the Niro, whenever they bring it to market, and whatever they decide to call it.

Kia Soul EV

2015 Kia Soul EV

It’s no secret we’re big fans of the Kia Soul. But although it’s a top seller in the subcompact segment thanks to its roominess and performance, it’s also near the bottom when it comes to fuel economy. For 2015, Kia is fixing that by introducing the Kia Soul EV, a plug-in version of the popular Soul.

Soul Engine EVFor the most part, the Soul EV looks like its Soul sister, with a handful of exceptions, starting in front. In place of an open grille, the EV model has an enclosed sliding section that hides dual-port chargers. There’s the standard Level Two charge port, and also a quick-charge port. Times for charging the large, 27kWh lithium-ion batteries are about 4.5 hours with a 240v charge, and about 33 minutes to get an 80-percent charge with the quick port. Driving range is 80 to 100 miles on a full charge, but some tests, according to Kia, are seeing over 100 miles on a full battery. Plus you can drive at speeds up to 90 mph.  

Because the battery is flat and located beneath the floor, there’s no compromise for cargo space, but a loss of three inches in rear-seat leg room versus the gas-powered Soul. This still means the Soul EV’s rear seat is still among the roomiest in the segment, and the most of competitive EVs.

The other spotter’s guide giveaway is the two-tone paint choice: body is one color, roof is another. The wheels also have been designed for good aerodynamics, and the “super” low-rolling-resistance tires will help improve fuel-economy as well.

Kia SOul EV plugsThe Soul EV makes 109 horsepower and 210 lb-ft of torque. Regen braking is designed to capture and replace up to 12 percent of the car’s energy, and can be monitored via four different regenerative modes, including Eco mode on or off, and Drive or Brake modes.

The Soul EV will make good use of Kia’s UVO Services, where owners can tap their smartphones to control many features of the vehicle, such as preconditioning times, charge station locations (owners can charge at Kia dealerships for free), vehicle finder, and more. UVO Services also can download Yelp, iHeartRadio, and other apps we love on our phones, and use them in the car.

When the Kia Soul EV comes out this fall, it will be sold in California and Nevada, and next year will expand to New York, New Jersey, and other cities on the East Coast.