By the time the Kia Soul made its U.S. debut in 2009, Kia Motors America, founded in 1992, had already achieved an incredible 15 consecutive years of improved sales. With the company determined to continue climbing the ranks of the most prominent automotive brands, however, the organization set out to revamp its product portfolio, which included the release of its all-new Kia Soul compact MPV. Although it has only been in production for a few years now, the urban crossover has contributed greatly to the company’s rapid ascension as an up-and-coming player in the auto industry. Making its appearance first as a 2010 model, Kia’s four-door hatchback carried a starting MSRP of $13,300 and sported trendy styling in the form of value-oriented packaging, which appealed to younger buyers. Combined with a distinct character resulting from a uniquely creative and highly popular marketing campaign, the Kia Soul has only gotten more popular as it has matured; however, production constraints have restricted the car from reaching its tremendous sales potential.
While likening its competition to “hamster wheels” and “appliances,” Kia distinguished the new hatchback as being very different from its peers by starting a craze with its commercials featuring time-traveling, party-rockin’ hamsters. The advertisements have been hugely successful in promoting the funky car and have been instrumental in helping Kia achieve 400K sales of the model from February 2009 through August 2013. Incredibly, despite the model remaining mostly unchanged throughout its first generation, sales have exploded from fewer than 32K units in 2009 to over 115K deliveries in 2012, an increase of 266% over that span.
Kia Motors America has been riding a wave of success in recent years, reaching a record 557,599 deliveries in 2012 thanks to a portfolio of popular models. Demand is high in America for many of the organization’s product offerings, but perhaps none more so than the Soul, at least relative to supply. According to Kia, at the manufacturing facility in Gwangju, South Korea where the Soul is built, upwards of 90 percent of the plant’s output is designated specifically for the U.S. market alone. With production for the compact MPV as lofty as it is, the facility is at its maximum capacity which suggests that there is plenty of opportunity being lost by the automaker. This issue is exacerbated by the fact that the Soul is one of the biggest contributors to Kia’s success as through August year-to-date the model’s sales account for 22% of the company’s total sales, making it the automaker’s third-highest selling vehicle behind only the Optima and Sorento. Thus, if a resolution could be found for the Soul’s production constraint problem, there is no telling how many more units would end up in American consumers’ driveways.
Unfortunately, the issue of lost sales due to limited production is a compounding problem as demand for the Kia Soul thus far has solely been for the only model variation currently available, the front-wheel drive four-door hatchback powered by either the 1.6L or 2.0L engine. Starting at the 2009 Detroit Auto Show, the company provided its first glimpse of a potential spin-off by introducing its Kia Soul’ster concept car, an open top, canvas-roofed version of the Soul that garnered much interest upon its reveal, causing Kia executives to discuss the possibility of bringing the car to production. Reportedly, due to the worsening state of the economy during the recession, however, a business case for the fun, open-air variant could not be made at the time and the carmaker was compelled to shelve its product plans. Nonetheless, while a production Soul’ster may or may not ever happen, the concept car was successful in discovering that demand exists for other adaptations beyond the original hatchback design.
Today, Kia Motors America finally made an official announcement that the company is poised to release a battery-powered Soul EV in 2014 as a global model, after rumors circulated for months. Aside from the EV, however, over the past couple of years, speculation has grown regarding the possibility of a couple other different models, especially with the arrival of the second-generation Soul this fall. Kia is said to be considering offering the Soul with an optional all-wheel-drive system that would go on sale in 2016, which would increase its sales potential, particularly in cold weather markets. Perhaps the most exciting prospect, however, comes in the form of the Kia Track’ster concept, which debuted at the 2012 Chicago Auto Show, equipped with a 2.0L 250-hp four-cylinder engine, six-speed short throw manual transmission, and all-wheel-drive. The three-door concept car did without the two rear doors from the Soul as well as the back seats to transform itself into a legitimate hot hatch and expanding the car’s reach to new buyers looking for more performance. Ultimately, however, while it is evident that the funky little car is capable of so much more, its biggest hurdle preventing its continued growth continues to be its production capacity.
In the meantime, the Soul hatchback remains popular amongst consumers ahead of the introduction of its all-new, “totally transformed,” 2014 model. With the return of the popular hamster marketing campaign, an evolved design, and an array of new elements, the little crossover is primed to build upon the momentum it has developed since 2009. The quirky Soul has always had the makings of an enormously successful vehicle for Kia, but the biggest question is how Kia Motors goes about addressing the issues that are inhibiting the car from being as great as it can be. Until the automaker figures out a way to build more units of its fun hatchback, it is likely that all of its concept cars and rumored spin-offs will remain just teasers of what will never come to fruition.