“Seoul is one of the worst cities in the world to experience a vehicle”, one of the ‘high-up’ executives at Kia Motors says with a wry smile, moments before I’m about drive one of the company's new electric vehicles through South Korea’s megacity.
It’s not exactly music to my ears, but as it turns out, his comments prove overly pessimistic, at least on our sample test drive of Kia’s little boxcar called Ray.
The overriding conditions beforehand have been good. For every day bar one of our late autumn visit, the skies were blue, the air fresh and crisp, and the sun shone over Seoul’s modern metropolis, highlighting the beautiful burnt red, orange and yellow autumnal leaves of the trees dotted among its vast sky-scraping cityscape. But sitting in a basin surrounded by mountains can mean Seoul doesn’t always receive enough wind to disperse air pollution, both of its own making and blown in from mainland China. It means that, alongside heavy rainfall in the summer months, fog and smog can be problems.
The city already has a comprehensive subway with nine main lines plus others to the airport and elsewhere, but it’s also recently initiated an electric car sharing scheme for those without a car or easy parking (which is tricky in Seoul). Precisely 187 Kia Ray EVs were provided to the programme in May 2013 – like Pininfarina’s design for the Paris Autolib or Boris’ bicycles in London – and there are now 275 electric charging points (of which 15% are fast-charging).
Hire costs vary depending on the hours clocked up and the time of day, but they start from £1.60 for 30 minutes rising to £27 for 24 hours at the weekend. Around 15,000 residents have so far signed up to the scheme with roughly 650 journeys undertaken each day. Of course, that’s a drop in the ocean for a megacity of more than ten million people (or 25 million-plus if you take in the greater metropolitan region including the adjacent Incheon metropolis and Gyeonggi province), but at least it’s a reflection of a desire for change at senior city council levels.
The Ray EV itself is perfect for urban manoeuvres, with short (3593mm) and high (1700mm) compact proportions, but with a long wheelbase (2520mm). There's also a sliding door and no B-pillar on one side to allow simple access in tight parking spots. It’s very spacious inside with lots of headroom, especially in the back due to a low rear seating position, and it offers a plethora of van-style storage options, from above the windscreen in the ceiling area to various bins and pockets.
The specification is also decent, trim quality good and driving through the city couldn’t be easier thanks to an automatic gearbox, tiny turning circle, good visibility from the high driving position, and large windows, not forgetting the perky acceleration from the 68hp electric motor. Getting to 62mph from a standing start might take a lengthy 15.9 seconds, but bursts between 10-40mph feel fast. It means that the Ray can keep up with traffic and copes with the undulating multiple-lane motorways that bisect Seoul’s heart with ease. Further out of the city’s centre and up the steep inclines that lead to the stunning hill-top view at Palgakjeong, the Ray is still capable and although the regenerative brakes can be snatchy, they’re easy to get used to.
No doubt our route was chosen carefully with local knowledge to avoid rush hours and congested hotspots, but still the drive was about as pleasant as you could expect within a mega city. What's more, initiatives like Seoul’s latest EV car sharing scheme – alongside ambitious plans to make the southern peninsula island of Jeju EV-only by 2030 – suggest South Korea is taking the environmental aspects of its future urban transport needs appropriately seriously.
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