Kia Soul — Smart, small and fun

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Who knew a few years ago that little boxes on wheels would by the end of the decade be all the rage, at least in one corner of the automotive market — that automakers would start thinking “inside the box” in North America.

Granted, we’ve had the funky little square Scion xB on our shores since 2004, and the Europeans and Japanese have been driving squares with windows for years. But here in the good old US of A we’ve stuck to more shapely little creatures when it comes to sub-compact hatches and sedans.

But given a taste of success with Toyota’s Scion brand and Honda’s extremely boxy, but slightly bigger Element — sold in impressive numbers since it was introduced in 2003 — the Japanese and South Koreans figured it was time to start piling on.

The really interesting thing to us with this emerging trend is that, unlike many new design exercises, form does not trump function. In fact, these little squares — even if Nissan insists on calling theirs a “Cube” — no matter how hip they appear to the younger generation are imminently functional.

They are some of the most user-friendly cars built in decades — small and fuel efficient squeezing every conceivable ounce of cargo and passenger room from a sub-compact platform while delivering gas mileage measured in the 30s on the cheapest 87 octane.
And as icing on this automotive cake, they are generally fun to drive and easy to maneuver in the daily chores of life.

We’ve been raving about the new retro muscle cars, the Camaro, Challenger and Mustang, over the past few months. But perhaps more important in this time of economic hardship and growing concern over fuel consumption — not to mention the new escalation in pump prices — these vehicles deliver everything a small family needs including a well-equipped price of under 20 grand.

Just a few short months ago we drove the stylish B-segment 2010 Kia Soul in the equally stylish South Beach area of Miami and down through Key Largo and Key West. We don’t know if the flat terrain and crowded roadways of South Florida was the place for a test drive, but we enjoyed the scenery and went with the flow.

The one thing we did learn, and maybe this was just the reason we were where we were, is the little Kia was a breeze to move in and out of traffic, and easily ran with anything we encountered on the road. All-in-all an enjoyable ride, one that proved out the excellent handling of the Soul from Seoul.

Additionally we just finished a week-long experience with the Soul; a totally different type of experience than the initial one day test drives in Miami.

And we will admit up front that we had steeled ourselves to seven days of small car driving. But to our surprise, the Soul was far from small car drudgery. It was fun to drive and fun to be seen in as well. It elicited smiles just about everywhere we went.

Actually, the Soul isn’t quite as boxy as others, perhaps an optical illusion, with some interesting curves, big fender flares and a squared-off rear with its almost square hatch surrounded by large light panels; so we looked good too.

Like other entries in this unique segment, its wheels are pushed to the corners giving it a 100-inch wheelbase to get the most usability out of its diminutive 162-inch length.

The interior is impressive especially considering Kia is known for straight-forward and simple layouts that are pretty dull. While the Soul uses many bits and pieces from the Kia parts bin, they are used in interesting combinations together with — at least in our top trim level Sport model — a very appealing two-tone red and black dashboard, door panels, and seat fabrics.

The center stack flows down in pod fashion, jutting out for easy reach of climate and audio controls. At the top of the pod is a large speaker enclosure and below that a storage bin. The thing here is that the dashboard and interior trim work well together. Controls, as in other Kia products, are simple and easy to use. And they feel good to the touch.

We are big on satellite radio readouts, which offer such useful information as artist and song title. The Kia readout is top notch and also offers at a glance outside temperature and time.

There are numerous interesting features available that elevate the little car above others. They include a glove box door big enough to hold a laptop computer, door bins that include a useable drink holder that puts the bottle or can in perfect reach of the driver, and lighted door-mounted audio speakers that pulse to the beat of the music. But the most useful feature for us during a Saturday morning shopping trip to a couple of produce stands was a partitioned cargo tray under the rear floor.

We had purchased three watermelons at one stand, which were rolling around in back like bowling balls, making our next purchase of tomatoes, squash, okra and strawberries susceptible to being crushed before we made it home.

No worry. We pushed the melons out of the way, lifted the cargo lid, and placed the fruit and vegetables in the safety of separate compartments.

While there is only 19.3 cubic feet of cargo space behind the seats, it expands to 53 cubic feet when the seats are folded.
More impressive is the rear passenger space. The Soul features scads of rear-seat legroom and comfortable accommodations for two riders, although three can squeeze together for short trips.

The Soul comes with two engine choices and four trim levels — two strangly named — starting at $13,995 for the base model. It’s the only model to get the 1.6-liter 122-horsepower 4-cylinder engine. Standard on the base are 15-inch wheels, air conditioning, full power equipment, and a four-speaker sound system with CD and MP3.

We recommend moving up at least one level to the “+” adding the bigger 2.0-liter 142-horsepower 4-cylinder mated to a five-speed manual transmission for a base price of $15,645. For that outlay you will also get 16-inch wheels, keyless entry, steering-wheel mounted controls, upgraded audio and cruise control.

The “!” trim and the top Sport trim bring even more goodies topping out at the Sport with four-speed automatic at $18,595.

We found the bigger engine mated to the manual transmission lively, but to get the most out of it and approach its 8.8-second measured 0- to-60 time you must let it run into the upper reaches of the rev band.

We found the Soul entertaining in most driving situations with decent road feel and a compliant ride. This included runs on back country roads with definitive changes in elevation; far different than our flat ride in Miami.

The manual shifter was a bit spongy, but clutch feel was good. The automatic which we drove in Florida was more than adequate and fairly smooth.

Our top line Sport test car with manual transmission included one option, a $700 power sunroof. Bottom line was $18,345. Like the Scion and other cars in this segment, dealer-installed specialty options are available in large numbers.

We like the Soul. We think it is one of Kia’s best efforts ever. It’s not just for the young it’s also for the young at heart. Now if we just understood the Hamster commercials.

Base price: $13,959; as driven, $18,345
Engine: 2.0-liter 4-cylinder
Horsepower: 142 @ 6,000 rpm
Torque: 137 foot-pounds @ 4,600 rpm
Drive: front wheel
Transmission: 5-speed manual
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 100.4 inches
Length: 161.6 inches
Curb weight: 2,800 pounds
Turning circle: 34.4 feet
Luggage capacity: 19.3 cubic feet
Cargo capacity: 53 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 12.7 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 30 mpg highway, 24 city
0-60: 8.7 seconds (Motor Trend)
Also consider: Nissan Cube, Scion xB, Honda Fit

The good:
• Excellent passenger space
• Considerable features for the money
• Intriguing styling

The Bad:
• Spongy manual transmission

The Ugly:
• Crazy trim level names