2011 Kia Soul Expert Review
As far back as 2005, Kia tasked itself with becoming Korea's sporty automaker, leaving parent Hyundai to become a more affordable luxury brand. Then-chief operating officer Len Hunt admitted that while Kia's value proposition was clear, its products largely failed to connect with buyers on an emotional level – the company's models were purchased based on price, warranty and little else.
Since that time, Kia has steadily introduced a slew of greatly improved products, but nothing remotely "sporty" has hit showroom floors. Sure, there have been a few promising-looking concepts, 2007's Kee and Kue, along with 2008's Koup... but while the company has been creating one-off showcars, Hyundai has grabbed eyeballs, market share, and more than a few magazine covers by delivering both upmarket and sporty vehicles, namely the Genesis Sedan and Coupe.
And yet, here we find ourselves in Miami, ready to drive Kia's latest and greatest, the 2010 Soul. Is this where the "sporty" kicks in? At first blush, things aren't promising – the Soul is front-drive, modestly powered, tallish, and squared-off in an economy-car-tall-wagon-crossover-looking sort of way. None of which is pushing any "sporty" buttons for us. Did we miss a new, possibly ironic meaning for the word?
Follow the jump to find out...
Photos copyright ©2009 Chris Paukert / Weblogs, Inc.
Our travel and lodging for this media event was provided by the manufacturer.
Well, hang on a second. Those are rather chunky and handsome alloys on our Sport model. 18-inchers from the looks of it. Come to think of it, that stance is surprisingly wide, with what appears to be a broader track than anything that might reasonably be called a competitor. And now that you mention it, for a box, the Soul is pretty funky looking – check out that tapered greenhouse and cantilevered roof. For a small car, this thing has gobs of character. Of course, it's exactly the sort of character that results in club kids conjuring up their own implausibly colored, structurally unstable haircuts... but that's what passes for style these days, right?
Most people will probably find the Soul either irrepressibly cool or simply fail to "get" its style altogether – there's no middle ground to be had. Quite literally, this is by design – Kia has architected its Soul to elicit the same strong love/hate emotions that went on to fuel blockbusters like the Chrysler 300 and the original Scion xB. Us? We happen to love it. To our eyes, it has far more originality and panache than competitors like the Honda Fit, Chevrolet HHR and Toyota Matrix, not to mention Scion's xB and xD. While perhaps not quite as quirky as the new Nissan Cube, the Soul ultimately strikes a more balanced, tougher look that will appeal to more people.
Step inside, and oh, my... there's that club kid again. Funky shapes, patterns and retina-flambéeing colored plastic abounds inside. But hang on a sec. Like a skate punk that hides a straight-A report card from his mates, there's a practicality streak inside the Soul. Controls are well-placed and easy to decipher and operate. The gauges are exceedingly easy-to-read and the glove box is gigantic – big enough to swallow a notebook computer. Although there's no telescoping steering column, between the tilt feature and the height-adjustable driver's seat, we were able to find a comfortable seating position. There's great headroom and an airy feeling inside, and visibility is generally very good, though the D-pillar does leave a blind spot that warrants extra care.
What's more, the interior seems to be well constructed. While plastics are of the hard variety, they are all nicely grained and free of cheap-looking shine. Everything appears to be very well screwed together, with minimal, uniform panel gaps that issued nary a squeak or rattle during our test drive. Sure, we admit that the red inserts throughout the car probably won't age well, but that's more because fashion is a fickle mistress, not because the materials themselves are overly discount.
The Soul's boxy form also pays dividends in the form of good usable interior space, with spacious accommodations for two up front and belts for three in the second row. We probably wouldn't recommend going more than two up in the back, but rear passengers will be treated to plenty of head, leg and toe room, although there's no center armrest. Total interior cargo space is good at 53.4 cu-ft (rear 60/40-split seats folded flat), but others, like the Scion xB trounce it (69.9 cubes). Still, we think the Soul has plenty of room for adults, and we like the cargo area's surprisingly deep sub-floor well, which offers a good amount of space for all of your hipper-than-thou lifestyle accessories.
So the Soul is a utile, fashion-forward device, but what's under the hood? In the case of our Sport, a normally aspirated, 2.0-liter four-cylinder putting out 142 horsepower (at 6,000 rpm) and 137 lb-ft of torque (at 4,600 rpm). For those wondering, this iron-block four-pot is not related to the 2.0-liter turbocharged engine found in the Hyundai Genesis Coupe, so any thoughts of quick-and-dirty turbo swap-ins are best left on the shelf. Side Note: the engine compartment looks a bit unfinished and agrarian, without so much as a plastic cover to hide the oily bits.
For the record, Kia is also offering a base 1.6-liter four-cylinder model paired exclusively with a five-speed manual transmission, and that combination is good for 122 horsepower (at 6,300 rpm) and 113 lb-ft of torque (at 4,200 rpm). However, Kia only expects around five percent of Souls to be so-equipped, making it more of a price leader ($13,300 plus $695 for freight) or perhaps a fuel economy hedge bet if gas prices shoot up again (EPA estimates call for 26 miles-per-gallon in the city and 31 on the highway, versus the 2.0-liter's 24/30 mpg rating). Either way, no examples were on hand at the launch event for us to test.
Our 2.0-liter was paired with a five-speed manual, and although we sampled the workmanlike four-speed automatic in another tester, we can't recommend it, as its lack of a manumatic override and reluctance to let the engine rev puts the kibosh on fun, turning this Kia into something of a Soulless appliance. The five-speed is not only the best way to extract power from the engine, it's also by far the most entertaining.
We wish the clutch felt a bit less spongy and offered more linear engagement (there's some dead space off the carpet, so it takes a bit of familiarization to build smoothness), but it's still a fun setup, with reasonably short throws and positive gate-to-gate action.
Bouncing Souls? Erm... Not So Much
Given its large-for-the-class tires and boxy profile, we had our concerns about how the Soul would behave at highway speeds, with thoughts of tramlining and a rough and noisy ride filling our heads. We needn't have worried on Miami's billiard table-flat surfaces, as the Soul tracked nicely down the road, with particularly good on-center feel and accuracy from its rack-and-pinion steering. Wind noise wasn't as big an issue as we had feared, but tire roar from the 225/45 Nexen radials was indeed present. We suppose that's why Kia threw in standard Sirius satellite radio and USB/aux inputs, and why our Soul was fitted with the 315-watt stereo that includes a set of glowing red speaker lights that are either ridiculously cool or just plain ridiculous, depending on how old you are (we're ready for our Metamucil, Mr. DeMille). Given that Florida roads aren't exactly ridden with potholes and frost heaves, we'll reserve final judgment on ride quality until we can get more seat time in less temperate climates.
We'll also withhold ruling on the Soul's handling front until we can chuck it into some undulating twisties – winding roads are in desperately short supply around Miami. Despite a lack of challenging tarmac, throwing the Sport into what few corners we could find with real gusto revealed that its solid structure, wide track and tightened-up independent front and torsion-beam rear suspension are up to the job, delivering no floaty or tippy sensations to go along with predictable amounts of understeer.
Coupled with the five-speed manual, we found the Soul to be more tossable and enjoyable to drive than the xB, a revelation that probably has something to do with the fact that it's a half-foot shorter and leaner by about 300 pounds. Under these circumstances, the Honda Fit feels a bit more precise in the way it goes about its movements, but the gulf isn't huge, and the Soul has a scrappy, newborn-pup verve that's endearing.
Major kudos goes to Kia for making every safety feature it offers on the Soul standard across the range, from base 1.6-liter cars on up to loaded 2.0-liter Sport models like our $18,345 tester. All Souls come with standard four-wheel disc brakes that include anti-lock- and electronic stability control, along with a full compliment of airbags and active headrests. By comparison, some of the Soul's rivals resort to cheaper drum brakes in lower-line models, as well as making certain safety features optional. We'll have to wait for official crash test scores, but when it comes to safety, there are no extra boxes to check.
It's worth noting that during our impromptu photography sessions, we were approached numerous times by curious onlookers who wanted to know more about the Soul. This is a common occurrence for motor journalists when driving expensive sports cars and such, but we can't recall the last time we were approached as frequently for something so affordable. Onlookers ranged from rollerblading bikini-wearing teens to thirty-something cyclists to the AARP-set. All were impressed by the car's visual presence, its thoughtful interior and disarmingly inexpensive price.
We suspect that Kia will sell a boatload of these things, and not only to their Gen-Y target audience, but also to older buyers just looking for good value and easy ingress and egress. For its part, Kia isn't ignorant of the sizeable elderly contingent that has found its way into boxcars like the Scion xB and Chrysler PT Cruiser, and officials say they welcome not just the young, but also the young-at-heart.
Evolution of the Soul
So, what's next for the Soul? Well, according to product strategy manager Fred Aikens, don't expect an all-wheel drive model. Aikens says flatly "that's not what we want it to be." Given that the Soul is riding on a modified version of the Rio platform, we suspect re-engineering the chassis for an extra set of driven wheels would be prohibitively expensive.
In our talks with Aikens, we noted how it would be a hoot if Kia could swipe the 2.0-liter turbocharged engine from parent Hyundai's Genesis Coupe partsbin. While he wouldn't say much in response, Aikens did sheepishly note that the Soul is capable of handling more power. An intriguing side note is that Kia brought hundreds of Korean-spec diesel models to the States to show off at clinics and buzz-building events (before American-spec gasoline models were available), so the company took the opportunity to do some impromptu market research. Their findings? They "learned a lot from it." Hmmm. While we have our doubts that Kia would take its chances on an affordable oil-burner in the States, officials consider the Soul to be the brand's "halo car," so who knows?
In the meantime, Soul intenders will still have their hands full trying to spec out their own cars. That's because Kia is following Scion's model of offering tons of ways to personalize their rides. Along with selecting one of eleven different exterior colors (eight available at launch, three more later this year), buyers will receive one of three different interior schemes, along with a range of options and some 50+ dealer-installed accessories, including body kits, wheel choices, and so on. Right now, heightened performance doesn't seem to be on the menu, but Kia says it is courting the aftermarket to help develop model-specific parts and a few warranty-friendly hop-ups could find their way into the company catalog, but we wouldn't hold our breath for more than, say, a strut-tower brace or a freer-breathing air intake..
Judging the Soul
Okay, so in the end, this Kia is less about sporty performance and more about sporty attitude. But in its class, the Soul is definitely among the most entertaining offerings. It's got a unique look, a long list of features, a ridiculously long warranty (10 years/100,000 miles), and it is genuinely fun to grab by the scruff when equipped with a manual transmission. In short, it's got real Soul. That said, we can think of plenty of other great-sounding terms that end in a "y" that Kia's marketing team might like in lieu of "Sporty": "Spunky," "Funky," "Sprightly," and... oh, "Great Buy." To consumers' ears, that may just sound best of all.
Photos copyright ©2009 Chris Paukert / Weblogs, Inc.
New Car Test Drive
Boxy new compact is cute, spirited, practical.
The Kia Soul is a new vehicle invented by its young designer, catering to the wants and needs of his fellow Gen Y types. It might be said that the Soul is an extension of the boxy little 2006 Scion xB, because the redesigned '07 xB drove off that track, and the Soul aims to steal that market as well as find its own.
Kia is heavily pitching personalization, offering many accessories and ways to attach your identity to your Soul. Everything from sideview mirrors in accenting colors, to seats that glow in the dark. Their goal with the Soul is to stand out in a sea of sameness.
The base model uses a 1.6-liter engine with a five-speed manual transmission for $13,300, but far more buyers will opt for the 2.0-liter with an optional four-speed automatic for $15,900, getting 27 combined miles per gallon.
We found the Soul felt nimble and light, fun to drive. The lines are smooth and stylish, for a box, and the interior is notably clean and functional. Standard equipment includes six airbags, ABS, and electronic stability control to keep you safe. There's a sport (lower case S) model, but it's mostly just trim, with slightly firmer suspension. You'll have to look to the aftermarket for a hot Soul.
The window sticker of our test model showed a new category: Environmental Performance. The Soul earned an 8 out of 10 for its Global Warming score, and 5 for its Smog score.
There are four Kia Souls: the base, the +, the !, and the sport. No, those aren't typos.
The Soul ($13,300) uses a 1.6-liter engine making 122 horsepower, five-speed manual transmission, and comes with rugged cloth seats, power windows and door locks, 60/40 rear seat, solar glass, rear wiper/washer, and an AM/FM/CD/MP3/SAT sound system with USB port and auxiliary input jack. It has steel 15-inch wheels with wheel covers, front disc brakes, rear drum brakes.
The Soul+ ($14,950) upgrades to the 2.0-liter engine making 142 horsepower, 16-inch alloy wheels, rear disc brakes, cruise control, remote entry, Bluetooth, steering wheel controls, and tinted rear windows. A four-speed automatic transmission is optional ($950). Options are a power moonroof and foglights ($800) and an audio package with five tweeter speakers, subwoofer and external amplifier ($400).
The Soul! ($16,950) comes with 18-inch alloy wheels, the premium audio package, power moonroof, and premium houndstooth accented cloth upholstery, with a leather steering wheel and shift knob, and metal-finish interior trim.
The Soul sport ($16,950) replaces the power moonroof with black front and rear fascias and side sills, a spoiler, black-and-red cloth seats and trim, metal pedals, and a sport-tuned suspension. The Sport uses the five-speed manual or optional four-speed automatic ($950).
Safety equipment includes six airbags, active front headrests, LATCH seating system, ABS, electronic stability control, and a tire pressure monitor.
Make no mistake, Kia is serious about capturing the imaginations of their target 23-year-olds (although it's a car for 40- and 50-somethings, too). Check out these unique exotic exterior paint colors, including metallic tones of Shadow, Titanium and Bright Silver; coffee-inspired Java; red-hot Molten; and Alien green. Additional colors available later in the model year will include flame-emulating Ignition, Denim blue and bright white Ghost.
The Soul was well on its way to being built when the latest Scion xB was introduced, and there might have been some OMGs around the Kia design studios, because the two cars look a lot alike. But look closer, and the Soul will stand out. Driving around Miami, the Soul got lots of positive looks.
Kia calls the shape a reverse wedge greenhouse, adding that the Soul looks like it's wearing a pair of wraparound sunglasses. Because the rear windows are narrower than the fronts, there appears to be a downward rearward slope to the roof, but it's a clever illusion achieved by the rising beltline below the windows. There's a final and small third side window, an upside-down wedge to complete the shape.
Bold chiseled wheel arches give the Soul strength. The corners are nicely rounded, erasing some of the inherent boxiness. The grille is small and tidy, the Soul's mouth no bigger than needed so suck in air for the engine (unlike so many, from Audi to Dodge truck). The headlights are stylish, wrapping over the intersection of front fascia, fender and hood. There's an artificial black vent on each front fender behind the wheel, a nice touch. A black horizontal ding strip on the doors doesn't do much for cleanliness, but it has a function. The 16- and 18-inch alloy wheels are nothing special, but one of the test cars had carbon-fiber stick-on accessory appliques that made them look like stylish 10-spokes, until you got close enough to touch.
Big vertical Volvo-like taillamps, shaped a bit like arrowheads, climb the rear corners and project a feeling of safety. The liftgate and rear window are clean and smooth (and darkly cool when tinted), with an indented handle under a Kia oval logo and a stylish chrome Soul badge off to the side.
Maybe the nicest thing about the interior is that Kia hasn't tried to do anything too trendy except maybe for the black-and-beige houndstooth-like upholstery on the upper seatbacks of the Soul! Everything is simple, clean and functional, a handsome and ergonomic layout. The cloth is solid. Even the two-tone black-and-red cloth on the sport doesn't feel like it's shouting to get your attention.
There is one trick option that's way cool, and should be a hit with the 23-year-olds (and spirited 60-year-olds): the throbbing-to-the-beat rim of red light around the speakers in the door. We found a reggae station in Miami and watched it bop, as we cursed the Florida sun and wished it were after dark, to better enjoy the spectacle at our knees. It seems a little out of place when listening to talk radio, however. This light can be turned on and off and you can play with the way it reacts to sound. It's fun.
The front bucket seats are comfortable, good for long trips, and the interior vinyl trim is fine. There are bottle holders in the front door pockets plus cupholders in the console with its own deep compartment, a huge two-level glovebox, map nets on the front seatbacks, a trap-door compartment on the dash (that's indented so things don't slide around), and grab handles over every door. There are auxiliary audio, ipod, and usb port connections, and two 12-volt outlets.
It has a nice steering wheel, with the usual standard and extra optional controls. The three-ring instrument panel looks nice and clean with an eave so the gauges are readable in the sun. The vertical oval center stack looks great with business-like knobs and buttons. We found the four-speed fan quiet at 2 and making icy air conditioning at 4.
Rear-seat legroom is lacking. When we climbed into the back seat, our average-height knees hit on the front passenger seatback, which wasn't pushed all the way back.
The liftgate is light and pops up easily. The 60/40 rear seats drop flat in a heartbeat. There's an excellent compartment under the cargo space floor, and below that a space-saver spare tire. Interior passenger space is good, but it eats up some cargo volume, compared to the larger Scion xB and smaller Honda Fit.
The Soul is nimble and fun to drive. We drove Soul+ and Soul sport, each with the 2.0-liter engine, the Soul+ with a four-speed automatic and the sport with a five-speed manual and tuned suspension. We didn't get any seat time in the base model with the 1.6-liter engine having 122 horsepower and 115 pound-feet of torque, but Kia says there won't be many of those models sold.
The 2.0-liter engine features CVVT, or continuously variable valve timing. It makes 142 horsepower with a good 137 pound feet of torque peaking at a fairly high 4600 rpm; but we found that it pulled fine, if gently, at 2000 rpm, even with the manual transmission in third gear. With the manual, it will accelerate from 0-60 mph in 8.8 seconds, which isn't bad. (We figure 8.0 seconds is the dividing line between quick and sluggish.)
The manual gearbox comes with a clutch that's smooth, both from a standing start and upshifting. However, there's a gap in ratios between second and third gears that the engine torque can't always hide.
The automatic is only a four-speed, but it would be our choice. For around-town driving, it fills the bill; and out on the highway, it's smooth on the upshifts and doesn't kick down too much.
The power steering is hydraulic rather than electric, and does not feel as heavy in the hands as the Scion xB. It makes the whole car feel lighter, which it is by about 250 pounds. Don't expect it to feel like a sports car, but then it's not intended to.
The suspension is good, compliant, okay over speed bumps, and not once did we hit any jagged spots. We climbed into the sport model with its firmer shocks and springs, and couldn't feel much if any difference in comfort. However, we were in Miami, so there were no corners to challenge the Soul. Kia says the sport suspension mostly reduces body roll. The brakes were firm and tight.
However, one thing we did notice in the sport was the louder exhaust. It's the same system, but something about the manual transmission makes the Soul louder and more visceral feeling, with more vibration too. We've noticed this in other cars. The redline is 6000 rpm, and it gets there nicely.
The Kia Soul is a new model that should find a niche that the Scion xB seems to have left behind. It will appeal to the young and young at heart. The reverse wedge styling does much to bring distinction to a basic box. The interior gets an A. The engine, automatic transmission, steering and ride all leave no room for complaint.
Sam Moses filed this NewCarTestDrive.com report from Miami.
Soul base ($13,300); Soul+ ($14,950); Soul! ($16,950); Soul sport ($16,950).
Options As Tested
automatic transmission ($950), audio upgrade ($400), power sunroof ($800), carpeted floor mats ($95).
Kia Soul+ ($14,950).
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