By Lary Coppola
The new Kia Soul attempts to redefine cool, catering to the wants and needs of Gen Y. In a huge market pioneered by, and until now the exclusive property of, the Scion xB, the Soul, along with the Nissan Cube, appear to be staking take no prisoner claims on that market.
Like Scion, Kia’s hook is a large dose of personalization geared at making a statement of uniqueness in a cookie cutter world. With numerous factory and aftermarket accessories it’s easy to brand your own identity onto your Soul.
The model lineup includes four Kia Souls — and these aren’t typos — the base, the +, the !, and the sport. Note the lower case “b” and “s.”
The base Soul ($13,300) comes standard with a 1.6-liter, 122 horsepower, 4-cylinder engine and 5-speed manual transmission, rugged cloth seats, power windows and door locks, solar glass, rear wiper/washer, 60/40 rear seat, and an AM/FM/CD/MP3/SAT sound system with USB port and auxiliary input jack. It features 15-inch steel wheels with wheel covers, front disc brakes and rear drums.
The Soul+ ($14,950) upgrades to the 143-horse, 2.0-liter engine, 16-inch alloy wheels, rear disc brakes, cruise control, remote entry, Bluetooth, steering wheel controls, and tinted rear windows. A four-speed automatic is a $950 option. Other options include a power moonroof and foglights ($800) and a $400 audio package featuring five tweeters, subwoofer and external amplifier.
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) — our test model — offers black-and-red cloth seats and trim, metal pedals, a slightly firmer, sport-tuned suspension, a spoiler, and replaces the power moonroof with black front and rear fascias and side sills. The sport also offers the optional four-speed automatic.
Safety equipment includes six airbags, active front headrests, LATCH seating system, ABS, electronic stability control, and a tire pressure monitor.
The window sticker on my black and red test model had an interesting new category: Environmental Performance. The Soul scored 8 out of 10 on Global Warming, and 5 on Smog.
Walkaround: The lines are smooth and stylish for what’s essentially your basic box. Creating a clever illusion by making the rear windows narrower than the front, it appears as if there’s a rear downward slope to the roofline, which is actually achieved by the rising beltline below the windows. There’s also a small, upside-down wedge shaped third side window completing the illusion. Kia calls the design a reverse wedge greenhouse, noting the Soul appears to be wearing a pair of wraparound sunglasses.
The corners are nicely rounded, with chiseled wheel arches mitigating some of the boxiness. The grille is small, with stylish headlights wrapping over where the front fascia, fender and hood intersect.
Seemingly Volvo XC90-inspired taillamps adorn the rear corners. The liftgate and rear window are clean, smooth and light.
Kia is serious as a heart attack about appealing to the imaginations of its target 20-something market — although the Soul will strike a chord with certain 40- and 50-somethings as well. There’s uniquely exotic exterior paint colors, including Alien green, red-hot Molten, coffee-like Java, and metallic versions of Shadow, Titanium and Bright Silver. Additional colors available shortly will include Denim blue, bright white Ghost, and flame-emulating Ignition.
Interior: The interior is exceptionally clean and functional, offering an attractive and ergonomically correct layout. And except for the black-and-beige houndstooth-like upholstery on the upper seatbacks of the Soul!, it appears Kia hasn’t tried to do anything overly trendy. Even the two-tone black-and-red cloth on our test vehicle, didn’t compete for attention.
I found the front bucket seats comfortable, feeling like they’d be fine on a trip. Rear-seat legroom is lacking however. There are bottle holders in the front door pockets, plus cupholders in the console, a big two-level glovebox, nets on the front seatbacks, a trap-door compartment on the dash and grab handles over every door. There are auxiliary audio, ipod, and USB jacks, plus two 12-volt outlets.
There is one very fun option — a throbbing-to-the-beat rim of red light around the speakers in the door. I was great when I connected my iPod to a “driving music” playlist I put together specifically for judging sound systems, although I’m not sure how well it works with the rotund blather of Rush and talk radio. It can be turned on and off and you can play with its reaction to sound.
The liftgate is light, with a deep well compartment in the cargo space floor. The 60/40 rear seats easily fold flat, and interior passenger space is good, but consumes some cargo volume, compared to both the larger Scion xB and smaller Honda Fit.
Under The Hood: The base model uses a 122-horse, 1.6-liter engine with a five-speed manual transmission, but I’ll bet most buyers will opt for the 143-horse 2.0-liter with the optional four-speed automatic — especially since its rated at a combined 27 mpg.
Behind The Wheel: I found my test Soul sport with the 2.0-liter, and the automatic to be quite nimble and lots of fun to drive. The 2.0-liter features CVVT, or continuously variable valve timing. With 143 horses and 137 pound feet of torque peaking at a fairly high 4600 rpm, it does the 0-60 drill in around 8 seconds — which isn’t too bad.
The power steering is hydraulic rather than electric, but doesn’t feel as heavy as the xB. It doesn’t feel like a sports car, but isn’t meant to either. The brakes are firm and tight.
Whines: The exhaust is a little loud, diminishing reception on my Bluetooth earpiece.
Bottom Line: The Kia Soul will find its niche among the young and young at heart. The reverse wedge styling offers a new take on the basic box, while the interior, engine, automatic transmission, steering, and ride all hit home runs.