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2010 Kia Soul
Some Soul from Seoul: Kia finally produces a car with character
By Michael Banovsky, Feb. 26, 2009
Confession time: I’m in the target market for the Kia Soul and the vehicle’s engineers thought of something even I didn’t know I wanted.

FAST FACTS

1. Not the most powerful, or most efficient — but competitive; 142hp with 27 city / 35 hwy mpg.

2. Available in many trims to suit your budget

3. On even the most basic car, ABS, stability control, and power everything are standard

Front speakers that light up in tune with the music.

Seriously. It’s like being in a moving ambulance with the Crystal Castles cranked to 11.

Gimmicks aside, this $13,300 hatchback might just be the coolest thing to come out of Korea since the barbecue. On the base car, six airbags, active front headrests, power windows, power locks, AM/FM/CD/MP3 stereo with AUX and USB inputs, and air conditioning.

At that price, it’s hard not to like it. But let me make three things clear: the 1.6L engine on the base car is likely underpowered (they didn’t have any at launch to test), though standard are a huge number of features that are optional on other cars. Those not proficient with a manual transmission should take note: the base car is only available with a 5-speed manual transmission.

DRIVING

You know what? It drives pretty well. On winding and hilly roads, the car’s comparatively wide stance makes it feel solid, with little body roll. I drove the “+”, “!”, and “sport” trims — both automatics and a manual — and though quiet at steady speeds, passing prompted the ancient 4-speed transmission-equipped models to “Weeee” into third to make a pass. A five-speed automatic would work wonders for the car’s overall performance in hilly terrain.

The “sport” model I drove had “sport-tuned” suspension, 18-inch wheels, fog lights, a premium stereo with a subwoofer, a sunroof and the infamous “mood lamp” that beats in tune with the music. Why the mood lighting and not a 5-speed automatic? Or a telescoping steering column for shorter drivers? And why 18-inch wheels on a compact car that are expensive to fit winter tires to in colder climates — especially since many first-time buyers will gravitate toward this car.

INSIDE

Inside, a good mix of materials with a protruding center stack (reminiscent of the Volkswagen New Beetle) offer a good use of space. The glove box is huge, but the flat-folding rear seats and underfloor cargo tray are where the Soul earns practicality points. The rear underfloor tray is deep and large, and likely able to accommodate a shoebox at its center. Below the tray sits a spare tire.

Practicality is good for its class despite its diminutive exterior dimensions. It doesn’t look it, but the Soul is shorter than both the Dodge Caliber and Suzuki SX4. It feels more spacious inside than either, and although with the rear seats up there’s only space for two carry-ons, with the seats down it rivals the Toyota Matrix for cargo space.

SUPER PACKAGING POTENTIAL

Kia expects the better-equipped next-step-up 2.0L Soul “+” model to represent the most popular choice. At $14,950, it squares off at the soul (sorry, had to) of the compact car market, as the segment’s most desirable Korean import. Even Kia admitted that it would cannibalize sales from its Spectra5 model. Upgrades include alloy wheels, a more powerful 2.0-litre engine, disc brakes, a speaker upgrade, cruise control, keyless entry, Bluetooth handsfree connectivity, steering wheel-mounted audio controls, and body colored door handles and mirrors.

But how is it to drive? Compared with the compact class benchmark Honda Civic, the Soul also exudes a tied-down feel that’s rare in its class. Quick steering, coupled with good visibility meant I wished for more city streets to test the car’s undoubtedly in-town strengths. Kia told us during the presentation they had benchmarked the Dodge Caliber, Suzuki SX4, Scion xB, and upcoming Nissan cube — though for my money I’d also add the larger Pontiac Vibe and Toyota Matrix to the list.

ACCESSORIES

Kia said that the worst thing that could happen to the Soul is if it went “niche” — as in, if only computer repair technicians bought them. Helping their mission to get a Soul into the driveway of every buyer holding a check for 17-large is an aggressive marketing campaign that includes strange teaser commercials, and a boatload of accessories.

These include, but not limited to: a vinyl dragon that wraps around the Soul, a performance exhaust, lowering springs, q sport shifter, alloy wheel upgrades and chrome mirror caps. They hope buyers will be tempted into making their car a little more individual with dealer-installed upgrades, to further separate themselves from other owners.

CONCLUSION

My favorite Soul was the “!” trim, only available in cream white, navy blue, silver, or black. Its two-tone beige and black dash may not suit everyone’s tastes, nor will its houndstooth-patterned seats. After posting an image of the seats on Facebook, a friend commented on why Kia would use “leftover 80’s fabric.” I hadn’t the heart to say it had made a comeback…three years ago.

That’s the sort of discussion Kia hopes to generate with the Soul. Unless you sew your own seats, there’s no way to find a Toyota Matrix with such an eclectic interior. Compact cars are a more common sight on our roads, and the Soul seemed in my short drive to generate at least some positive attention from passing motorists.

A lady in her 50s even took the time to roll down her window and say the car was, “So cool.”

She was just about the age to appreciate mood lighting, too.

PLUS

Character
Feels like a larger car inside
Long options list

MINUS

Styling not for everyone
Can Kia really sell, say, the image of a MINI-type vehicle?
The base model is just sold to show people an “attractive price”