Vehicle: 2010 Kia Soul Sport
Price-as-tested: $18,345 incl. $695 destination
Major equipment: 2.0L inline four-cylinder engine, 5-speed manual transmission, power sunroof ($700 option)
Approximate mileage driven: 175
If ever there was a car doomed to fail in the American market, surely it was the first-generation Scion xB. The underlying idea — hastily converting a Japanese-market “room-on-wheels” based on the showroom-poison Toyota Echo to left-hand-drive — was so terrible that one wonders exactly what kind of blackmail took place behind the scene to make it happen. Of course, the little xB turned out to be Scion’s success story. Nominally aimed at artsy college kids and even-artsier bohemians, the xB turned out to be a massive hit with small businessmen, housewives in search of a shopping-cart-sized shopping car, and older people who appreciated the basic utility of Toyota’s no-frills wagon. The xB’s runaway success was an object lesson in the fact that some people really do want an affordable urban utility vehicle, but Toyota chose to ignore that lesson by making the second-gen xB half as again as powerful, hundreds of pounds heavier, and utterly devoid of the original car’s simple charm.
With the new Soul, Kia aims to pick up Toyota’s dropped ball and introduce an entirely new group of consumers to its brand. Size wise, the Soul fits squarely between the first and second generation xBs. Though the Soul is nearly six inches shorter overall than the current xB, it is wider by a full inch. The Soul’s cargo volume is 19 cubic feet with the rear seats up, and 53 with them down compared to the xB’s 22 and 70 cubic foot capacities, respectively.
Kia will sell your Soul in four trim levels ranging from the base model with a 122-hp, 1.6-liter inline-four to the range topping Soul Sport which features a 142-hp, 2.0-liter inline-four. Our Sport trim tester was also equipped with a five-speed manual transmission rather than the optional four-speed automatic. As is often the case with econoboxes in general, the shifter in the Soul is extremely sloppy and the clutch has almost no feel to it.
Though the 2.0 does a good job at getting the Soul up to city speeds, the engine feels rather anemic in the upper ranges of the power band. This makes passing in the Soul at highway speeds something you have to plan well in advance since accelerating from 70 to 80mph seems to take hours rather than seconds. Also be aware that the Soul rides right in the middle of its rev range in top gear at 70mph, so the noise and vibrations from the engine can become a little intrusive after a while.
This will come as a surprise to anyone who has ever driven a Rio of any vintage, but the “new Kia” is very focused on vehicle dynamics and driving feel. I never once felt like I was driving a box when behind the wheel of the Soul. Steering feel is excellent, and reminded me of my old 4th-generation Volkswagen GTI in way that it was weighted.
Interior quality of the Soul is much higher than I expected as well. The red and black interior provided a nice contrast without being too in your face while driving. The seats are extremely comfortable even after extended driving sessions, and the materials used throughout the interior look to be durable and of high quality.
The instrument cluster and center stack are very well done, with all gauges and controls clearly marked and within easy reach of the driver. I do have to make a point to compliment the Soul’s stereo system as well. This is the best standard stereo system I’ve heard in a car at this price point, and I will go so far as to say that it’s better than the stock system in my Audi TT.
Not all of the little Kia’s features are up to Audi spec, however; witness the red LED light rings in the front speaker pods. With the twist of a knob, the speaker enclosures become “mood” lighting, or can be set to flash with the beat of the music. Fortunately there is also an “off” position to kill the lighting all together. Still, it goes to show that Kia has clearly done their homework and is definitely trying to appeal to the A.D.D. ridden youth of today.
All things considered, I actually enjoyed my experience with the Soul. In the few days I’ve had with the Soul, it’s already grown on me more than the Scion xB has in the six years it’s been on the market. The Soul is the type of fun, practical and affordable vehicle that Kia needed to bring youth buyers to their dealerships… and don’t be surprised to see some of those small businessmen, old folks, and back-to-basics types sneaking in the showroom doors behind the hipsters.