Sunday, November 11, 2012

Kia Soul - Thinking Inside and Outside the Box

The Kia Soul is a tasty flavor of cube-shaped vehicle that you can buy today. You may already be familiar with the Scion xB, which started this whole box-shaped car segment about a decade ago. Then, there was Honda's Element, a little larger, but still the same idea. The Nissan Cube came along too, in a rounded, fanciful, asymmetrical interpretation.

The idea is that some folks don't care if the car is sexy and swoopy--they want a practical ride that hauls people and stuff, and want to be straightforward and non-nonsense. The original Scion xB (called the bB in Japan) was a youthful fashion statement, and over in the U.S. it became a favorite for tuners and custom shops to play with.

The Soul seems to do the best job, it appears at this writing, of getting the recipe right. The xB has become bloated and uncute in its second generation, and the Cube is, well, kind of wacky. I love the Cube myself, with its strange carpet on the dash, single side wrap-around rear window, and water-in-the-lake ceiling shape. But the Kia is more balanced.

The body is overtly boxy, but also has a wedge quality, looking alert, active and even a little macho. It comes in unique colors, such as Molten (like my tester), Dune and Alien Green. The face wears the Kia tiger-nose (pinched in the middle) grille, and the front light pods are fascinatingly complex. The oversize taillamps in back are chunky and look unlike anything else on the road.

It is quite roomy inside, with a clear view out and more of the tough attitude of the exterior. As Kia has matured (and acquired Audi's former chief designer, Peter Schreyer), the look and feel of its cars has been upgraded significantly. The inside feels crafted, with appealing soft-touch surfaces, in shapes that look substantial but not bulky. There's enthusiasm without overexuberance, so you notice and appreciate the look and feel of the car without having your attention drawn to any odd angle or texture. The instrument panel feels like something from a sports car, but the rest of the car is more of a tall upscale sedan.

The Soul comes as a four-door hatchback only, in three ascending levels: Soul, Soul + and Soul ! (exclaim). My tester, as a top level !  model, had, thanks to the Premium Package, surprisingly luxurious two-tone leather seating among other fine features. Typical of Kias since the beginning, there is a long list of standard equipment--no strippers, but you do get benefits of stepping up to a +, including a move from 15-inch steel wheels to 16-inch alloys, keyless remote, privacy glass, and, most important, a jump in engine size.

The basic Soul has a 1.6-liter inline four-cylinder engine that puts out a competitive 138 horsepower and 123 lb.-ft. of torque. Select a standard six-speed manual or opt for the six-speed automatic. The + and ! get a 2.0-liter engine that bumps horsepower to 164 and torque to 148 lb.-ft.

Interestingly, the fuel economy ratings have just been adjusted, after Hyundai and Kia were found to have released slightly optimistic figures. The original ratings of 26 City, 34 Highway for the 2.0-liter engine with either transmission are now downgraded to 23 and 28 respectively. I averaged 24 miles per gallon. At 2,600 to 2,700 pounds, The Kia scoots along easily with the larger engine.The smaller engine, in a car weighing about 100 pounds less, has economy figures of 2 mpg better.

You can order the Eco Package on the 2.0-liter-engine cars that includes Idle Stop and Go technology that shuts off at lights, along with low rolling resistance tires. It'll get you an extra 1 mpg.

Kias have offered little extras historically to amuse the young crowd. My tester had a setting to add illuminated rings around the speakers in the doors. You can set them for a range or colors--or to have the colors change and pulse with the music! It was an amusing novelty--for a while.

A few little nitpicks. Although the Souls is equipped with numerous sound muffling technologies--and the + and ! get an extra helping--I still heard some road hum on rougher surfaces at freeway speeds.The sunroof in my test worked well but I noted wind buffeting at 30 miles per hour with the windows closed. And, although I appreciated the separate compartment for an iPod, you need a special two-plug cable to use media, and my tester didn't have one.

The Soul is not Kia's least expensive car--that goes to the cute little Rio hatchback and sedan--but prices are definitely affordable. They start at just $15,215, including shipping. The + jumps to $17,475 with manual. The !, with the automatic (the only transmission offered) comes to $20,675. My tester, with the $2,500 Premium Package and the Eco Package ($500), came to $23,675.

It's remarkable that a car like this, aimed at youth, has had significant success with older folks. This baby boomer liked the spaciousness, the ease of entry and exit, easy to fold rear seats that made cargo loading easy, and the quite comfortable seats. 

Kia has seen sales increases for 18 years in a row, and it's easy to see why. Their lineup is completely updated now, and the Soul is just one way to go.

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