The world is full of plain, ordinary and boring looking stuff. Houses, logos, appliances don’t always get much personality. We settle for the uninspired. The late Steve Jobs despised the mundane. You should too because insanely great designs are all around us.
Cars are no different. For those who believe vanilla is only for ice cream there’s the Kia Soul. It’s not plain. Certainly not ordinary. Definitely not boring.
Silhouettes like Soul’s tend to polarize. Boxy yet wedgey, the shape shouldn’t appeal to everyone but curiously it’s widely embraced. Those who don’t understand it can buy a Corolla, it’s a free country. People vote with their checkbooks in the automotive world and it’s easy to get into a base model at $14,650. The particular Exclaim model I’m driving at the Austin, TX press event is $20,350 with destination.
Kia has only recently become a mainstream player and so I find this surprising; In 2011 Toyota sold 17,017 copies of the Scion xB. In that same year, Kia moved 102,267 Souls, a volume that caught even Kia off guard. Full disclosure, one of those is in my garage. In December my wife Mariko decided it was the car for her and bought a fully loaded Exclaim model, nearly identical to the car in the video.
Refreshed After Just Two Years
Soul started Kia’s design revolution back in 2009. Largely credited to American Mike Torpey (formerly of GM), its design is based somewhat on the idea of a wild boar with a backpack and famously sold by a completely different furry critter. Boars with backpacks? Hamsters with iPods? Time to check the water supply at Kia.
Different on the Outside, Different on the Inside
Obviously it’s not a sedative, the engineers have been hard at work. For 2012 Kia has extensively refreshed this car, the least of which is subtle new front and rear fascias. Top ‘o the line Exclaim models get additional LED tail lamps and unique 18-inch wheels with low profile tires.
Exclaim and Plus models (or “!” and “+” as Kia tags them) get the larger of two new engines. The 2.0-liter four-cylinder makes 164 horsepower at 6,500 rpm and 148 lb-ft of torque at 4,800 rpm. There’s better fuel economy too (EPA rates Exclaim at 26 city, 34 highway). Both new transmissions are six-speeds, replacing a five speed manual and four speed automatic. The auto-box has a manual mode and a silky feel to the console lever.
Base models (plainly called “Base”) come with a 1.6-liter engine. At 138 horsepower (123 lb-ft at 4,850 rpm) it‘s direct injected. The 2.0-liter isn’t. Both are available with an optional engine start/stop system that shuts down the engine while waiting at stoplights, not available on the top Exclaim model.
Quick as a loose hamster (and they all get out don’t they?), 0-60 happens in a tick under eight seconds. Soul has a good amount of spunk off the line but mercifully isn’t twitchy. The new drivetrain is noticeably more refined this time around. Soul feels a little bit like a compact crossover since it rides a skosh higher than most hatchbacks and wagons. While the body doesn’t wallow in the corners, its ride height keeps it from being a sports car in the corners.
Kia has added sound insulation to Soul’s cabin making it quieter at highway speeds now. The suspension is set very firm, not for those looking for a cushy ride. I suggest a test drive on a rough road, especially if you’re considering the ! with its less forgiving low-profile rubber. Electric power steering is well weighted and Soul reacts immediately to input but lack of road feel makes for a slightly disconnected feeling. Big windows offer up excellent visibility.
The interior is familiar with a smattering of material upgrades. Surfaces look and feel good considering the low price with a hard but rubbery texture to most of the instrument panel. I’m pretty sure this car is alone in having hound’s-tooth seat trim. The leather wrapped wheel now adjusts for rake and reach, buttons and knobs have quality operation, and the gauge cluster is clean and clear.
Soul’s signature disco light speakers get a bit more refinement for 2012. The big news for music lovers is a premium Infinity sound system which is easily best in class. With a very accurate sound stage it absolutely rocks. The HD Radio tuner sounds great and its clarity reveals the grainy digital sound of Sirius satellite radio. This sound package is standard on the ! and an option on the + model. I highly recommend checking the option box.
Soul gets the Microsoft based UVO system. It can read incoming text messages and makes many electronics voice active. I find it relatively simple to call up tunes loaded on the 1 gig jukebox and making phone calls just by saying “call home”. It’s easy to compare UVO with Sync but the Ford system is more powerful. Still, UVO is a good place to start.
Go with the Premium package on ! models and there’s keyless ignition, auto climate control, heated leather seats, and easy to use navigation. It gives Soul a touch of luxury though unfortunately it eliminates UVO and the HD radio tuner.
Take the Whole Litter
There’s more room in Soul than you might expect and nowhere is that better experienced than the back seat. Leave your hat on cowboy, there’s loads of head and legroom. Tall friends will choose it when carpooling. Width wise there’s enough room for three average sized adults. They won’t be charging their phone in back though, no power port (there’s one in the cargo hold though). Drinks get stashed in the doors since there’s no other cupholders or folding armrest.
With the split folding seats dropped Soul’s square space is very cargo friendly. Tall though not deep, it’s a five packer in the TP trunk test. Useful storage is found under the load floor with compartments for umbrellas and jumper cables. Underneath it is a tire repair kit, no spare.
Why did Mariko end up with a Soul? Well, after 12 years with a white station wagon she wanted practicality with personality and Soul is perfect for her. It is very odd reviewing a car I own (though she drives it 98 percent of the time). So far her biggest gripe is that the fuel tank is on the small side. She rarely hits the highway so city driving reduces range and causes her to fill up more often. She also has noticed the very direct steering and driving dynamic. The slightly higher ride height is a plus.
Soul would seem to compete with Scion xB, Toyota Matrix, and Nissan cube, but none of those were on Mariko’s radar screen. For her, it beat out the similarly sized Volkswagen Tiguan, plus Jetta Sportwagen, and Subaru Outback because of design and bargain price.
Soul is appealing because it’s not like anything else out there, even the Scion to which it’s compared most. The xB is sold as a blank slate for customization while Soul brims with attitude straight out of the box (pun intended). It’s full of personality, very versatile and value priced. In short, it makes people smile. All the money in the world may not buy you love or happiness, but just a little can get you Soul.