Wednesday, June 16, 2010

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The Kia Soul isn’t thinking outside of the box, it’s thinking “beyond the box.” Or so says Fred Aikins, Kia senior product strategy manager. The “box,” of course, is a thinly veiled reference to the boxy Scion xB and the cubic Nissan Cube. The Soul adopts the slab sides of its squared-off Japanese rivals but then throws in a few angles. Most notably, the shoulder line of the Kia Soul tapers upwards. With the wraparound windshield, Soul looks its wearing a really cool pair of shades.

It’s what Gen Y, that group in their 20s not long out of college and buying a first car wants. Or at least that’s what Kia is banking on with the Soul.

Perhaps that’s ahead of the story. The Soul dates back to January 7, 2006, when the original Kia Soul concept debuted at the Detroit Auto Show. Put simply, it was a hit, enough so that Kia decided it had to be built. A little more than three years later, Kia has a production model on sale. A product of Kia’s Southern California-based design team, the Soul is a significant indicator of where Kia plans to go.

2010 Kia Soul 2.0-liter engineMechanically, the Kia Soul is based on a “highly, highly modified” version of the Kia Rio platform, enough so that Kia refers to it as unique. Still as such, it’s a front driver with a choice of 1.6-liter or 2.0-liter four-cylinder engines mounted crosswise under the hood. There’s a choice of a five-speed manual and four speed automatic; suspension is struts front and a twist-beam rear axle. In other words, it’s a well-proven concept.

Prices It’s available in four trim levels, the base Soul at $13,300, the Soul+ (“plus”), the Soul! (“exclaim”), and Soul sport (“sport”). The Soul+ is expected to be the volume leader, starting at $14,950 and with all options added, $17,100. The Soul! is the “luxury” trim version with a range of prices from $16,950 to $17,900. The Soul sport is what its name suggests and come standard with a sport-tuned suspension and vivid red-and-black interior. Prices range from $16,950 to $18,600 when fully loaded.

That’s the boring but necessary housekeeping stuff. The styling on the other hand is the love-it-or-leave-it and it comes off better in three dimensions than on a flat screen or printed paper thing. The bowtie-shaped grille, distinctive without being bizarre, is the new face of Kia. The liftgate on the Soul is unique. Set between tall taillights—the turn indicators are even with the rear glass—the metal panel on the liftgate is beveled and recessed into the rear body panels. Rather than trying to smooth the liftgate into the body, they’ve made it stand out—or actually in—from the surrounding panels. Despite the apparent slabsidedness, the Soul isn’t completely flat, what with pronounced wheel arches over the standard 15-inch (optional 18-inch) wheels.

The inside’s funky if not as bizzarro as a Scion’s or Cube’s. Kia stylists have made good use of color, especially in the Soul sport, which has red and black contrasting panels. It’s a bit strong for some people, but then it’s questionable whether they should be allowed to drive a Soul anyway.

The interior of the Soul is huge for the exterior dimension, with a lot of headroom and shoulder room and generous passenger compartment volume, as one might expect from the squared-off exterior/interior. That means a lot of cargo capacity with the 60/40 seatbacks folded. Unfortunately the seatbacks don’t fold completely flat but they’re close. The cargo floor also lifts for added secret storage underneath. Don’t tell anyone else, let’s keep it between us.

Audio Back to the fun stuff: The standard audio includes AM/FM/CD/MP3 with Sirius-ready capabilities (and three month teaser service—bet you can’t quit). The Soul has USB and auxiliary input jacks in the center console also, with full iPod and MP3 controllability via the audio head unit and steering wheel controls achieved with an optional accessory iPod cable, It’s all very important to the Gen Y target market. Or so we’re told.

2010 Kia Soul +Actually, even the base Kia Soul comes well equipped with air conditioning, tilt wheel, power locks and power windows with driver’s side auto-down, external temperature display (why can’t we call that a “thermometer”) and a rear window defroster. Unlike the Scion xB, the Soul has a cargo area light.

Steering wheel-mounted controls, Bluetooth, two 12-volt power outlets and tweeter speakers go to Gen Y-er’s who move up to Soul+. Kia also puts a lid on the dash-top tray and puts Soul logos on the seats.

The Kia Soul! Adds feel-good leather on the shifter and steering wheel and an audio upgrade package that includes a center speaker, subwoofer, a 315-watt external amplifier and…from the we don’t really need this but it’s probably cool department—lighted speakers that can pulse with the music (if you turn it up really hig), pulse at their own speed or just turn off. Floor mats are included, too. Floor mats are extra on BMWs, like wifi in expensive hotels.

The Soul sport includes a sport-tuned suspension, metal pedals, the red-black interior with metal-finish accents.
Your (capitalized) Soul, regardless of trim level, watches out for your (lower case) soul with standard front seat-mounted and full-length side-curtain air bags, and all Souls also are equipped with ABS, electronic stability, traction control, electronic brake-force distribution, and brake assist.

Driving We drove two Souls, a Soul+ and a Soul Sport. As such, both were equipped with the 2.0-liter engine, one each with the four speed automatic and five-speed manual transmission. (Only the base Soul is available with the 122-horse 1.6-liter engine). The 2.0-liter four is rated at 142 horsepower and 137 lb-ft of torque and while it hardly has accelerative thunder, it’s eager and sounds good doing what one can do with 142 horses, at least of the internal combustion variety.

The automatic transmission’s shifts were clean and in keeping with the class and price range. We found the shifter in the manual transmission to have rather long throws and a rubbery Saab-like feel. The clutch was light and progressive, however, so if the shifting invokes the occasional “Ja, sure” and dreams of Nordic rallies, its relative lack of sportiness withstanding, we’d quickly recommend it to the manual transmission novice.

Both the Soul! And the Soul sport had a well-controlled if firm ride. On the straight and level roads around Miami and down to Key Largo, where we test drove the cars, there was little opportunity to flex the sport’s sport suspension muscles. The steering on both trim levels was nicely weighted but we were easily able to spin to full lock to make a tight-radius U-turn when we repeatedly got lost.

Overall we found the Kia Soul to be a friendly driver and well suited to cruising South Beach among the Maseratis and BMWs and, at least for the nonce, attracting at least as much attention. It’s not loud inside, even over coarse pavement, and thanks to roof reinforcements, the roof doesn’t boom over bumps and such. And there really isn’t much difference between ride between the standard and sport suspension.

Living inside The dual-level glovebox, large enough to swallow a notebook computer, has a damped door so that it doesn’t slam down on your knees and in contrast to most cars in this class range, the Soul has a center console arm rest with storage. There’s not a large amount of storage but some is more than none. The seats are comfy and the driver’s seat has enough adjustments to justify a lot of fiddling.

Kia has a list of fifty accessories to, as Kia marketing veep Michael Sprague puts it, “personalize your Soul.” There will be optional grilles (extra cost, with no exchange) and other cosmetic pieces, plus racks for various sports. There are no performance parts, at least so far, though one Kia insider let it slip that he had been driving a Soul with and intake and exhaust kit.

Whatever the accessories and add-ons, however, the Kia Soul strikes not just a new pose for its maker, but it also leads Korean automakers to a place none have ever been. The Kia Soul, though underneath a conventional small car, is fun and funky and that’s the sort of thing you don’t want to keep in a box.


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