Silvio Calabi: Kia Soul mixes practicality with personality
When Kia’s eye-catching urban shoebox, the Soul, arrived back in 2009, the maker’s slogan was “The Power to Surprise.” Seven years on, no one should be surprised any more by anything Kia does. The company now sells two midsize sedans and a luxury car, four sport-utes and minivans, five compact cars and two hybrid/electrics, at prices from $14,000 to $60,000. Kia and its Korean cousin, Hyundai, are pressuring Japan’s automakers exactly the way those brands did Detroit and Europe, and the Soul is just one way they’re doing it.
Soul prices start at $15,000 and change, and top out at about $22,000 (except for the new Soul EV, Electric Vehicle, which is now on sale in California for more than 30 grand). But despite its outlet-store price, there’s nothing cheap about it. At $17,610, our mid-range Soul must be the least-expensive car to come with a heated steering wheel. That’s on top of heated seats and wing mirrors, and a long list of other amenities: pushbutton entry and ignition, adjustable steering, an AM/FM/MP3 stereo with Sirius XM and Bluetooth (and audio controls in the steering wheel — which both tilts and telescopes), a USB plug, cruise control, auto-off headlights, child-seat anchors, tire-pressure monitoring and a new UVO eServices telematics package that links to a smartphone. There’s also an alphabet’s worth of passive safety systems, from ABS and BAS to TCS, VSM, ESC and HAC — Hill-start Assist Control — plus six airbags. (Other available options include leather, a panoramic roof, satnav and a rear-view camera.) Just as surprising is that the interior looks and feels so satisfyingly upscale. The Soul is a prime example of the sort of value-for-money that gave Kia such a leg up during the Great Recession.
The Soul’s only weakness, literally, is a lack of power. Plus and Exclaim models come with a small (2.0-liter) 164-horsepower four-cylinder engine tuned for 164 horsepower and 151 lb-ft of torque. The Soul Base has an even smaller (1.6-liter) Four good for just 130 HP and 118 torques. The mid- and top-end Souls get six-speed automatic transmissions; the Base, a six-speed manual gearbox, with the automatic available as an option. All drivetrains deliver about the same 24 to 30 mpg. Since even an optioned-up Soul weighs less than 3,000 pounds, both engines are at least sufficient, if not thrilling. The 1.6-liter in our Soul automatic seemed to be punching above its class, but it didn’t sound or feel strained.
It’s still only Valentine’s Day, and up here in the Frozen North we’ve had about 5 feet of snow in February alone. So you can guess what option we’d like to see on the Kia Soul: Yep, all-wheel drive. As a front-wheeler the Soul does pretty well — and would do even better with true snow tires — but a switchable, on-demand 4×4 system, like Nissan puts in its Juke or Jeep in the new Cherokee, would add all-weather soul to the Soul. But then it would be heavier and need more motor, which might demand bigger brakes and different tires, a suspension recalibration, maybe new crash tests and fuel-economy ratings . . . .
OK, never mind. But the name: Soul is wrong. There’s nothing melancholy, ethereal or even heavenly about this five-door wagonlet. No, it’s practical and competent, and almost fun. Somehow it catches the eye and the approval of everyone from urban yout’ to rural pickup drivers, along with retirees, soccer moms on a budget and young families. Big inside (for four adults plus groceries) and small outside, the Soul looks positively cheerful. With an SUV-like driving position and a tall, airy cabin, the Soul easily negotiates city congestion, and the slab sides and vertical corners make it especially easy to maneuver and park. On the highway it’s not a long-legged cruiser, but the Soul feels settled at about 70 to 75 mph. Thanks to good seats and tight construction, it’s surprisingly comfortable and quiet, too.
This Kia has some of the playful character of a Mini Clubman without the European price, plus the boxy efficiency of the late Scion xB without the silly looks. Hey, maybe it does have soul.
- Pleasing to drive
- Quality cabin
- Small but space-efficient and roomy
- Great value
- 130 HP should deliver 40 mpg
Silvio Calabi reviews the latest from Detroit, Munich, Yokohama, Gothenburg, Crewe, Seoul and wherever else interesting cars are born. Silvio is a member of the International Motor Press Association whose automotive reviews date back to the Reagan administration. He is the former publisher of Speedway Illustrated magazine and an author. Contact him at email@example.com.