Soul in a Box
As a people, we are so obsessed with resealable containers that we now demand the right to drive them. Witness the rise of boxy wagons like the 2010 Kia Soul, which are efficiently packaged to swallow all your worldly possessions while still looking tidy during the daily slog.
By its very name, the Soul promises even more than earlier boxy cars. Once you open the Kia's square hatch, you discover a deep, essential meaning instead of a vast, limitless void of flat-folding seats. Buy us a pint of beer and we'll tell you all about it.
Even more intriguing is the way the 2010 Kia Soul feels when you drive it. Most box-shaped cars seem to be channeling the spirit of a shrunken UPS truck, but there's an earthiness to the Soul that inspires us to go for a real drive, not deliver pizza.
The Agile Box
At first glance, the 2010 Kia Soul looks like a pretty normal, front-wheel-drive economy wagon. Its 100.4-inch wheelbase is slightly longer than that of the 2009 Honda Fit and 2009 Nissan Cube, and slightly shorter than that of the current-generation Scion xB. Like its boxy rivals, the Soul has a simple suspension, with struts in front and a torsion beam in back.
But the Kia's 61.8-inch front track and 62-inch rear track are significantly wider than any of these other cars. This would be an asset for good handling for any car, but it's a particular advantage for one with a tall, slab-sided body. Our Soul Sport tester also has a lot more tire than any of the other cars in this class, with P225/45R18 91V Hankook Optimo H426 all-season tires mounted at each corner. To go with the tires, the Soul Sport has a stiffer front antiroll bar and more aggressive spring and damper rates than the base-model 2010 Kia Soul, Soul+ (Plus) and Soul! (Exclaim).
The Soul Sport's wide footprint with plenty of rubber helps it stick through tight corners. Granted, the featherweight Honda Fit feels sprightlier than our 2,879-pound Kia Soul Sport. But the Fit's 64.1-mph slalom speed is no match for the Soul's 65.8 mph. The Scion xB is also slower through the cones at 64.8 mph and its stability control system is also more intrusive.
The Soul Sport does not have an advantage on the skid pad, though, as a strong predisposition toward understeering stability with that stiff front antiroll bar limits it to 0.80g. The Honda is capable of 0.78g, while the Scion manages 0.83g.
The big Hankooks also undoubtedly account for its above-average braking ability, as the standard four-wheel disc brakes help the boxy Kia stop from 60 mph at 128 feet and also prove up to the challenge of Glendora Mountain Road.
Of Course, It's Built to a Price
Based on the platform of the Kia Rio, the Soul's specifications seem basic at first, but they pay off. A hydraulic pump rather than a fuel-saving electric motor delivers the assist for the rack-and-pinion steering, yet the effort level feels just right at just about any speed as a result.
Unfortunately, when we start pushing harder through Glendora's turns, there's some crude kickback through the steering, probably because the front wheels have been aligned to enhance this tall, boxy car's straight-line stability. It's a bummer, because we have to concede that the Kia Soul is a budget wagon, not a medium-hot hatch.
More concessions to price come on the freeway, as there are high levels of road noise, even though both the front and rear suspension are mounted on subframes, so the Soul doesn't feel very relaxed during high-speed cruising. The car's 18-inch wheels certainly factor into the rumble, and they also make for a busy ride over the grooved concrete slabs of Southern California's major arteries.
At least the body seems tight, as high-strength steel is used for 70 percent of the structure, although the boxy shape produces noticeable wind noise.
Keeping up in L.A. traffic isn't a problem for the 2010 Kia Soul, at least not for the Soul Sport, which comes with a 2.0-liter inline-4 rated at 142 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 137 pound-feet of torque at 4,600 rpm. Adorably named + (Plus) and ! (Exclaim) models also have this engine, while the base-model Soul gets a 122-hp, 1.6-liter inline-4.
The 2.0-liter engine is impossible to dislike in heavy traffic, as it's tuned to deliver a decent hit of torque right off the line. This makes the Soul pretty easy to drive, even though moving the five-speed manual transmission's shifter between the gates feels like stirring chili. The take-up of the clutch pedal is similarly vague, so it's tricky to be smooth during your first 15 minutes behind the wheel.
We could stop complaining and order the optional four-speed automatic, but even with its flaws, the manual gearbox better matches the Soul's scrappy character. Kia's boxy car is fairly quick for this class, as 60 mph comes up in 8.8 seconds (or 8.5 seconds with 1 foot of rollout as on a drag strip) and the quarter-mile goes by in 16.6 seconds at 82.6 mph. The more powerful Scion xB gets to 60 mph more quickly (8.2 seconds) but starts to lose its edge through the quarter-mile (16.5 seconds at 83.1 mph).
Although the 2.0-liter engine's redline is marked at 6,500 rpm, we usually find ourselves shifting at 5,000 rpm on Glendora Mountain Road, as the motor feels and sounds strained above that point. Soulful it is not, but you don't really need to go there, since the power band has plenty of meat from 3,000 rpm on up. In addition, a tall ratio for 5th gear keeps the engine at a comfy 3,500 rpm at an 80-mph cruise.
Welcome to the Lounge
High-style cars aimed at 18-to-34-year-olds often end up with overdone interiors that sacrifice ergonomics for fashion. And although the 2010 Kia Soul Sport has a hyper-dramatic red-and-black color scheme, it doesn't irritate us because its seats are comfortable and its controls are easy to use. The quality of the materials is nothing special, but we'd say the same of the plastics in the Fit and xB.
Box-shaped cars usually excel in the headroom category, but often force you down into a low seating position that has you peering out through narrow slits that pass for windows. Somehow, though, Kia's designers have been able to make the Soul seem open and spacious, despite the trend toward high beltlines to help meet tighter standards for side impacts as well as pedestrian protection.
The Soul puts you in a good position to drive, and sight lines are excellent, save for those troublesome rear corners. It doesn't have a telescoping steering wheel, but the height adjustment of the driver seat helps a lot here. Sitting in the back of the Soul is nearly as pleasant, as the bench is elevated just enough so you feel like you're in on the conversation happening in front. This is a useful, real-world interpretation of the lounge-style interiors seen in the youth-y concept cars.
Kia hasn't yet released cargo capacity figures for the 2010 Kia Soul, but we're betting it won't rival the big numbers of the Fit (57.3 cubic feet) or xB (69.9 cubic feet) due to its raised cargo floor, which resembles that of the Mini Clubman.
Will You Be a Soul Reaver?
Although the lightly engined base Soul squeaks in at $13,995, most 2010 Kia Souls will go for $15,000-$17,000. The midlevel Soul+ has all the amenities you'll want, while the pricier Soul! and Sport provide desirable cosmetic upgrades. Other than an automatic transmission, the only factory option we could add to our $17,645 Soul Sport tester is a sunroof. But as on Scions, there will be dozens of dealer accessories.
So you're probably going to spend as much on a 2010 Kia Soul as you would on a Honda Fit, Scion xB or, we suspect, the Nissan Cube. Kia might be taking a measured risk here by not making its small hatchback radically cheaper than the major Japanese-brand players.
But we think there's enough substance to the Soul to justify spending $17K on one. Kia's wagon lacks the multiconfigurable seats and spry munchkin feel of the Honda Fit, but it's significantly quicker. The Soul is also not much slower than the Scion xB, and we find it much more satisfying to drive, whether you're talking outright handling ability or just the seating position in the cockpit.
Finally, there's the fashion angle. On its own, that wouldn't be enough to get us into a 2010 Kia Soul, but when it comes as a secondary benefit on a thoughtfully packaged car that we enjoy driving, we can pretend we have great depth and wisdom.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
Senior Road Test Editor Josh Jacquot says:
I'm traditionally not a big fan of the box. I never understood the fascination with Scion's xB. Nissan's Cube makes me want to barf, while Honda's Element strikes me as equally dumb, though it does have some undeniable utility. And it's not just the way they look. All of these boxes share an equally painful driving experience.
So it's surprising that I find some value in Kia's new Soul. And, again, it's not the styling that's got me. I actually like the way it drives. Short of a clunky shifter, the Soul offers more grace, more control feel and better response than any of its slab-sided brethren.
Its steering provides enough feel to sense its dynamic limits and the Soul's chassis is well composed. It scooted through our slalom at 65.8 miles per hour and circled our skid pad at 0.80g. And it did so with more spirit, more life and more...
OK, I won't say it.
But it is good. Surprisingly good. It also has good brake response to complement its handling. Remarkably, this little Korean box might have just won me over. If only it weren't so damned...square.