To fully understand the 2010 Kia Soul, it helps to know a little something about its native land. See, South Korea is a car guy's nightmare. It's not that the cars on its oft-congested roads are crap; it's just that they collectively have all the variety and character of a Joe Lieberman Comedy Hour.
Everywhere you look on the highways of Seoul, there's a white Sonata, a black Ssangyong sedan or a silverish compact SUV. The only way there could be less color on the road would be if someone set the country to grayscale. It's a surprise to see in a country with such fantastic, fanciful public architecture.
What Korea needs is a car like the 2010 Kia Soul, a funky little box thing that comes in such hipster hues as Ghost, Ignition, Molten, Java, Denim and Alien. Che Myungsic, Kia's 30-year-old marketing manager for the Soul, describes the car as a pair of flashy, colorful sneakers in a lineup filled with sensible shoes. It's the car for anyone who craves self-expression, like those people who bought the first Scion xB and then added multicolor cabin lights.
The 2010 Soul is a game-changer for Kia, the first vehicle from the Korean automaker that has a chance of being remembered for more than its low price and long warranty. This Kia has actually got soul.
Mail, Boxes, Etc. Like so many other vehicles from the Hyundai-Kia empire, the 2010 Kia Soul is aimed squarely at a Japanese competitor — the Scion xB, in this case. The Soul certainly has that funky cubic look about it, but it's softer around the edges, and the slanted roof line, blacked-out A-pillars and tasteful fender flares keep it from looking like a mail truck.
In terms of size, the Soul fits almost perfectly between the too-small original xB and the too-big current edition. With a wheelbase of 100 inches and an overall length of 116 inches, it is wider and shorter in height than both. The Soul's interior dimensions haven't been released by Kia yet, but the Soul doesn't look as deceptively enormous inside as the current xB or the Honda Fit. Passenger space is still excellent, however, with high-mounted front and rear seats that create plenty of legroom, even for tall drivers and passengers.
Kia says the Soul is spawned from a heavily modified Rio platform, which sounds to us like building a house using rice cake. The heavy modifications include a wheelbase stretch to improve handling stability, while substantial structural reinforcements are meant to help the car deliver what Kia predicts will be a perfect five-star crash safety performance in all but one category established by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Like the Rio, the Soul features a MacPherson strut front suspension. Out back, you'll find a simple torsion beam axle that's mounted on a subframe to reduce the harshness of the inputs transmitted into the cabin. Equipped with the optional Sport package, the Soul gains a suitably sport-tuned suspension, though the details of the latter are unclear. Nevertheless, our drive of the sporting Soul uncovered a car that lives up to the sort of firm, European-style ride quality toward which Kia is trying to move all its vehicles.
The Kia Soul is certainly no Volkswagen Rabbit, but bumps are surprisingly well damped and the ride/handling balance is by miles the best experienced in a small Kia to date. No need to blame anything on Rio, then.
The Power of Soul The base Soul comes with a 1.6-liter inline-4 that makes 122 horsepower and 115 pound-feet of torque. A five-speed manual is the only transmission available on this entry-level model, which almost certainly means the upper trim levels will make up the bulk of Soul sales. They get a 2.0-liter four-banger good for 142 hp and 137 lb-ft of torque. A five-speed manual is standard, while a four-speed automatic is optional. Kia admits a four-speed automatic is a little behind the times (even if the xB features the same), but it's working toward a six-speed automatic to be employed in all its cars in the near future.
Yet even with the four-cog slushbox, the 2.0-liter Soul is estimated to achieve 31 mpg in the EPA highway cycle (the marketer's favorite), while the Scion xB gets only 28 mpg. Kia's Myungsic was quick to point out that "the Soul may be less powerful than the Scion, but which one is better for younger drivers in this economic climate?"
Gwangju for You, Gwangju for Me The Soul shares an assembly line with the Rondo at Kia's factory complex in Gwangju. Located in southern South Korea about 198 miles from Seoul, this sprawling city is home to 1.4 million Koreans who all seem to live in endless rows of enormous apartment towers that are so indistinguishable, they have huge numbers on their sides to tell them apart.
It is here where we take the keys to a 2010 Soul Sport with a manual transmission. Getting up to speed on Gwangju's 25 Expressway is a rather unremarkable affair, with a lot of racket and not a lot of grunt. Nevertheless, while not as refined as the xB or Mazda 3's power plants, the Soul's four-cylinder is about par for the course when it comes to an inline-4 of this displacement. It's eager enough to rev, and the five-speed gearbox is pleasantly direct, with decent-length shift throws. The clutch is on the long-travel side, though, with not a lot of feedback. There wasn't a chance to sample the automatic, so it's hard to say what sort of penalty the 2.0-liter will face when spinning a torque converter.
Like the rest of South Korea, Gwangju is surrounded by wooded rolling mountains, yet there doesn't seem to be a decent mountain road anywhere. Perhaps the Koreans don't build anything in the mountains worth driving to, and when they do, they carve a tunnel through anything in the way. Yet there are just enough gradual bends and sweepers to take this little hatchback's pulse.
Although the car's curb weight has yet to be announced, the Soul feels light on its feet and surprisingly well planted in high-speed turns. However, the hydraulic power steering is a letdown in this regard, offering little feedback, a numb on-center feel and a non-linear effort. It's better than the xB's electric-steering-by-Wii, but that's not saying much.
Is the Soul sporty enough for a Kia? Yes. Is it sporty like a Mini or even a Honda Fit? No. Will it be enough for its trendy target audience? Probably. Especially at a price expected to be in the teens, much like the Honda Fit.
+, It's a Soul! As with a Scion, you can equip your Soul with all sorts of funky dealer- and port-installed accessories to give it that personalized Xzibit touch. Racing stripes, different 18-inch wheels, surprisingly tasteful dragon graphics, 1970s-relic houndstooth body graphics and LED turn indicators are just some of the crap, er, stuff you can throw on a Soul.
At the same time, even the base 2010 Soul comes with full power accessories and a four-speaker stereo with CD player, satellite radio and a USB port. The upper trims add such items as 18-inch alloy wheels (versus 16-inch steel), cruise control, steering-wheel audio controls, Bluetooth, additional speakers and a leather-wrapped steering wheel (although it didn't feel particularly leathery). In an apparent homage to Prince and an affront to copy editors everywhere, those upper trims have been dubbed +, ! and sport. Yes, ! is a trim level. There's no word whether @ or } will soon follow.
All those features come together in an interior that is decidedly un-Kia in that it actually has some design character. The sculpted dash juts out so all controls fall readily at hand, and the stereo and climate controls combine the user-friendly layout typical of Kia with a welcome taste of style. The two-tone interior (tan-black and red-black) is a handsome departure from just about every economy car, while available houndstooth and glow-in-the-dark upholstery add further (albeit tacky) flair. Sadly, the glowing door speakers that flash red with every bass beat aren't coming to America with the rest of the car in January 2009.
So Much for That Color Thing Every Kia model is first released in the home Korean market some four months prior to its debut in the United States as a way to shake out any potential bugs for the brand's biggest and most important market. Thus far, the Soul is a hit, but 50 percent of the domestic examples have nevertheless been creme white — so much for that whole color thing.
But that's Korea. American roads aren't a sea of gray, and style counts for a lot, particularly among young buyers. For them, the 2010 Kia Soul should stick out better from the crowd than any Kia that's come before.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.
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