With the small car category gaining strength, more and more automakers are looking to make their pint-size offerings stand out from the masses. Based on the entry-level Rio, Kia
's brand-new 2010 Soul fits this mold well, its heavy revisions allowing it to compete with the squarish likes of the Scion xB
and the Nissan Cube
, not to mention the less funky progenitor of the modern box cars, the Honda Element
We recently tested a top-of-the-line Kia Soul Sport to see how it stacks up to its competition from Nissan and Scion (which we conveniently had in the office simultaneously).
The Soul's styling is definitely its most prominent aspect. Indeed, when editor-in-chief Jean Jennings tossed the Soul's keys on my desk after her morning commute in the Kia, she summed it up perfectly: "It's funky. Not very good to drive, but fun to be in."
The funkiness starts on the outside of the Soul, where its boxy profile, wraparound headlamps, and trapezoidal taillights help it garner plenty of glances from onlookers, most of whom seem to approve. (Although the fake fender vents are a turn off.) Inside, the Soul is equally unconventional, thanks mostly to its fire-engine-red dashboard, trim, and headrests, not to mention several surprising convenience items (described below). If the color has you seeing red, know that Kia reserves this bright interior treatment only for top-of-the-line Sport models. The Sport is also the only Soul trim level to merit an actual name; lesser versions, in descending order, are the "!", the "+", and finally the base car. Who thought this was a good idea?
The Soul that we drove was filled with plenty of convenience features that usually aren't expected in an $18,000 vehicle, such as Bluetooth and steering-wheel audio controls, both of which are standard on all but the base trim level. But even that $13,995 stripper gets USB and auxiliary inputs, air-conditioning, power windows and power door locks, stability control, and tilt steering, as well as six air bags. Premium items like a sunroof, fog lights, and an upgraded stereo with a subwoofer are Soul options.
We were a bit disappointed with the hard plastics in the cabin (including the door armrests!), but the grains are very attractive, so these materials don't look as cheap as they otherwise might - although there were already a number of scratches in our test car's trim after only 2000 miles. Also, the stereo and climate-control switchgear feels quite well-made, but the controls for the turn signals and the wipers are pretty cheap.
Lots of stowage compartments come standard with the Soul (although it'd be nice if some of these hard compartments had rubbery nonslip surfaces), and there's a huge glove box. It's good that your sundries have a happy home in the main cabin, though, since the cargo area itself is really tiny unless you lower the rear seats. As far as the front seats are concerned, we found the driver's seat to be quite comfortable, but thought the passenger seat had too much (nonadjustable) lumbar support.
Unlike the Rio, the Soul has two available engines, both four-cylinders that feature variable valve timing. Only the base-level Soul is powered by the Rio's 1.6-liter four that's EPA rated at 26 mpg in the city and 31 mpg on the highway. All other Soul trims get 20 extra horses and an additional 22 lb-ft of torque from their larger, 2.0-liter four-banger, which earns an EPA rating of 24/30 mpg. A five-speed manual transmission is standard with both engines, but a four-speed automatic is available only with the larger powerplant.
On the road
Despite its claimed sport-tuned suspension, the front-wheel-drive Soul Sport is certainly no sports car, but its squat stance and nimble proportions help make for a pretty entertaining tearing-around-town machine. The stick shift enhances the level of fun, particularly because the shift knob has a very comfortable notchy lip that fits your hand perfectly. And unlike many small, budget-friendly cars, the Soul isn't annoyingly buzzy or noisy on the highway. This funky Kia also rides pretty well for such a small car. The Nissan Cube may look cooler and the Scion xB may be more refined, but the Soul still brings its own Korean flair to the burgeoning cheap-'n'-boxy segment.
Kia Soul Sport
Base price: $13,995
As tested: $18,000 (est.)
Engine: 2.0-liter DOHC 16-valve I-4
Horsepower: 142 hp @ 6000 rpm
Torque: 137 lb-ft @ 4600 rpm
Transmission: 5-speed manual
L x W x H: 161.6 x 70.3 x 63.4 in
Legroom F/R: 42.1/39.0 in
Headroom F/R: 40.2/39.6 in
Cargo capacity (rear seats up/down): 19.3/53.4 cu ft
Curb weight: 2800 lb
EPA fuel economy (city/highway): 24/30 mpg