Is the Soul? Perhaps, but as it turns out, the question is irrelevant. Whatever you think of its styling, it's hard to debate that the car packs a lot of value for the money, even for a value-oriented econohatch. That should appeal to plenty of buyers, hip or not.
Trim levels include the base Soul, Soul+ ("Soul Plus"), Soul! ("Soul Exclaim") and Soul Sport. (I'm sticking with Plus and Exclaim — no symbols, bro.) I tested a Soul Plus with an automatic transmission. All trims come standard with a stick shift; an automatic transmission is not available on the symbol-less base model.
Relative to the xB and Cube, the Soul looks the most conventional — a bit like a miniature delivery truck. Compared to any other cars, though, its styling is left-field nutty. Some may decide the bug-eyed headlights and stunted tail have a certain charm. Others may find the whole look too cartoonish to take seriously. I never warmed to it, but most Cars.com editors disagree: It's unique, it's different, they said. It's the sort of look young drivers will go for. While they're listening to Flo Rida, apparently.
At about 162 inches long, the Soul falls halfway between the Cube (156.7 inches) and xB (167.3). Sixteen-inch alloy wheels are standard on the Soul Plus, while the Exclaim and Sport get 18-inch rims — impressive for a sub-$20,000 car.
If the Cube gets the award for richest interior materials and the xB wins for overall roominess, the Soul comes out ahead in cabin design. Click here for a full rundown on all three interiors. Suffice it to say Kia stuck to conventional shapes, so you won't find the upright facings and hard contours that both competitors employ. This feels distinctly more carlike, and elegantly so: Though the materials are hard to the touch, most have a textured finish that looks entirely respectable. The gauges have high-rent, if uninspired, backlighting, and the A/C dials and turn signals move with sturdy, well-oiled precision. Other areas lapse to econobox standards — the center console armrest is rock-hard, and the flip-down grab handles slam shut — but on the whole, quality is good.
I'm not as enthusiastic about the roominess. Relative to other small hatchbacks, there's less space around the gearshift for your knees to spill out. Headroom is good, even in my moonroof-equipped test car, but the driver's seat has limited range to move forward and back. I'm 5-foot-11, and I could have used an inch or so more rearward travel room. Driver's seat height adjustment is standard on all but the base model, but a telescoping adjustment for the steering wheel is unavailable. Telescoping steering is still rare among small cars, but with cars like the redesigned Honda Fit and Ford's upcoming Fiesta getting it, it's clearly on the rise. So to speak.
The backseat is adult-friendly, though the cushions could sit a bit higher for better thigh support. Amenities are limited: Cupholders are limited to one in each door-pocket cutout, and there's no center armrest, which the Cube offers. Folding the seats down creates 53.4 cubic feet of maximum cargo room, which is decent compared to the larger hatchback field, but less than the Cube and xB offer.
|Hatchback Roominess Compared|
|Kia Soul||Nissan Cube||Scion xB||Honda Fit||Toyota Yaris|
|Behind 2nd row (cu. ft.)||19.3||11.4||21.7||20.6||9.5|
|Behind 1st row (cu. ft.)||53.4||58.1||69.9||57.3||25.7|
|*Four-door hatchback; two-door hatch starts at $12,205.|
Source: Manufacturer information for 2009 models, except 2010 Soul.
Piloting the Soul is a forgettable experience — it's competent enough to satisfy on the daily commute, but it's never really fun. I found power around town adequate, even with two additional occupants and some light cargo. A 122-horsepower, 1.6-liter four-cylinder goes in the base Soul, which only comes with the five-speed manual transmission. All other trims, including my test car, have a 142-hp, 2.0-liter four-cylinder. It teams with the five-speed manual or a four-speed automatic.
At higher speeds, a fifth cog in the automatic might help. Its lack is especially noticeable in 30-to-50 mph highway traffic, where 2nd and 3rd trade places frequently: Second gear is clearly at the end of its rope, but 3rd leaves you short on power. I haven't yet driven the Cube, but the xB, which also has a four-speed auto but gets the Camry's 2.4-liter engine, has enough oomph to overcome such issues.
You'll pay for that in the xB's gas mileage, though. It's EPA-rated at 24 mpg combined, versus 26 to 28 mpg for the Soul, depending on drivetrain. As of this writing, the Cube has yet to be rated, but other hatches, from the Yaris to the Fit, get slightly better mileage.
The Soul's suspension — a semi-independent setup in back, as most entry-level cars employ — filters out small bumps, but it responds noisily over anything moderate. On the highway, rough surfaces creep up through the seats and steering wheel; over time you'll feel the undulations and seek out smoother lanes.
Curvy roads produce modest body roll, but the steering retains a planted feel over rough pavement. The Soul Sport gets a sport-tuned suspension, which I didn't test. Noise levels in the Soul Plus remain low up to about 65 mph, where wind noise off the A-pillars starts encroaching on music and conversation. Strangely enough, it's at that same speed that the steering wheel gains a comfortable weightiness at the 12 o'clock position that makes it easy to barrel down the highway. At lower speeds there's a bit too much power assist, rendering light, twitchy responses and the need for periodic steering corrections.
Though antilock brakes are standard, the base Soul gets rear drum brakes; all other trims have four-wheel discs. The discs are strong, providing linear pedal response and firm stopping power.
As of this writing, the Soul has not been crash-tested by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. It may be worth waiting to see how IIHS scores pan out, considering Kia's track record for small cars. Despite having six airbags each, the Soul's entry-level siblings, the Rio and Spectra, have unacceptable Poor and Marginal side-impact ratings, respectively.
Like the xB and Cube, the Soul comes standard with side curtain airbags, antilock brakes, traction control and an electronic stability system. That last feature is especially rare in the entry-level segment. Click here to see all the Soul's safety features.
Features & Pricing
The Soul's $13,300 base price gets you air conditioning, a CD stereo with full iPod compatibility, power windows and locks and the full range of safety features. That's more than impressive — it's very nearly unbelievable. Consider: At similar prices, hatchback competitors like the Versa, Yaris and Chevy Aveo5 have crank windows, rudimentary stereos and, in most cases, no antilock brakes, let alone a stability system. The Cube, also well-equipped, starts at $700 more; the xB runs an extra $2,450.
Move up the Soul chain, and you can get keyless entry, steering-wheel audio controls, power mirrors, cruise control and a moonroof. With all the options checked, the range-topping Soul Sport runs $18,600.
It's worth noting that Kia's standard warranty — with five-year/60,000-mile bumper-to-bumper and 10-year, 100,000-mile powertrain provisions — is among the best in the industry. It's not fully transferrable to subsequent owners, however, as some policies are.
Soul in the Market
Kia is onto something. The automaker's sales have held steady through March of this year amid a meltdown that has brands from Honda to Ford reeling, and the new Soul is reportedly selling briskly. Tough times call for inexpensive transportation and plenty of features for the buck. Kia's lineup is brimming with precisely those types of cars. The fact that the Soul also has a bit of personality is icing on the cake; provided its crash tests pan out well, it's certainly worth a look.
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