The new Kia Soul begs one big question: Is this thing cool?
The Soul is a five-door hatch about a half-foot shorter than a Scion xB, one of the youth-market vehicles that likely inspired Kia to enter this niche (the Honda Element is another; ditto the Nissan Cube, the all-new version of which will arrive here next spring as a 2009 model). The Soul began life as a very cool concept car in 2006, but the powerful, big-haunch look and a lot of the trick, appealing aspects have been finessed out in the obligatory production compromise.
Looks are the whole ballgame here, because beneath the radically angled window line and the buff fender bulges and the seat fabric that glows in the dark with the word "soul" is basically a good-sized but unspectacular economy box.
Two Hearts for the Soul
The five-place "urban crossover vehicle" goes on sale here in March. Two engines will be offered: a 1.6-liter four-cylinder making 122 horsepower and 115 pound-feet of torque and a 2.0-liter four putting out 142 horses and 137 pound-feet. The smaller engine comes only with a five-speed manual gearbox; the larger has an optional four-speed automatic. A four-wheel-drive option would have been cool, but no go. The Soul is front-wheel drive only.
The 2825-pound Soul is built on a modified Kia Rio subcompact platform. Its 100.4-inch wheelbase pays real roominess dividends in the back seat, with six-footers having enough headroom to place a fist between their scalps and the headliner. From a comfort standpoint, this little vehicle is a winner.
Kia hopes to price its li'l spunkster in the "low teens," which we interpret subjectively to be start-at-14 and quit-about-17 grand, so, kids, it's not gonna look like an Audi inside. Our test car's red dashboard was hard to the touch, but the fabric seats pass muster, the cluster gauges are marvelously sharp and easy to read, and nobody started whining about the center stack before the ignition got a key poked into it.
We drove the 2.0-liter Soul over 90 miles of Korean roads, mostly on smooth expressways. Its power is respectable, its handling is neutral in the manner of most four-cylinder tall boxes (it has an independent front and torsion-beam rear suspension), and it's fairly quiet inside at 70 mph. The shifter works well, although twice it slipped into fifth when third was intended. (Could have been the result of eating a lot of pickled food.) When a car arrives with a brassy, look-at-me exterior, it's nice not to be embarrassed by the sort of gasping performance found in, oh, the current Detroit Lions. Not that you'll see it on prime-time TV, but in a footrace, we think this will just nose out a Scion xB. More important to drivers under 30, Kia officials say they expect the 1.6-liter engine to get 31 mpg overall (EPA numbers weren't available).
Yes, One Trim Is Really Called the "!"
Dealers will have four trim levels with which to lure the young and impressionable — Soul, Soul+, Soul!, and the top-of-the-line Soul Sport. "!" is pronounced "exclaim," although we'd have preferred a tribal clicking sound. As usual with cars marketed for boys and girls just starting to shave, more than 50 doodad accessories await them. The add-ons range from some curious decal shapes (such as those found on the Soul Burner concept) to multispeaker music-makers and, as noted earlier, fabric seats with the word "soul" woven in that will glow in the dark, possibly taking the breath away from the entire female population of the Oklahoma panhandle. Mostly, the wheels graduate from 15-inchers on the base to 18s on the Sport, with all nature of tinted windows and sunroofs and fog lights and key fobs separating the levels. (One really useful option, a rearview camera that projects the scene back there onto one-third of the rearview mirror, for some reason won't be sold here. Go figure.) Enthusiasts smitten with the Soul should take note that the Sport offers a sportier suspension tune.
We think calling it the Soul was probably not a cool choice. Imagine Sophie Marceau or Jessica Simpson sidling up to the bar and inquiring as to what you drive. "Well, I drive a Soul." Unnnhhh. Could be worse: We're told a name high in the running was Offenbach, the German-born French composer. On second thought, that's kinda cool.