The second most familiar South Korean car manufacturer is on a tear lately, what with a new crop of hamster commercials and techno-dance rhythms that put a smile on most viewer’s faces.
But will those would-be buyers keep smiling once they bought into the Kia Soul? We decided to strap into the recently revitalized Soul, which added more power and refinement for 2012.
What is it?
An example of a Gen-Y living room on wheels, the Kia Soul attracted attention from its debut back in 2009. A multi-national effort, it was designed in California but is built in Korea. The EPA classifies it as a “small station wagon,” but essentially it’s a compact crossover able to seat five passengers. It has managed to grab the public’s attention at first glance and has kept them coming back since in a way that Toyota's Scion division never has. Having hip-hop hamsters along for the ride does nothing to diminish the luster, either.
Although it comes standard with a 1.6-liter direct-injected inline four-cylinder engine, our tester was powered by the brand’s similar 2.0-liter mill that produces 164 horsepower and 148 lb-ft of torque. Let’s be honest here: The Soul is not the fastest, nor sexiest - heck it’s not even that glamorous in a classic sense. But in all of that is where its charm lies.
For 2012, it returns with a mid-cycle performance refresh, which sees the 2.0-liter gaining 22 horses and a 10 percent bump in fuel economy. An optional auto start/stop system, a rarity in this class, promises to save even more fuel.
Our Soul! (yes, ! is a trim level, although Kia says to pronounce it “exclaim!”) was loaded up with a $2,500 Premium package, which included navigation, leather-covered and heated seating and a push button starter. Go easier on the options and you'll find a base Soul in the mid-teens.
What's it up against?
In this hard-to-define segment, the Soul has a group of fairly stout competitors. Such stalwarts as the Scion xB, the Chevrolet Sonic hatchback and Nissan Juke are all roomy enough to qualify as rivals.
Not to be outdone by some sibling rivalry, the slightly larger and more refined Kia Sportage is offering itself up as an alternative, albeit a bucks-up one.
How does it look?
When we first spied the Soul, we thought it was a child’s take on a pre-pubescent Jeep-like vehicle. Still do, but it has matured and perhaps bulked up in the process. A four-door hatchback, it still manages to seat five very close friends. Our Alien Green (yes, that’s the official color name) Soul presents a new, wider and stronger appearance that is just part of the upgrade for 2012, and is joined on the exclaim (!) with projector headlamps, LED taillights and 18-inch alloy wheels. We can’t help but think that the Soul’s grille and below-bumper intake out-angry the growling toaster appearance from Scion’s xB.
The overall attitude of the unibody-based crossover is that of a (literally) forward leaning design that breaks as many rules as it does reinforce others. The Soul is equal parts low and squatty and bulbous and boxy.
The end result is a look that you can’t help smiling over, especially when you think of four adult-sized hip-hop hamsters cruising in it.
And on the inside?
Our Soul!'s Premium Package netted a decently upscale interior primarily on account of its high feature account. Low-buck, econocar-special plastics, which are better these days than they were just a few years ago, still adorn every panel.
But the leather-covered seats offered good comfort over long drives lasting three hours or more. We were able to find ourselves in an optimal position thanks to the standard tilt and telescoping steering wheel. The second row folds forward in a 50:50 split that allows a combination of cargo and car passengers in the back seat. The Soul carries 19.3 cubic feet of cargo space behind the rear seat. Fold them forward and the capacity grows to 53.4 cubic feet, a remarkable sum given the exterior dimensions.
The cabin is full of interesting shapes and designs including a paper clip-shaped-cover over the center stack that houses everything from the audio system, the 4.5-inch navigation screen, climate control buttons and a five and a half-inch centrally mounted speaker. On the door are automatic mood lighting rings that surround the speakers and change colors according to the beat. The instrument cluster is contemporary in appearance while offering a basic gauge array. Everything is laid out where it should be and doesn’t require a stretch to access a control on the other side.
We were surprised that it only had auto down on the driver’s side window, instead of auto up and down. But the harsh reality is that the Kia Soul is value-priced so tightly that some corners may be cut on the way to offering the consumer more kit in other areas.
But does it go?
We couldn’t wipe the smiles from our face imitating the head shakes from the television rodents. But once we calmed down, we did notice a marked improvement in perceived noise, vibration and harshness that helped the Soul become a more refined and enjoyable cruiser during around-town stints behind the wheel. We would even go so far to say that the Soul makes less racket than some luxury-branded cars.
Power from the aforementioned 2.0-liter four-pot drove a six-speed automatic transmission in our tester. We found good acceleration with a decent amount of get up-and-go from the engine, which was tasked with pulling the 2,778 lbs. wagon. We did find the engine substantially noisy getting off the line, but were pleased to discover that it quickly calms down to a quiet level that enables normal conversation within the cabin.
The Soul's Kia Rio-based suspension breaks no new ground, instead relying on proven bits including MacPherson struts up front and a torsion beam out back. Thus, handling felt more car-like without a lot of lateral floppiness, despite the fact that the 100.4-inch wheelbase vehicle appears to ride high. Steering received an assist from the electric power steering. We did find it numb on center and rather loose slightly right and left. But then, we reminded ourselves that this car is not a corner-cutter on a race track, and to most buyers in this particular segment that is just fine.
Speaking of practicalities, the EPA says you might reach 26/34 mpg, with a 29 mpg average. We saw 28 mpg, which is probably due to excessive weight on the skinny pedal.
Why you would buy it:
Young or young at heart, you just can’t get enough of those hip-hop hamsters. And besides, it’s a really good car.
Why you wouldn't:
The larger Sportage is singing its siren song, and you are starting to be influenced by it.
Leftlane's bottom line
Kia refined a bestseller and at the same time continues to bring value pricing to the table so that virtually anyone can afford a new car.
Making one that legitimately has you grinning every time LMFAO hits the airwaves is an even more impressive feat. .
2012 Kia Soul! base price, $19,600. As tested, $22,850
Premium Package, $2,500. Destination, $750.
Words and photos by Mark Elias.