The Soul takes a break along the Charles River "beach" at Boston University. (All photos: Clifford Atiyeh/Boston.com)
It’s quite hard these days for any automaker to elicit long, head-cocked stares at a boxy compact. Honda started the kooky look with the 2003 Element, an SUV-like square with suicide doors and an interior floor that could literally be hosed down. A year later, Toyota brought over one of its Japanese-market subcompacts and labeled it the Scion xB, a supposedly youth-oriented toaster with gobs of headroom. Not to be outdone, Ford stretched the idea into a seven-passenger crossover last year, replete with a glass-topped white-painted roof, huge wheels, and enough ruler-straight lines to make a geometry teacher proud.
While the Flex is still gushing from its 2008 debut, the Element and xB have become so mainstream they hardly get second glances any more. But the 2010 Nissan Cube and Kia Soul are adding more punch to the Asian storage bin category, and while we can’t vouch yet for the Cube, the Soul! (the exclamation is a trim level) was different enough to have Bostonians pointing and shouting at it.
Standing on the Kia’s door sills as I snapped photos through the sunroof of the glowing red interior – and the dozens of bright LEDs in the door speakers – I heard a kid yell “gay car!” Think about that, Mr. Boston College student. If the Soul were gay, wouldn’t Gaywheels.com stop lambasting Kia for denying domestic partner benefits to its gay employees? (Kia's PR head confirmed the company offers them, but Gaywheels.com is adamant that they're only for California). That's a tough call, but stepping further into this delusional, hormonal undergrad psyche reveals this: Girls are very curious about cars with big feet, and the Soul’s attractive 18-inchers couldn’t be more obvious.
For people who've graduated and actually have jobs, a car’s sexual orientation isn't on their shopping lists. What’s relevant about those big wheels and 225-width Hankook tires are their crisp, stable, no-slop handling. Combined with precise steering and minimal dead on-center feel, the Soul drives as refreshing as it looks. Granted, the body style isn’t out to win a beauty contest, what with cartoonish headlights and side glass that angles downward toward the D-pillar. But it’s not a copycat look, either, and the five-spoke rims give a no-nonsense attitude pushed to the edges on all corners.
The suspension never punishes, nor does chassis shake ever get in the picture. Ride comfort is surprisingly smooth, but the trade-off is a fair amount of body lean. The top-level “sport” offers a firmer setup that seems more in character with the aggressive body, but after driving the Honda Fit Sport, I don’t think I could stomach a bone-jarring commute every day. The 10 percent of the time you’re on twisty roads in the Boston area just isn’t worth the headache.
The engine, however, could stand a tune-up from Honda. On paper, the 2.0 liter, 142 horsepower four-cylinder sounds sufficient for 2,820 pounds. At moderate speeds, it is, in addition to being quiet and vibration-free. But the engine gets coarse past 3,000 r.p.m., and it really isn’t eager to go past that. When pushed, the four-speed automatic reveals wide ratio gaps that sap the torque out of the engine. The peaky power curves aren’t the problem, and more output isn’t needed. What the Soul deserves are faster revs and an overhaul on the gears – perhaps another one is all that’s needed. A manual mode would also be a welcome effort.
The two-tone dashboard was tastefully matched to our car’s Dune off-white paint, probably less so if had been colored Alien lime green or Molten bright red. The funky weave pattern on the headrests and the top of the front seats, not so much. Panel gaps are tight, and textured surfaces on the doors, steering wheel, and dash have a quality feel worthy of more expensive cars.
Ergonomics are first rate, too. The instrument panel is angled high for easy reach of the well-spaced buttons and knobs, and everything is labeled and positioned right where you’d expect. No door lock switches on the center console like on pricey Jaguars and BMWs, or digital displays crammed with too many readouts. There’s nothing to figure out, and that alone deserves major kudos.
Unfortunately, the back seat isn’t as inviting. The rear doors include large cupholders like up front, but there are no air louvers or power outlets.
The 315-watt, 8-speaker audio system comes with iPod, USB, and auxiliary inputs, plus the aforementioned front speaker lights that flash in sync with the beats. They’re distracting while driving – even in the slow-phase “mood” setting – but fun to amuse passengers and passersby. Sound quality gets distorted at higher volumes, but this no-name system has a decent amount of chest-thumping bass. Blast Dr. Dre in the Kia and you’ll get more respect than if you cranked “Still D.R.E.” in an Escalade, which has a weak Bose unit.
Fuel economy was just so-so in our tester, which just had 1,200 miles. Like the Toyota Yaris I recently drove, there’s no trip computer, but after 227 miles of mostly city driving, the Soul returned an estimated 21 to 22 miles per gallon. While not far below the EPA 24/30 rating, it’s an unimpressive number for a car this size, especially since an all-wheel-drive Suzuki SX4 I drove in the snow returned nearly the same numbers.
But in value terms, the Kia is well-positioned among the competition. At $17,900 ($18,595 with destination), this Soul – with Bluetooth, Sirius radio, tilt wheel, power moon roof, and fog lamps – is a better buy than the bare-bones $17,515 Yaris S and about $1,500 less than a comparative Scion xB. There’s a few rough edges on this box, but Kia has delivered a remarkably fresh design, something that couldn’t be said about the Korean company’s offerings even a year ago.
Dark tinted glass and a upright stance make the Soul stand out in Wollaston.
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