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Mike Stevens | Apr 7, 2009 | 5 Comments

In 2009, Kia’s slogan “The Power to Surprise” could not be truer. Official images and spy photos are popping up everywhere for stylish new models from the Korean automaker, and the company is even investigating a new, trendier naming system for its vehicles.

Little surprise then that Kia is pushing the 2009 SOUL with so much enthusiasm.

In the US market, the SOUL will have its work cut out, rubbing up against the likes of similar generation-now 'box-car' competitors like the Scion xB, the Nissan Cube, and Honda's Element. In Australia, this is less of a problem. The SOUL, for the moment, has the market to itself.

It seems then that Kia may have itself a winner in a niche that its bigger peers apparently have no interest in tapping.

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According to Kia, the SOUL “redefines the box”. Now while redefining a box might seem like an odd thing to attempt (how many ways can you do it?), Kia should be rapt with the results. The Korean giant-killer-in-the-making has taken the box and sprawled “funky” on every face.

A chat with Kia’s national sales manager Alan Crouch revealed that the company is looking for about 400 sales for the remainder of 2009. A small number, considering the game’s only one quarter down, but Alan stressed that the SOUL is about individuality and uniqueness – push to get too many of them on the road, and part of that feeling is watered down.

It’s so much about the experience, in fact, that Kia is training its already experienced dealers specifically on the craft of selling the SOUL. Kia doesn’t want the SOUL viewed like any other ‘regular’ car; it has flair and charisma and the dealers will need to embrace and push that feeling in the showroom.

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The Kia SOUL debuted in 2006 at the Detroit auto show, and now only thirty months later and with limited visual changes, the SOUL is upon us.

The big uniquely-shaped headlights, flared guards, sharp character line, sports-inspired bonnet bulge, strong D-pillar and ‘wrap-around’ windows – which Kia product manager Nick Reid likened to a pair of cool sporty sunglasses – will ensure the little Kia stands out in any crowd.

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Kia would have likely had the visual options packages of the Scion xB – and even the MINI – in its sights when it set about developing the options list compact quasi-CUV SOUL. There is a youthful energy and carefree spirit evident everywhere in its lines.

 

An emphasis on style

Where the MINI is known for its range of colourful and whacky roof-graphic options, the SOUL takes everything a step thirty steps further. To better emphasise its youthful slant, Kia will offer the SOUL with a range of out-there paint and vinyl graphics accessories for the body, along with a range of interior trims and colours.

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With a style you simply can't ignore, and the price advantage of a Korean parent, you can't help but feel that the SOUL is destined to become a hot seller – and probably across more than a few demographics. Hell, with the ease of entry and exit the SOUL offers, you’ll probably even see a few funkified senior citizens getting around in it.

And don’t think that saying "price advantage" is a polite way of saying it’s a crap car in a good looking body, because after spending a day in the SOUL, I can tell you that just isn’t so.

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Inside the SOUL, its strengths are immediately obvious. The plastics and fabric feel as good as any of its higher-priced class competitors. The interior colour combos and the quirky style of the layout works. Even the LED-lit door speakers (part of an overall 8-speaker setup) with their ‘Mood’ lighting, give a genuine feeling that the SOUL is set to impress.

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Space inside is also excellent, with plenty of room in the back for a couple of six-footers thanks to the high-mounted front and rear seats. Thanks to the SOUL’s long wheelbase, there’s enough legroom there to keep Andre the Giant happy, probably even with stilts on.

Options, options, options. Did I mention options? Living up to the car’s tag – No Two SOULs Are The Same - the SOUL will be offered in three variants: the base model SOUL starts at $20,990, the SOUL2 (Squared) at $23,190, and the range-topping SOUL3 (Cubed) at $27,390.

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It would take me a week to list the differences here (all of which add up to around 10,000 variations), so jump over to NoTwoSOULs.com.au to mess around with the options. With 11 exterior paint colours, a range of vinyl graphics and interior trims styled to match, and optional chrome fittings, the combination possibilities aren’t far off endless.

Probably the niftiest option – and likely a nod to the not-so-hot rearward visibility – is the reversing camera; the display for which is in the rear-vision mirror.


 

Thrifty engine and trans combos, okay handling

The SOUL will be offered in two engine levels, with the base getting only a five-speed manual transmission and the higher models offering a four-speed automatic as an option. A six-speed box is somewhere in Kia’s future.

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The SOUL features two engine options: a 1.6 litre four-cylinder petrol engine producing 91kW and 155Nm of torque, and a 1.6 litre diesel ‘U2’ mill (the newer version of the U diesel found in the Hyundai i30 and Kia cee’d) producing 94kW and a much more inspiring 260Nm of torque, at 1900rpm.

Diesel may not be ‘cool’ just yet – diesel engines don’t exactly sound the part – but SOUL buyers looking for some punch will definitely pick this one.

We won’t see it in Australia, but the US market SOUL also gets a 2.0 litre option, making 105kW and 185Nm. A bit more go for those preferring petrol motors, but the Aus-delivered diesel is the ticket in in this writer’s book.

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Still, the diesel engine will set you back a not insignificant $3500 over the petrol version, so you’ll definitely be paying for that extra power.

On the mileage front, the diesel will give you a very appealing 5.2 l/100km in the manual, and 5.9 l/100km in the auto. Emissions for the diesel are 137g/km for the manual, and 155g/km for the auto.

The petrol engine will return a reasonable 6.5 l/100km, making it good for around 750km off a tank, and CO2 emissions are 154g/km.

Regardless of the choice you’ll make, both engines are up to the task. They’re no fire-breathers, but each is perfectly willing to spin freely and can he hustled along quickly enough through both the manual and auto boxes.

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All of this combines to give the 2009 Kia SOUL a five-star rating at the Australian federal government’s greenvehicleguide.com.au website.

You wouldn’t know it to look at it, but the SOUL is built on a heavily modified Rio platform, including a major reworking of the structural reinforcements to ensure a five-star crash test score, and a stretched wheelbase for improved handling.

The SOUL rides on a MacPherson strut suspension up front, with the back end sitting on a subframe-mounted torsion beam axle.

 

The drive, Mike, how is the drive?

First impression of the handling is that it works ok, though a longer test will be necessary to really come to grips with it. That said, bumps are ironed out nicely enough – an especially scary looking pothole went by almost unnoticed – though it is firmer below and handles flatter than one might expect from a small Kia.

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An electronic power steering system manages the turns competently, and while the technology is probably still not all the way there, the 3 percent gain in fuel efficiency is plenty welcome.

Of two two engine choices, I’d lean toward the diesel for that extra ‘oomph’, but then most of the SOUL’s buyers aren’t likely to be idiot revheads like myself.

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Though Kia promises a six-speed auto is in the works and will appear in future models across the company’s range, the auto box in the SOUL did its job well enough.

 

Conclusion

The 2009 Kia SOUL looks the part in every way. More to the point, it also acts the part. With a deeply funky, sporty persona, some might expect more of an emphasis on performance, but it’s somehow not surprising to discover this isn’t the case.

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Fun is the name of the game here.

For sure, nine out of ten SOUL buyers will buy it because of its looks and that tasty price. If Kia were to chuck in all the bits needed to make it a genuine sports performer, it’d cost a lot more, simple as that.

So, for what it is, the Kia SOUL is a genuine winner. It’s stylish, well put together, nothing about it feels nasty or cheap, and offers probably the longest list of options since I last had yum cha.

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