IT WASN'T SO LONG AGO that the Kia badge was synonymous with cheap economy cars, built for value above all else; robust enough but bereft of thrills.
Economy cars are still its focus these days, but when the Korean company brought its funky new Soul to Australia in April of this year, it announced that it now had a new bent. Indeed, all of Kia’s pre-launch posturing - "every Soul is different" - suggested that the Soul wasn’t just an inexpensive and individual mini-wagon, but was targeted to aspirational buyers.
It’s certainly an intriguing vehicle. It’s got a style that’s unlike anything on this country’s roads, a list of accessories that’s clearly inspired by MINI’s options catalogue and an interior that’s as functional as it is stylish.
We just had to try one on for size.
Our tester was an option-free Soul2 diesel manual, presented in an attractive off-white that Kia calls “Vanilla Shake”.
It’s a colour that flatters the blocky Soul, and it contrasts nicely with the car’s blacked-out glasshouse, headlights and tail lights. Those lamp clusters are without doubt distinctive: and there’s no mistaking the two-tiered front housings and the vertically-stacked rear lenses for those of any other car.
It’s a very handsome shape - Kia’s done a brilliant job with the Soul’s sheetmetal.
The Soul’s two-box body is simple and fuss-free, but the chunky scalloping around the windows, wheelarches and rear hatch give the car a sense of ruggedness. And the pronounced character line that extends from the front fenders to the rear doors adds a nice sporty air.
In fact, there’s not an unflattering angle to the Soul. It’s also a shape that should appeal to both genders, and in the week that we had the car it turned more heads than any other vehicle we’ve tested recently.
The black plastic faux nudgebar at the front also lends a rough-and-tumble flavour to the Soul and gives the impression of a bulldog’s underbite.
Suffice to say, the Soul boasts the visual presence of a much bigger 4WD wagon - except without the pricetag. Want a car that tells the world you’re both stylish and slightly adventurous? The Soul might be your bag.
Sixteen-inch alloy wheels are standard on the Soul2, as are a pair of roof rails and foglights, however Kia also provides a number of body options for buyers to ‘customise’ their own Soul.
There’s a set of add-on bumper lips, a rear spoiler that sits atop the hatch, headlight-defining “eyeliner”, 18-inch black rims, extra chrome accents and three different body decal designs. There's 30 accessories all up and three option packs. The accessories range from the practical to the just plain extroverted, and Kia hopes that the uptake of the Soul's optional extras will be big.
Us though? We thought it looked mighty fine in plain 'ol stock form.
On the inside, the Soul’s cabin doesn’t quite match its exterior for visual drama, but the design is certainly unique.
The dash design is simple and uncluttered, but it also sports what appears to be the world’s largest cupholder above the centre stack. Kia has elected to colour the insides of the glovebox and centre cubby hole red, giving the two storage spaces the somewhat disconcerting appearance of being massive, gaping wounds when open. Strange.
But there the visual flair ends, for the rest of the interior is fairly conventional. It also feels a little low-rent, with sombre, easily-marked plastics used throughout the cabin.
The switchgear feels solid though, particularly the controls for the heating and ventilation system. The radio buttons are large and easy to use, the steering wheel-mounted audio controls are convenient and there’s loads of storage spaces dotted around the cabin.
Thanks to its high-riding stance, there’s minimal centre tunnel intrusion into the rear floor. That means three people can comfortably sit on the rear bench without having to jostle for legroom and, with a centre three-point seatbelt, safety isn’t compromised either.
The seating position for the driver is fairly high, giving an impression that you’re driving a vehicle much larger than the Soul’s (relatively) compact dimensions.
You sit quite upright in the captain’s chair, and forward visibility is good. Buyers downsizing from full-size 4WDs should still feel at home in the Soul’s tall cabin.
The front seat cushions are a touch on the firm side, but still reasonably comfortable. The rear bench, on the other hand, is flat and unsupportive by comparison.
Entry and egress, on the other hand, is a cinch for both the front and back seats. The height of the seat cushions is perfect for those who prefer to simply slide onto (rather that drop into) a car seat, and the elderly and individuals with poor joints may find this to be of great assistance.
At 340 litres with the rear seatbacks up, luggage space isn’t especially huge. Drop them down and that figure rises to 800 litres, however the seatbacks don’t fold flush with the boot floor, thus making it difficult to accommodate long and flat items.
An underfloor organizer for smaller items is available as an option, as is a cargo net – two features that help keep your cargo in place while driving
Equipment and Features
In terms of mod-cons, the Soul isn’t quite at the pointy end of the high-tech spear. There is no cruise control or automatic climate control, no power seats and no rain-sensing wipers.
Still, that’s entirely forgivable considering the Soul’s keen pricing, but the lack of gizmos does seem at odds with the car’s futuristic styling.
What the Soul does get, though, is a stereo system that should please most casual music fans.
The six-speaker AM/FM CD tuner features both a USB and auxillary input for MP3 players, as well as iPod compatibility when used with an optional Apple-specific cable.
Sound reproduction is good, however bass notes lack punch. The Soul3 gets an upgraded audio system with a 315-watt amplifier, a centre-channel speaker and a boot-mounted subwoofer, however the Soul2 made do with the basic stereo.
Foglights are standard on the Soul2, as is electronic stability control and traction control (two things the base model Soul misses out on). A comprehensive suite of six airbags is also standard, and includes two front and two side-airbags for the front seats along with two full-length curtain airbags.
Active headrests and pretensioning seatbelts are fitted to the front seats, while ABS with electronic brakeforce distribution and braking assist is standard equipment.
The Soul is fairly simple in its mechanical layout. Our tester came fitted with a 94kW 1.6 litre turbodiesel four which was mated to a five-speed manual gearbox, and both units gave good – if unexciting – performance.
Thanks to a variable-geometry turbocharger and common-rail diesel injection, the oil-burner proved to be a reasonably thrifty unit when driven sedately.
With 260Nm of torque available from a low 1900rpm, the CRDi’s motor is a grunty one and pulls the Soul along with ease. It feels quite strong in daily driving, and is effortless through hills.
However, getting on the gas doesn’t necessarily equal an increase in pace. The turbo runs out of puff fairly early, and there’s no point hanging onto a gear beyond 4000rpm. As a result, overtaking requires some planning - it's best left in fifth, simply bury the shoe and let the torque do the rest.
The transmission is hooked up to the front wheels only, and although the Soul’s mini-SUV flavour might hint otherwise, an all-wheel-drive layout is not on offer.
The gear ratios are unique to the diesel, and reasonably well spaced to take advantage of the 1.6 litre engine’s torque. But while Kia says new double and triple-cone synchronizers smooth out gearchanges, we still found the shifter to be a touch notchy and more than a little reluctant to slot into the gate at times.
Disc brakes are fitted to all four wheels, with ventilated discs up front and solid discs at the rear. Braking performance was more than adequate, and the ABS system works well on wet tarmac.
With a kerb weight of 1254kg, the Kia is certainly a lot lighter than its chunky proportions suggest, and fuel economy is quoted as being 5.2l/100km on the combined cycle. The best we could record was 8.2l/100km, but that’s still a decent figure considering it was mostly driven through hilly terrain.
So the engine runs out of breath a bit early and the gearbox doesn’t like being rushed, but how does the Soul handle urban tarmac?
Pretty well, as it turns out. It rides comfortably, absorbs bumps with aplomb and is easy to manoeuvre at low speeds. The electro-mechanical power steering dulls any feedback through the wheel, but the average Soul buyer probably won’t miss it anyway.
There is an abundance of roll through long corners and the Soul isn’t the sharpest handler around. Large potholes can unsettle the chassis and the front wheels can break traction in the wet with just an over-enthusiastic flex of the ankle, however the stability and traction control systems sort both problems out in short measure.
While forward visibility is good, keeping tabs on what’s hanging around the Soul’s hindquarters is a difficult exercise. The fat C-pillars don’t help rearward visibility, and the small-ish rear window can also make parking difficult. A set of reverse parking sensors would certainly help the Soul’s cause.
The Kia Soul2 blends an attractive body with a level of equipment that’s sure to keep the majority of its 20 to 30-something target demographic happy, but is the whole package more a case of form over function?
A little. The Soul’s distinctive shape can inhibit visibility from the wheel but, at the same time, the interior packaging is both intelligent and spacious.
Five adults can fit in the Soul comfortably and there’s more than enough room in the back for a week’s groceries. Plus, finding a place to store your various knick-knacks won’t be a challenge given the amount of storage pockets the Kia provides.
It looks good, it turns heads (a remarkable feat for a Kia, it must be said) and with a retail price of $26,690 for the Soul2 CRDi manual (including a five-year/unlimited kilometre warranty) it’s a pretty decent deal.
It’s let down by its dynamic performance, but for new car buyers looking for a cheap, funky and practical vehicle, and the fuel-efficiency of a nicely balanced diesel, the Soul certainly fits the bill.
At the wheel, you feel pretty good about the world. And that's a good thing in any car.
- Spacious interior
- Plethora of storage options
- Good fuel economy
- Relaxed motor
- Commanding driving position
- Not enough power for overtaking
- Ride won’t challenge anything European or Japanese
- Rearward visibility is poor
- Interior materials feel cheap and are easily scratched