IS IT SO HARD TO LOVE A BOX? Kia took the styling "experiment" – perhaps "plunge" is a better word – with the Kia Soul, mirroring the box-like Japanese kei cars designed for the limited parking and crowded road conditions of Japan.
Australians, however, haven't taken to box cars like Toyota’s Camry-based Rukus. But the box shape makes a lot of sense. It is space-efficient, has a small footprint, is easy to park, and, from inside, looks darn good. It’s the 'style-thang' that lets it down.
The sales tell the story and it doesn’t look good for the humble box. This year, 130 Souls found homes while the Rukus sold 122 units. Compare that with one of the Soul’s rivals, Mazda’s CX-3, at 7130.
But is style everything?
Vehicle style: Small hatchback
Price: $26,990 (plus on-roads)
Engine/trans: 113kW/191Nm 2.0-litre petrol 4cyl | 6sp automatic
Fuel Economy claimed: 8.4 l/100km | tested: 8.9 l/100km
Bricks aren’t aerodynamic. They don’t look sporty and don’t have fan clubs. Their most basic claim is that "they are very useful". Much like the Kia Soul.
Function follows form, usually, but the Soul turns this upside down, using function as the guiding imperative and letting form trail behind.
So it's brick-shaped. But, somehow, it also emerges with 'character', and it is quite a bit better than its bleak 130 sales for 2015 would suggest.
It also has a few things you may consider important. If you’re young it has plenty of cabin space. If you have a young family, things like sports gear will fit in the boot. Just.
And if you’re elderly, the high hip-point and high boot floor greatly reduce knee and back bending.
On top of that, it’s a Kia. There’s a seven-year warranty, roadside assistance and capped-price servicing. The drivetrain is well-proven and there’s a 5-Star ANCAP crash rating. Really, it’s in the box.
THE INTERIOR | RATING: 4/5
Quality: Funny how Korean products were not long ago regarded as a bit suss. Now Kia and its parent Hyundai regularly make the top 10 of the world’s quality index, leaving rivals including Volkswagen a long way behind.
The Soul is an example. It’s not a high-volume model but you can’t help notice the perfect fit of the dashboard and the plastic trim, the stitching of the leather steering wheel and the way everything works quickly and quietly.
No creaks or rattles or groans from anywhere in the test car despite the likelihood of a harsh upbringing.
The fabrics and materials are durable yet not military and the occasional use of leather – steering wheel, gearshifter and handbrake lever – looks good with its contrasting colour stitching.
Outside, all the shut lines are neat and even. For the latest model – now limited to just one choice after a diesel and a lower-spec version were given the shove based on diminished buyer demand – there’s a two-tone paint scheme with a white roof over, in this case, a blue-grey body.
Comfort: I was prepared for the worst. The fact the Soul is small – it’s actually 135mm shorter than the baby Mazda CX-3 – and utilitarian in its profile makes me think of something pretty basic.
But the ride comfort is one of the Soul’s finest points.
It’s also particularly quiet. At cruising speeds, the engine is practically inaudible. Other small cars that have come past my driveway in recent months are certainly less impressive.
The seats look small but in fact are very comfortable and have decent support. There’s a fine line between having a sporty, big-bolstered seat and one that’s easy to get in and out.
This is important, not just for young people in a hurry, but to make entering and exiting the vehicle a simple manoeuvre, particularly for less flexible folk.
There’s nothing extraordinary about the suspension under the body where components are lifted off the shelf of the Cerato and Rio. But there is a lot of tuning done in Australia and there’s an accent on handling and suppleness.
It is pleasing to see, however, that the vital stuff – such as an effective hands-free connectivity and a reverse camera – are included.
Standard kit includes a six-speaker audio, Bluetooth (which paired up the phone instantly), cruise control, electric mirrors and windows, cloth trim with leather trim and rear park sensors with the camera.
From the outside there is 17-inch alloy wheels with 215/55R17 tyres and a space-saver under the cargo floor.
Storage: As discussed, the boxy dimensions maximise interior space. So the Soul seats up to five adults – truly – and has a wide and deep boot area that suffers only from its shallowness.
The surprise is that though it promises lots of cargo space, it is the one of the smallest load haulers in its class. The boot offers 238 litres with the rear seat in place, and 878 litres when folded.
Seriously, it looks a lot bigger and will take a full bicycle without removing the front wheel. In addition, the tailgate opens near the wagon’s corners so there’s a yawning hole to easily feed in your cargo.
The seats fold almost flat and the floor is even to maximise space.
For personal space, it rates quite well. The glovebox is reasonable, the centre console has a lid and though narrow, is deep. There’s bottle holders in the doors and two cupholders in the centre console.
ON THE ROAD | RATING: 3.5/5
Driveability: The Soul now gets the 113kW/191Nm 2.0-litre ‘Nu’ multi-port injected petrol engine, replacing the previous unit shared with the Cerato (and which was also found in a couple of Hyundai products).
While not the bee’s knees in sophistication, it is an honest worker with a sense that it will serve its owners for a long and reliable life. However, output and fuel economy are average in comparison to rivals.
The Mazda CX-3’s 2.0-litre engine has a bit less power and a fraction more torque (109kW/192Nm) but gets 6.1L/100km compared with the Soul at 8.4L/100km.
The peak power of the Korean engine is delivered at a high 6200rpm, and the torque’s peak arrives at 4700rpm. So though the output figures look good, chances are they’ll rarely, if ever, be visited.
Yet the Soul engine is smooth and, once underway, very quiet. There is some muted gravel-chewing sounds at idle but it disappears once the wagon is underway.
Performance is modest but the engine’s delivery is linear and smooth. It’s helped by the top-notch six-speed automatic that has plenty of ratios to prevent any power troughs, and is 'quick enough' when a burst of speed is called for.
Good visibility, light steering effort, a tight turning circle and the high driver-seat position all create confidence in the car.
Refinement: This is the second generation of the original, more boxy, Soul. The big improvement has been in the quality and in the reduction of noise, vibration and harshness (NVH).
It is a very quiet car. We road tested the Soul at about the same time as the new Corolla ZR, and the Soul was smoother, quieter and handled road bumps with mature compliance.
A lot of work has been put into getting the ride comfort and the steering feel perfect for fussy Australians.
Ride and Handling: This is not the type of car that you’d expect to be quiet and comfortable. And you’d probably be surprised that it actually handles well.
Some bumpy and irregular bitumen road surfaces were encountered on this test and the Soul just shrugged them off, rarely transmitting noise and jarring into the cabin.
On smooth roads, the ride is as good as a medium-size sedan, and at no time did occupants complain about comfort issues.
Handling is predictable and while there’s good grip from the front wheels, it will show up a bit of body roll and some understeer. In case you didn’t notice, it’s not a sports car.
The Soul weighs 1375kg which is a bit porky for its dimensions. The Kia Rio on which it’s based is 200kg lighter and 100mm longer. Much of the weight is in the engine and that’s where the understeer comes from.
But that aside, it is a very predictable car to drive and the steering is accurate and has few of the vagueness and other vices attached to the electric-assist power steering system.
Braking: The Soul wears four-wheel disc brakes and has all the necessary electronic brake aids. I note that some vehicles in this class have rear drum brakes, that, while effective, may be less resistant to fade after extended periods of use.
ANCAP rating: The current model Kia Soul has yet to be tested by ANCAP
Safety features: Six airbags, stability control, all the required electronic brake aids (ABS, EBD, brake assist), a tyre pressure monitor, rear park sensors and a reverse camera. The spare wheel is a space saver.
WARRANTY AND SERVICING
Warranty: Seven years/unlimited kilometres; seven-year roadside assistance.
Service costs: Service intervals are every 12 months or 15,000km. Kia has a capped-price service program that costs a very reasonable $964 for three years.
It actually lasts for seven years allowing new-car buyers – and subsequent owners of the same car – to enjoy cost-effective and transparent service costs from their specialist dealer.
HOW IT COMPARES | VALUE FOR MONEY 3.5/5
Mazda CX-3 Maxx 2WD ($24,390) – Cute and a magnet for city-focused wanna-be adventurers, the CX-3 has it all - except cabin space.
The Maxx is well priced, nippy, frugal and makes any driver look trendy. Power is from a 109kW/192Nm 2.0-litre engine attached to a six-speed auto to drive the front wheels. It’s rated at 6.1L/100km. Boot size is 264 litres. (see CX-3 reviews)
Skoda Yeti Ambition 2WD ($28,290) – This is one of the world’s most versatile SUVs with a great chassis and perky engine. The 1.4-litre turbo-petrol engine drives through a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic for 6.0L/100km.
It’s a bit on the quirky side in looks – though it’s in good company here – but should never be overlooked. The boot is 321 litres. (see Yeti reviews)
Nissan Juke ST 2WD ($24,490) – Think the Soul looks off the wall? The Juke is no joke, combining sports-car ambience with good cabin flexibility, though the cabin space is limited.
It’s powered by an 86kW/158Nm 1.6-litre engine and a CVT automatic for 6.3L/100km. The boot is a reasonable 354 litres. (see Juke reviews)
Nissan Qashqai ST ($28,490) – The wagon for the conservative buyer, it has all the verve of the Juke but with a more family-friendly cabin and some more modest style lines.
It gets a 106kW/200Nm 2.0-litre engine, CVT automatic driving the front wheels and claims of a 6.9L/100km economy. The boot is 430 litres. (See Qashqai reviews)
TMR VERDICT | OVERALL 3.5/5
I really like the Soul for its ride comfort and quietness, the unfussed way it does things and the fact I can throw my mountain bike or road bike in the back without even removing a wheel.
There’s lots of storage areas, it’s an absolute doddle to drive and though the engine’s economy is a bit disappointing for such a small vehicle – and compared with its rivals – I think its very underestimated.
And from the comfy driver’s seat, I have no complaints about the styling. Would I? Yes.
MORE: Kia News and Reviews