By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
Cars are by most objective measures better appliances than they’ve ever been. But as reliable as they are, as durable as they are, as safe as they are — many are devoid of, well, soul.
As the little ditty from the first season of HBO’s Weeds had it: . . . and they all look just the same.
All too often, they drive that way, too.
But the Kia Soul lives up to its name.
It’s disarmingly ugly-cute, for openers. Like a small mongrel dog that you can’t help adopting precisely because it’s so funny looking.
But it’s not just the love-me-because-I’m-ugly aesthetics that will make you smile.
The rest of the car keeps up, too.
WHAT IT IS
The Soul is a compact-sized, five door hatchback wagon with a tall roof, deliberately different urban hipster styling — and a bargain MSRP.
Base price is $14,400 with the standard 1.6 liter engine and six-speed manual transmission.
A range-topping ! Exclaim Soul with the larger 2.0 liter engine and six-speed automatic stickers out at $19,900 — but you can still get the more athletic 2.0 liter engine — teamed up with a six-speed manual transmission — for $16,700 if you buy the Soul +
Probably the most direct competition for the Soul is Scion’s xB. It is similar in size — and similarly lantern-jawed. But it is pricier to start ($16,300) and much thirstier to drive (22 city, 28 highway vs. the Kia’s 29 city, 36 highway, with the available ECO package) in part because of its technology outdated transmissions and much beefier curb weight (more on this below).
Another cross-shop is the Nissan Juke. It’s also a looker — and (being turbocharged) a runner — but it’s also significantly pricier at $19,990 to start.
The Soul was heavily updated last year — most notably, it got more powerful versions of its standard and optional engines — so changes for ’12 are more like tweaks. There are new exterior colors, revised exterior badges and a “dark chrome” accent ring around the grill. The major functional upgrade is standard Bluetooth wireless (with steering wheel mounted controls) on the base model and power-folding mirrors for the ! Exclaim trim. There are also LED driving lights up front.
Fugly — but lovable.
Love the price.
Love the space.
Peppy enough — with 2.0 engine.
Easy enough on gas — especially with ECO package and 1.6 liter engine.
Six-speed manual and automatic transmissions — available with either engine.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
Base 1.6 liter engine’s a little iffy — if you need to get someplace in a jiffy.
Maybe a bit too much “soul” — all over the seats and door panels.
UNDER THE HOOD
One of the obvious differences between the Soul and its principal rival — the Scion xB — is in the powerplant department. While the Scion comes with only one engine, irrespective of trim — a 2.4 liter four that makes 158 hp and which drinks gas to the tune of 22 city, 28 highway — the Soul starts out with a much more fuel-efficient — but only slightly less powerful — 1.6 liter engine. It registers 138 hp — about 20 hp less, it’s true, than the xB’s 2.4 liter engine. However, the xB (xtra Beef?) weighs some 400 pounds more than the Soul — 3,027 lbs. vs. 2,615 for the Kia — allowing it to post a superior 27 MPG in city driving and 35 MPG on the highway. This can be improved, too, if you order the optional ECO package, which includes low rolling resistance tires and an engine-stop feature similar to what you’d find in a hybrid. So equipped, the Soul’s EPA stats go up to 29 city, 36 highway — a solid 7-8 MPG better than the Scion.
In addition to being too beefy, the poor Toyota’s efficiency (and performance) is also gimped by its transmissions. The xB’s standard five-speed manual is ok — but the optional four-speed automatic is embarrassingly outdated for 2012 — and for Toyota. In the Kia, you get a standard six-speed manual — with a six-speed automatic available optionally.
The six-speed’s much more favorable gearing helps make the most of the Soul’s motive power — whether you choose the standard 1.6 liter engine or the optional 2.0 liter engine.
Speaking of which: This larger engine produces 164 hp — more hp than the xB’s standard engine, in a car that weighs hundreds of pounds less than the xB.
So equipped, the Soul equals the xB’s best-case (with the manual five-speed) 0-60 run of about 8.6 seconds with either of its available transmissions — and still gives you 26 city and 34 highway.
The ECO package is available with the bigger engine, too — bumping up the EPA numbers to 27 city, 35 highway.
These numbers also whup the Nissan Cube — another potential Soul cross-shop. The Cube — which comes only with a 122 hp 1.8 liter engine — comes up short at the pump: 27 city, 31 highway with its optional CVT automatic. With its standard six-speed manual, the Cube drops down to 25 city, 30 highway. This car also needs almost 10 seconds to chug to 60 MPH — in part because it’s only got 122 hp but also because it’s got the aerodynamic profile of a cereal box standing upright on a skateboard.
ON THE ROAD
Last year, Kia infused the Soul with the one thing it lacked enough of when it first hit the road in 2009 as an all-new 2010 model: power. The original engines — both of them — were bumped up in output, to 138 hp for the base 1.6 engine (from 122 originally) and 164 hp for the optional 2.0 liter engine (from 142 originally).
This makes all the difference.
Now, the current Soul won’t outrun a turbo Juke — but it will get out of its own way.
The underpowered Cube often cannot do that.
And while the Scion xB’s not slow, it feels lethargic — and unsophisticated — when it is fitted with its clunky, Clinton-era technology four-speed automatic. With the Toyota, you almost have to stick with the stick — which not everyone will want to do.
The six-speed equipped Soul — manual or automatic versions — feels snappier, even if it’s not a whole lot quicker.
On the highway, the Soul with the 2.0 liter engine also handles 80-plus MPH continuous speeds without feeling strained. Forget about that in the Cube — which does not offer a larger engine option. That cereal box profile — almost vertical front glass damming the frontal airflow — combined with not much going on in the boileroom — make for iffy highway use. The Cube is super cute — and a fun little car to knock around in. But it’s really more of a city car than an all-around car.
Another Soul driving quality I liked and wanted to bring up is the smoothness of the six-speed manual. There’s enough clutch take-up to make this a very comfortable manual to drive in heavy, stop-and-go traffic. A surprising number of new cars with manuals are not very stop-and-go friendly. The Soul is. Clutch engagement is not abrupt — or vague — with just enough pedal travel to communicate how far in (and out) you are.
The six-speed also includes a hill-holder feature that’s nice to have — even if you’re an experienced manual driver.
Visibility is also top drawer. There’s a lot of glass area — and tall glass area — both ahead of you and to the sides. Take particular note of the fact that the Soul’s liftgate glass is not truncated — or radically sloped. Your rearview is thus not obstructed as it is in many new vehicles with Chiclet-sized (or steeply sloped) rear glass.
This also helps make the Soul an easy driver when you’re surrounded by traffic — or trying to merge with traffic.
All Souls have electric-assist power steering, which is light and precise — and helps save gas, too.
And handling? It’s not a Juke — which offers a very sophisticated “torque vectoring” AWD system which the FWD-only Soul does not . But it’s a BMW M3 compared to the top-heavy, tipsy-feeling Cube.
The Scion xB is a closer shave.
Having driven both I’d say the Toyota’s a bit firmer-feeling but the downside is you feel more of what you may not want to feel, such as dips in the road (and potholes). The slightly softer-sprung Soul soaks up bad roads better — even when fitted with its optional 18-inch wheel/tire package (15s are standard). Which — to me — makes it a more everyday-friendly car.
You’ll want to drive both and see for yourself as “ride quality” is a very subjective thing.
AT THE CURB
Though it’s priced near the proverbial bottom of the food chain — the base $14k model being among the least expensive new cars you can buy — the Soul is both nicely equipped as it sits (standard AC, satellite radio, power windows/locks) and a nice-looking, not cheap-feeling car. Cross-shop the Soul against the Scion xB and you’ll see what I mean. The materials used in the Kia (such as soft-to-the-touch vs. rock hard plastics) the general layout and overall fit and finish are noticeably nicer overall. Part of this is just because the Kia is a newer — and more recently updated — vehicle. The Toyota is pretty much the same today (2012) as it was back in 2007 — before there even was a Soul.
To be clear: The xB is not a “bad” vehicle. The Soul’s just newer in design.
Now, that design may or may not appeal to you. Like all the cars in this segment — including the sumo-squating Cube, the lizard king Juke and the bulldog-ish xB — the Soul is a car you either think is cute and fun … or demented and hideous. I leave the judgment to you.
Objectively speaking, though, the design has some definite good points. For instance, the clever optical illusion created by the “clamshell” side glass. It tapers upward as it flows toward the back of the vehicle, which — along with a forward-tapered A-pillar — tricks your eyes into thinking the roofline is canting backward at a more extreme angle than it actually is. At first glance, you think: headroom’s got to be really tight — especially for the backseat riders. In fact, headroom — in both rows — is extremely generous: 40.2 inches up front and 39.6 inches in the second row. For some perspective, there’s almost four inches more headroom in the back seat of a Soul than in Nissan’s Juke — which actually does have a radically swept-back roofline. And there’s seven inches more backseat legroom: 39 inches for the Kia vs. 32.1 for the Juke.
The Soul also gives you 3.5 inches more second row legroom than the Cube does — though to be fair to the Cube, no one in this segment can touch its UPS truck-like 42.6 inches of front seat headroom (two-plus inches more than both the Soul and the Scion xB).
Overall, though, the Soul is a much more practical vehicle than you might expect it to be. Four big adults can ride comfortably — which you can’t say about the Juke in terms of the available real-estate or — in the case of the Cube — the ability to carry those adults on the highway for any length of time.
The xB can do both — but will suck a lot more gas in the process.
Cargo-wise, the xB is the king with 122.4 cubic feet of total capacity vs. 53.4 for the Soul and 58.1 for the Cube (forget the Juke, which only has 35.9 cubes). But that’s the only area in which the Scion has a clear, objective, advantage over the Kia.
You can outfit the Soul with heated seats, GPS — and Kia’s UVO voice-command system. A fun feature that’s included with the optional eight-speaker Infinity audio rig is a speaker light system that pulses in time with whatever you’re listening to. Teenagers — and the teenager in you — will get a kick out of that.
Some Soul trims come with a lot of soul. Literally. “Soul Soul Soul” imprinted everywhere it’ll fit. Door side panels. Seats. You’re surrounded by soul! Like the looks, you either dig it — or you don’t. The good news is you don’t have to be surrounded by soul. Kia offers different interior palettes, such as a very groovy ’70s chocolate brown layout — without all the “Soul” script.
Pop the hood and you will notice something else I’m betting you will dig: There is daylight. Room to get at things. I was surprised — very pleasantly surprised — when I surveyed the engine compartment. Unlike so many new cars — in particular, FWD cars with transversely (that is, sideways) mounted engines — Kia didn’t use up every millimeter of space, or cram the engine so tightly up against the firewall or strut towers that Elvis-help-you come time to change the serpentine belt or replace the water pump. I haven’t seen an engine bay this DIY-friendly since the ’74 Nova I saw a couple weeks back at an old car show.
For instance: There’s the alternator — right there, accessible. Not secreted down low, in some inaccessible place that would probably require you to lift the engine off its mounts to get at it. Replacing the serpentine belt and water pump — when the time comes — also looks to be easy. At least, it’ll be easy to get at the bolts — and get your tools on the bolts.
It is very hard to fault this car — unless you’re just not into its looks. The package is practical — unlike the fun to drive, but space-tight Juke. Or the darling — but For City Use Only Cube. It has as much attitude appeal as the Scion xB — for less coin up front and also down the road (in the form of lower gas bills).
Plus, a truly outstanding warranty: 5 years/60,000 miles on the works — the whole car — and ten years/100,000 miles on the guts — the engine/transmission. Toyota — once the safest buy you could buy — only covers its stuff for three years/36,000 miles — and the xB’s drivetrain for just five years, 60,000 miles. Kia gives you almost twice the coverage on the big stuff — the engine/transmission. It’s not hard to understand why Toyota’s no longer got the market locked up.
THE BOTTOM LINE
I hate the rapping rat commercials, but won’t hold that against the Soul. You shouldn’t either.