Kia Soul review
by David Finlay (19 February 2009)
You can't fault Kia for boldness in the way it introduced the Soul to the UK motoring media. According to the press pack, the Soul combines "a hint of SUV ruggedness" (though in fact it's not an SUV at all, not least because there is no four-wheel drive option) with "the charm and desirability of the MINI and Fiat 500".
Using two of the most charming and desirable small cars on the market as a comparison is a brave move, and if the Soul does achieve anything like that level of popularity it won't be because of any reference to much-loved older models, since nothing quite resembling it has ever been built before.
Even the underpinnings are largely new. The Soul, which first appeared in concept form at the 2006 Detroit Show, is based on a unique platform, though one which will be used for other Kia models in the future. But the engines are familiar - 1.6-litre petrol and turbo diesel units, each producing around 125bhp and both already to be found elsewhere in the current Kia range.
Despite the similarity in power outputs, there is no question about which engine you should choose if you're going to buy a Soul. The diesel models may be £1000 more expensive than their petrol equivalents, and cost more to fill up (though they have a 10.8mpg benefit - 54.3 to 43.5 - in terms of combined fuel economy and will cost less to tax thanks to lower CO2 levels), but in all other ways they beat the petrol cars every day and twice on Sundays.
They have superior ride quality and crisper handling, they feel more secure on turn-in, they can cope better with a mid-corner application of power and they make less noise at motorway cruising speeds. They shouldn't, but they do.
It's not that the diesels are especially wonderful on the road, just that the petrol models are noticeably less capable. Much is being made of the fact the Soul has been set-up specifically for UK driving conditions in conjunction with Lotus, but there have been many examples in the past (often, though not exclusively, Protons) which were still far from a driver's dream after a session with Lotus, and the Soul is one of them.
Regardless of what's under the bonnet, every Soul has a handsome amount of interior headroom, and - considering the car's overall size - plenty of space for four full-grown adults (you can seat three people in the rear but the one in the middle will have to be on the petite side). Personally I could have done with an extra inch of driver's seat travel, but it won't cause problems for anyone less than six feet tall.
Cargo volume is quite decent at 340 litres with the rear seats in placed and 800 litres with them folded down, though that's without the underfloor storage tray which is fitted to some models and reduces the capacity to 222/700 litres. Accessing the luggage area is more difficult than it should be, partly because the rear sill is surprisingly high (it's about six inches above the level of the boot floor) and partly because the very thick C pillars - which no doubt seemed a good idea when the car was simply a styling exercise on the computers of Kia's Californian design studio - have forced the use of a remarkably narrow tailgate opening.
As a result, the back window is narrow too, with an obvious effect on visibility made still worse by the fact that the rear side windows are so tiny and so heavily-shrouded that the driver can hardly even see them, never mind see through them.
Come on, Kia - if you wanted to be as radical with this car as you say you did, why not buck the current trend and make the Soul safe to reverse? And while we're at it, why is the steering wheel adjustable only for height and not for reach? Sorting that out surely wouldn't be expensive, and it would make the car so much better.
Lower sound levels would be good too, but they would be harder to engineer. The very tall windscreen (which makes visibility ahead of the car outstandingly better than behind it) leads to a bit of wind noise, which is eventually overcome by a level of road noise linked to the fact that the Soul's shape makes it something of an echo chamber. Motorway driving is therefore a fairly rackety business, particularly in the lower-geared petrol models.
From launch there are five trim levels, divided into two groups which we have to treat separately. At the cheaper end of the line-up come the 1 and 2: the petrol-only 1 is the cheapest, at £10,495, but Kia expects to sell more of the 2, which for an extra £1000 gets 16" alloy wheels (the 1 has 15" steels), front foglights, a height-adjustable driver's seat, electrically-adjustable door mirrors, steering wheel-mounted audio controls, iPod compatibility, a wider choice of colours and a few other fripperies.
Add £1000, as mentioned previously, for the diesel engine, and a further £1000 for a four-speed automatic gearbox to replace the standard five-speed manual.
The other Souls available to begin with are the Originals, which are called Samba, Shaker and Burner. Kia's plan is to replace the current Originals with a new set every 12 months, so the information that follows will be out of date fairly soon, but here goes anyway: the Samba and Shaker cost £12,495 (plus £1000 for the diesel of course), while the Burner costs £14,995 and is fitted only with the diesel engine.
Each has 18" alloy wheels but comes with its own colour and character: the Samba is painted Tornado Red with Piano Black door mirrors and bumper inserts, and is the "tech" version whose specification includes privacy glass, chrome doorhandles, reversing sensors, a 315W amplifier, a PowerBass subwoofer in the boot and a dash-top speaker, adjustable red mood lighting and a rear spoiler.
The Shaker is what Al Murray the Pub Landlord would call the "fruit-based drink for the lady" version. It's painted in an off-white shade called Vanilla Shake and has a reversing camera whose LCD display forms part of the rear view mirror plus privacy glass, an electric sunroof and black/cream upholstery. The Burner is similar in spec to the Samba but looks very different with its Quartz Black paintwork, dragon decals, seriously butch alloys and black/red interior trim.
The Soul Originals are not expected to be big sellers, but owners of the 1 and 2 also get the chance to make their cars look distinctive using the optional Style and Chrome packs and/or the Racing Stripe and Dragon decal sets.