Sitting between two highly conventional Rios on the Kia lot, the Soul Sport looks like a visitor from another planet. The Kia’s European styling not only refutes the bland mediocrity of its fellow Kias, but also challenges the toaster-oven aesthetics of its boxy competitors. At the same time, it offers a more unique approach than Honda’s low-slung Fit hatchback. That said, the Soul is more the product of a careful compromise between its competitors rather than a genuine automotive oddity. So what happens when you pick the least-compromising trim level, the Soul Sport with manual transmission? You develop a new level of appreciation for the art of compromise.
Inside, the Soul’s split-the-difference positioning really shines. Interior space won’t draw astonished comment (à la the first generation Scion xB), but the Soul’s interior creates a distinctly spacious feel. Up front it’s business as usual: plenty of room and great forward vision afforded by a commanding seating position. From the driver’s seat, you feel like you are part of traffic rather than a minor nuisance to “real cars.”
The Kia Soul’s packaging shines in the second row. Head, knee, leg and waist room abound in the Soul’s slightly elevated rear passenger area, even if you’re over six feet or 200 lbs.
Unfortunately, the Soul’s extra width does little to improve a fairly compromised rear cargo area. Pert packaging means that the Soul falls a few feet short of the Fit’s seat-up 20.9 cubic feet of cargo area. An underfloor storage compartment helps keep smaller cargo organized and out of sight (which is handy in a hatch). But if you plan on taking a road trip for five and their luggage, you’re going to need a roof box.
Interior quality is good (i.e great for a Kia), with restrained style and eminent function. The Soul’s far from the typical monochromatic penalty box, but styling trumps materials. Paradoxically, in base-model black, the Soul looks clean and classy for the price point. In contrast, the Sport model’s mandatory red-and-black scheme demands… recognition.
If you’re excited about the Soul’s red-glowing speakers which pulse to the beat of your tunes, chances are you’ll love the Sport’s loud interior scheme. Otherwise, you’ll probably be a bit embarrassed about it all. If you want the Sport’s “performance suspension” you’ll have to live with the attention-seeking aesthetics, whether you like it or not.
Which begs the question: how much fun is the sportiest Soul to drive?
Kia’s 2.0-liter four-banger is standard on all Souls save for the base model, which makes do with a 1.6-liter mill. There’s little to differentiate the Sport’s performance from the other Soul trim levels. With 142 hp at 6,000 rpm and 137 pound-feet of torque at 4,600 rpm, the larger of the two mills has no problem bringing the Kia’s 2,800 pounds to speed. If you’re expecting some eponymous soul from the engine room, don’t.
While the Soul’s fat torque band makes for lazy, grunty fun around town and in the passing lane, there’s nothing makes you want keep the thing at a boil. Which is fine, since the smooth-but-vague shifter and novocained clutch pedal are hardly a call to arms.
The Soul’s handling is extremely competent in the real world, but lacks the verve that the model’s moniker implies. At least in comparison to the Fit and its low-slung ilk. Tossing the Kia into a corner, you can’t ignore the un-car-like dimensions of the thing. Thankfully, thanks to extra track width and the Sport’s sharper suspension, the expected body roll never shows up. Understeer is a constantly lurking presence, but sharp, feelsome disc brakes keep things manageable between applications of grunt.
Tragically, both the Soul’s handling and the ride are compromised by Kia’s decision to shod the Soul Sport with 18 inch wheels. What appears to be an otherwise stable, quiet vehicle at cruising speed is hamstrung by the shudders and road noise; it’s the inevtiable price of bling-rim fashion.
Ultimately, the Soul’s appeal is born of compromise not passion. It’s big and substantial for a small car, but lithe and efficient for an MPV or crossover (or even a second-gen xB). It doesn’t perform the same handling and cargo miracles as the Fit, but it has more individuality and power. More importantly for compact-wary Americans though, the Kia Soul has a far more substantial presence in traffic.
Because of its essentially compromising nature, the Sport is not the Soul to choose. Firmer suspension and anti-roll bars are the headline attraction. Oversized wheels make the ride harsher and raise the MSRP, without offering the, well, soul of a performance car. Plus you have to put up with the extroverted interior.
Embracing compromise doesn’t necessarily come naturally to the Soul’s 18-30 year-old male demographic, but then compromises are rarely this desirable.