“You know,” editor Ed told me, “that would be, about, like, a Take Four on the Soul, we’re not gonna do that.” I’d rented a 2011-vintage Kia Soul for a LeMons race in Houston and had been quite impressed. Although the powertrain (the traditional two-liter Hyundai/Kia four-banger and a lackluster four-speed auto) hadn’t been stellar, the rest of the car was just awfully useful and pleasant besides. Nevertheless, Ed wouldn’t let me review the thing. Oh well. If you want to know what we thought about the Soul, collectively speaking, (zing) you can read Ed’s 2010 Sport review and Frank Williams’ Take Two.
To ensure that I would have a chance to talk about this very interesting little car, however, Kia went through the trouble of thoroughly revising the Soul just a few months after my initial drive… and they were kind enough to have just one six-speed manual version available during the press introduction. I snagged said manual-transmission Soul with ferocity and am ready to convey all the details to you. For those of you too diffident to click the jump, here’s the sum-up: Great car, shot in the foot at its launch by a rather unfortunate decision on Kia’s part…
Although the Soul hasn’t been in production very long, its “reverse halo” position at Kia, along with its recent (and unexpected) domination of American subcompact sales charts, dictates that some of the weak points be shored up sooner rather than later. So welcome a new nose, tail, and revised dashboard. LED running lights and taillights make an appearance on the top-line “!” model, the new Microsoft UVO infotainment system is an option, and the lineup has been rationalized to eliminate the top-shelf “Sport” with its individual suspension tuning.
More importantly, the old 1.6 and 2.0 have been replaced by direct-injection, new-generation efforts. The 1.6 is the same engine as found in the Veloster, Accent, and Rio; the 2.0 is a 164-horsepower Elantra transplant. Fuel mileage has improved considerably; the two-liter automatic is now rated at 26/34 city/highway. Choosing the “eco” package with stop/start technology bumps that to 27/35. The base Soul comes with the 1.6 and a manual transmission at $13,900 plus destination or $15,700 for the automatic. The “+” trim adds the two-liter, some shiny stuff inside and out, and retails at $16,900 for the manual transmission. That’s the car I drove. The top-end “!” trim is an automatic only at $19,600. Leather is an option as well. It’s possible to spend well over twenty grand on a Soul, if you’re so inclined.
At seventeen grand or so, however, the six-speed “+” makes a solid argument for itself. The interior is high-quality, the metal trim is convincing, and the “SOUL”-logoed cloth seats look durable. Despite the Soul’s barn-door aerodynamic profile, it’s remarkably quiet inside and rides very well. It won’t fatigue or annoy you; Frank Williams’ suggestion that the Soul was meant for middle-aged men won’t get any contradiction from me. Both rows of seats continue to be spacious and comfy. The doors click shut with precision. If your last experience of a cheap Korean car was a 2001 Elantra or something like that, you will be amazed.
Unlike its Rio cousin, the Soul has a perfectly adequate sound system and the Bluetooth integration is very easy to use. I made a few calls and had no trouble understanding or being understood. Although temperatures at the Austin, TX press event were in the 98-104 degree range (F, not C!) the Soul had no trouble cooling the cabin. It has to help that there just isn’t that much glass in the car.
Dynamically, the Soul is a real pleasure. A few of my fellow journos complained that the aluminum-topped shifter was “long-throw”. Maybe in comparison to a Grand-Am BMW. Regardless, it’s swift and sure to operate. Clutch effort is about nil; the first few times I engaged the pedal I was afraid something was wrong with the car. Once underway, the direct-injected two-liter pulls along with authority. The ratios are wide, and sixth gear is tall enough to effectively prevent acceleration up even a mild hill, but let’s keep things in perspective here: this low-priced Korean box is still about as quick as Tom Selleck’s Ferrari 308GTSi. It won’t encourage any high-g antics, but surely that isn’t the point of these boxy subcompacts. The engine note is more cultured than thrashy, and it doesn’t sound terribly direct-injected. At idle, the Soul isn’t subjectively much louder than a Lexus ES.
For once in my life, I feel sorry for American Toyota dealers. Scion had this market pretty much sewn-up with the original xB, but the successor to that vehicle just isn’t compelling or focused enough to bring those buyers back. Instead, they are flocking to Souls at the rate of about ten thousand new owners per month. (Last month’s sales were down to about 7,000 units; Kia PR folks assured me that was due to reduced 2011-model inventory.) The Soul has true multi-generational appeal. Fifty-year-olds appreciate the high seats and quiet freeway ride. Twenty-five-year-olds like the features, the look, and the hamster marketing. Everybody likes the price.
What’s not to like? Well, there isn’t much real cargo space available. Four friends can roll in a Soul, but only two amigos will be able to travel in one. Parking is a bit more difficult than one might think; the rear corners aren’t easily discernible. I’d also have some concerns as to the durability and service needs of these first-effort direct-injection engines from the Hyundai/Kia group.
Do we have room left in this article to make an Eldridge Cleaver joke? Yes we do. This new Kia is so hot… that the dealers may be forced to keep their Souls on ice. (Oooooooh.) Unfortunately for said dealers, however, there’s one little bitty problem with the manual-transmission models. Many of the people who ordered 2012 Souls, or took early delivery from dealer stock, were under the impression that they were getting a car with cruise control. This was because Kia’s marketing materials seemed to indicate that the manual-transmission Souls, like their automatic-transmission counterparts, had cruise control as standard equipment. According to Kia owner forums, many Souls were delivered to the dealer, and from there to their new owners, with cruise control listed on the Monroney sticker. The official line from Kia is that there was a “last-minute” change. This owners’ forum thread details a lot of disappointment and anger on the part of early adopters — and Kia isn’t doing a lot to make things right.
It’s difficult to imagine Toyota or Honda making a mistake of this magnitude, but they’ve had a few decades’ more practice at controlling the specifications of imported vehicles, communicating with dealers, and resolving issues with the end users. This isn’t good news. As a former car salesman, I can attest that it’s not a promising sign when buyers feel they have to verify every feature on the window sticker. Though it affects a small percentage of Soul owners, it’s an issue that Kia needs to address pronto.
It’s also simply ridiculous that Kia doesn’t feel that it can or should include cruise control on a manual-transmission vehicle. The buyers want it, the technology has been available for a very long time, and the actual cost of such a feature on a modern direct-injection engine is almost zero. If you can live without cruise control, the manual-transmission Soul is an entertaining, useful vehicle. For those who can’t, perhaps the Scion xB isn’t such a ridiculous choice after all.