The Truth About Cars » Soul The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. Sun, 27 Jul 2014 11:00:20 +0000 en-US hourly 1 The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars no The Truth About Cars (The Truth About Cars) 2006-2009 The Truth About Cars The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars » Soul Capsule Review: 2014 Kia Soul ! Fri, 21 Feb 2014 14:00:45 +0000 red 2014 kia soul under snow cover

Winter can be stern and humorless. Into the frozen fray trundled a visitor from California. I told the 2014 Kia Soul that it was out of place. Then a whole bunch of snow fell. The Soul’s chipper personality replied “no worries, brah.” With only all-season tires, I was worried, though. Without winter tires, any-wheel drive may be inadequate, proper equipment really does matter. The California license plate peeked out as if to say “Let’s crush some dendrites.”

Turns out the Kia Soul is more than just a whimsical set of wheels. See, whimsy is a tricky thing. It’s a subset of humor, and humor requires a deft touch. The joke is funny when it bends. Go too far, though, and it breaks. Nobody laughs when the funny breaks.

The Kia Soul has been a practical personality box since 2009, and it’s all-new for 2014. You might have to look closely to spot the changes, and that’s good. The original Soul was charming and stretched the gags just enough. In contrast, the Scion xB, this segment’s pioneer, had already lost the plot by 2009.

The example of the xB’s second-generation Thorazine shuffle hung ominously over the 2014 Kia Soul. Would Kia mess up its cheeky little hedgehog-inspired dumpling?



If styling permanence works for the Porsche 911, why can’t it work for the Kia Soul? In fact, it works quite well. It’s hard to be unhappy with so much style for so little money. The base Soul will run you $14,900. I was driving the Exclaim trim, and it turns out the price of my totally-loaded Soul was $27,000. At that price, there’s lots of alternatives, but nothing is quite like the Kia Soul.

Like MINI or the Volkswagen Beetle or even the Jeep Wrangler, the 2014 Soul hews tight to the look established by its predecessor. Park them next to each other, though, and the 2014 Soul instantly makes the original look old. The styling of the new Soul is further refined and smoothed out. Kia makes it sound like there’s a bunch of the Track’ster concept in the new car, but it’s mostly just details like the lower fascia, grille and floating body-color panel in the tailgate. The 2014 Soul looks mostly like the 2009 Soul, though it sits on its wider, longer wheelbase with more visual authority. The stoplights are the easiest tell, if you’re a car-spotter.


We are in a new age of “Lower! Longer! Wider!” but the dimensional growth is welcome in the 2014 Soul. The back gate is wider, which leads to a larger cargo area. There’s more legroom for both front and rear seats, more front headroom, a lower hip point and reduced step-in height, adding up to a Soul that’s friendlier and more useful. The 2014 Soul turned out to be surprisingly excellent in the snow, even on the all-season tires the standard 18” alloys it wears, so it’s not useless outside of Cali.

Think of the Soul as the 2000s version of the Honda Civic Wagovan or Nissan Stanza Wagon. It’s usefully boxy, economical, easy to get in and out of and easy to drive. For something on a small 101.2” wheelbase, the 24.2 cubic feet of cargo space behind the rear seat is impressively large. Fold that second row down and there’s 61.3 cubic feet of room.

Being loaded up with features that used to be luxury car stuff probably didn’t hurt my impression, either. I sat on ventilated leather. Everyone had seat heaters, front and rear. Automatic HID projector headlights burrowed through the swirl of the storm, and I was directed by the navigation system. Above my head, a giant panoramic moonroof gave me an underside view of the glacier on the roof, the Infinity audio system was plenty entertaining, though the pulsing Hamster-Nightclub interior lights were doused quickly. The top-spec infotainment system was easy to use, and the rest of the ergonomics in the Soul are good because they don’t try to be cutesy. The dash speakers that look like coasters are a little weird, though.


Even without the list of equipment that’s longer than a Dickens story, the Soul would be a pleaser. The base engine for the Soul is a 1.6 liter DOHC direct-injected four cylinder with a healthy-for-its-size 130 hp and a slightly disappointing 118 lb-ft of torque. It’s probably nice enough, like listening to the neighbor kid’s well-practiced rendition of Sing, Sing, Sing, but the Plus and Exclaim get a 2.0 liter that’s Benny Goodman backed by Gene Krupa, instead. (Hey, you carped about my Led Zeppelin reference…) That’s an exaggeration, but the 2.0 liter has 164 hp, 151 lb-ft, and a high 11.5:1 compression ratio. It’s a snappy little number, for sure.

What kinda harshes the buzz is the fact that the only way to get a six-speed manual is to go with the small engine. The six-speed automatic that’s paired with the 2.0 liter is a pretty decent consolation prize, though. It’s well matched to the engine and shifts well, though it exhibits some of the pulsating wonkiness under hard acceleration that’s an apparent trademark behavior of this Hyundai design.

The Soul is perhaps the most vivid example of Kia’s learning curve. Kias used to look great on paper, with lots of features and equipment for less money than the competition, but you could always count on them being short on integration. In less than a decade, that’s been completely reversed. The 2014 Soul drives like a car designed, assembled, and tuned by people who actually spoke to each other.


The last piece of the puzzle was suspension tuning, and Kia has figured out how to make the seemingly-dowdy combo of MacPherson struts in the front and a torsion-beam rear axle ride with compliance and yet handle with some spirit, too. Other style-boxes can’t pull that off. The xB is hopelessly uninteresting to drive, and the Nissan Cube is as soft as nursing home pudding. It’s like Kia looked at what they had, realized that the first-generation VW GTI managed to do pretty damn well with the same basic parts, and got inspired.

I’d still have preferred to try the Soul in the snow on winter tires, but on its 18” alloys and surprisingly wide 235/45 Kumho Nexens it cut through like a champ. I’m also a little surprised that there’s not an all-wheel drive version of the Soul, because I think it would sell like moonshine in a dry county. I’d have an alternative to the Subaru Forester to recommend to people, and  that’s something I dearly desire. On the other hand, there’s a new Soul EV, which I can’t wait to get my hands on.

The Soul is aptly named. It’s a boxy little car with a bunch of personality. In this time of bland-but-pretty, rare is the car that both stands out for its styling and delivers some fun for everyone at a price normal people can swing. Get down with your bad self, Kia.

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]]> 107 Mechanical Soul: How a 200SX Turbo Saved My Life Mon, 18 Feb 2013 16:33:38 +0000

They don’t build them like this anymore.

At the back of the car lot was death row. It was there where the real “one foot in the grave” cars were lined up, where desperate men with cold hard eyes gave the deadbeats serious looks, weighing the options while nodding gravely to themselves. Whether I wanted to be or not, I was just such a man.

Poverty and I went way back. Thanks to my mother’s generosity I hadn’t been homeless during our first brush, but I knew well the psychological toll that the inability to support oneself takes on a man. To end that extended period of unemployment, I had rolled the dice and taken a dead-end job teaching English in Japan and now, after two and a half years, I had come home with money in my pocket. But without a steady job and with no prospects on the horizon, I felt poverty’s familiar presence close at hand, and the old feelings of inadequacy had returned with shocking intensity.

As sure as if we had shared a secret handshake, the man who emerged from the ancient travel trailer that served as the car lot’s office, recognized my situation at first sight. Despite all the stories that swirl around salesmen at this type of small independent lots, the man seemed sincere in his desire to help and he knew his inventory well. As we walked through the lot, he spoke about how this or that car had found its way there, hinting that some cars might be better than others but holding out little hope of any diamonds in the rough.

At the back of the lot, I took a quick look at the lowest of the low. I was just about to leave when I saw it. Wedged in sideways behind the last row of cars, up against the unpainted plank fence that marked the edge of the property, I caught a glimpse of a triangular rear quarter window and a once expensive aluminum wheel. Always a lover of cars, I recognized it at once, a mid-80s Nissan 200SX. “What about the little Nissan?” I asked.

Would this pique your curiosity? It got my attention.

“That one.” answered the man rolling his eyes, “That one was a mistake. I took it in trade to help some people. It runs bad, the alternator is out and I think it needs a turbo.” He paused while I craned my neck to see. “I won’t make any money on it if I pay to fix it and I can’t sell it on the main lot the way it is. If you’re interested, I’d sell it as a mechanic’s special for $500 but I’m telling you it needs a lot of work. Don’t get mad and throw a brick through my window if you buy it and can‘t fix it.”

I needed a closer look. Together, the salesman and I pushed the car out from the shadow of the fence and into the harsh light of the mid-August sun. It was filthy and its grey paint was well oxidized, but the car’s sides were still dent free and its lines were still razor sharp. With the help of a battery box we started the car and I climbed inside to cycle through the readings on the digital dash board. The oil pressure was good and, after the engine warmed, the temperature gauge stayed solidly in the green. True to the man’s word, however, the volt meter showed no bars at all.

Simple and surprisingly functional, the 200SX’s digital dash allows you to change your gauges at the push of a button.

I climbed out and gave the car a long, hard look. The car met my gaze with a whirring turbo and an uneven idle, but it seemed somehow unapologetic for the fast life it had led. Thinking hard, I walked behind the car to check the tailpipe for smoke and, as I did so, caught a glimpse of my serious, scowling face reflected in the rear glass. The sight stopped me cold. How many times had I seen a hiring manager wear that same expression before rejecting my application out of hand? Unpleasant memories and repeated disappointment welled up inside me and flashed into anger. It wasn’t right. Not long before, everything had been so promising but it had all come undone so quickly. I looked at the Nissan and realized the same could be said for it. We were the same. We didn’t deserve to be here. My emotions got the better of me and, without further thought, I turned to the salesman and struck the deal.

After swapping the dead battery for a fully charged one, I drove off the lot in fits and starts. On my way out of town I stopped for oil, filters and tune-up supplies and then limped the six miles home to the sounds of occasional backfires and the shrill whine of the turbocharger, its pitch rising and falling as I worked the accelerator.

Once home, I raised the hood and made a long, close examination of the engine bay. Years of neglect were evident but at the very least everything was still there, Moreover, nothing had been modified. Filth was everywhere, with one exception – the alternator was obviously new. I ran my hands over the part checking for trouble and soon found it, a broken wire connector. It took less than ten seconds work with a crimping tool to fix and upon starting the car I was greeted by a stack of green digital bars on the volt meter where previously there had been none. Score one for us.

The Nissan 200SX

Clearly, the car’s prior owner had a problem with wires, I thought as I listened to the engine‘s lumpy idle. Back under the hood I took a quick look at the spark plug wires and found that they, like the alternator, were not so old. I researched the firing order and, sure enough, two of the four cylinder’s eight plug wires were switched. The repair was simple and the engine sprang to life and idled smoothly when I turned the key. Confident I was in the right track, I completed my tune-up and ended by changing the oil and filters.

With the mechanical work completed, a test drive was in order and on the street, the difference was immediately apparent. With the misfire corrected and fresh oil coursing through it, the engine ran smooth and strong as I accelerated through the gears. The oil change also helped to quiet the turbocharger. Boost was clearly evident as it kicked in at higher RPMs. I relished the feeling, and my test drive stretched into an hour long back road blast. Together, we had turned a corner.

Click here to view the embedded video.

Later, back at home, I washed the exterior and worked on the paint with an old can of TR-3 I found in the garage. I didn’t get the dramatic results Mr. T did in the commercial, but when I was done the car did look better. I finished up by shampooing the carpets, cleaning the glass and fitting some inexpensive seat covers to make the cabin a more pleasant place to be.

The completed project was not a show winner, but neither was it the near total write-off that the salesman had thought. My modest efforts were rewarded by a fast, eager little car with great handling and from the day I brought the little Nissan home, my life began to improve. A week later, I landed a job in a local warehouse and began to slowly beat back the specter of poverty. I was still driving the little car when, a few months later, I landed my dream job and was called away to a new life on the East Coast. Sadly, I was forced to leave it behind.

I know that cars are only tools, but in our short time together the little Nissan was my faithful companion on a thousand speedy adventures. Our spirits had nourished one another. When the car had a problem, I repaired it. When I had the blues, the car banished them with its boundless energy and enthusiasm. It was a relationship unlike any other I have ever had with a car and together, we were more than the sum of our parts. If machines have souls, then surely we will meet again.

Thomas Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking where, according to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.

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New or Used: It’s Hip to Be Square? Mon, 19 Mar 2012 16:14:38 +0000

TTAC commentator Philosphil writes:

Hello everyone,

I’m looking to replace my 03 Jetta wagon soon and have test-driven many vehicles. I have periodic back issues and so want a vehicle that has easy ingress and egress (so that ideally I neither have to climb up nor drop down when entering or exiting the vehicle). I’m about 6’, but have a relatively long upper body. I’m also looking for something in the $17,000-$20,000 range (Cdn, or about about $15,000-$18,000 US). Of the cars I’ve tested so far, the ones that seem best suited to my needs are the boxes (to my wife’s dismay–they tend to have the largest opening between the driver’s seat and the top of the door sill). I would also like to keep this car (and actually like it as well) for 8-10 years.

So my question is which of the following vehicles would have a better chance of being an enjoyable long-term keeper (with a projected low cost of ownership as well): 1) A gently used Honda Element, 2) 2012 Kia Soul (with new 2.0l engine and new transmission), 2) 2011 Nissan Cube, or 4) 2011 Scion XB? Thanks in advance for everyone’s input.

Sajeev answers:

What an interesting query! Definitely stick with the boxes.

And here’s where I wish I actually had press cars. While I’ve driven none of these, I personally like the Kia Soul the best in terms of styling, as the Nissan Cube is far too Avant Garde for a vehicle I’d actually own.  That said, the Cube Krom is a cool little ride, and its about as boxy as you can get.  You definitely need to spend a long time test driving each of these vehicles to see which one will be ideal for your back.

My biggest concern isn’t the feel of the transmission, fuel economy or what have you. I am worried about long distance comfort in the seats. Considering I found the Soul’s seats to be pretty comfy and their warranty/pricing is pretty decent (even in Canada) this might be ideal for you.

Steve answers:

This is purely a styling exercise for the most part. All of the vehicles you mentioned should do a very good job of keeping egress and ingress on the quick and painless. In fact, I personally preferred to have my own sciataca suffering Mom consider one of the vehicles you mentioned instead of simply choosing another Camry.

The Soul strikes me as having the right balance between contemporary tastes and an easy compact size. However all the ones you mentioned should be easy to own and keep as well.
My advice is to simply try them all for an extended period as Sajeev mentioned. You may want to even go so far as renting one for a day if you can get access to one that would be available. I don’t believe any of these models have substantial fleet sales. But you may get lucky.
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Are You Sould On Kia’s Updated Soul? Thu, 21 Apr 2011 17:02:17 +0000

Like the Subaru Impreza, Kia’s Soul is a car that I’ve nursed a soft spot for ever since it became the first car I ever reviewed for TTAC. When friends approach me asking for advice about practical, flexible low-cost cars, the Soul is often one of my first suggestions, and nobody has ever regretted at least test-driving one. The Soul earned further brownie points from me during the Detroit Auto Show a few months back, when our rental Soul carted us through a nasty snowstorm with aplomb. So, like the Impreza, I was a little bit nervous when Kia announced they would be updating the Soul at the New York Auto Show.

Mid-cycle refreshes rarely do it for me, and I worried that the Soul’s essential awesomeness might be lost in the process. Luckily, the Soul looks only slightly updated, and the major improvement comes where it was most needed: under the hood. A 1.6 liter direct-injection engine is the new base engine, making 135 HP (up 11%) and 121 lb-ft, while returning 28/34 MPG. The optional engine is a more-powerful 2.0 liter, making 160 HP (up 13%) and 143 lb-ft of torque, an earning a 27/33 MPG EPA rating. If these engines are more refined than the outgoing Soul’s mill, this modest update will cover the Soul’s major downside (a willing but overly-gruff engine) without losing any of its original appeal. Maybe mid-cycle refreshes aren’t something to be afraid of…

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Damn It Feels Good To Be A Hamster Sat, 29 May 2010 16:39:29 +0000

The first Kia Soul hamster ad was good, but this latest one takes the same humor and message and blows the lid off the concept. Between this and the recent Challenger ad, 2010 is shaping up to be a good year for car advertising.

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Comparison Review: Kia Soul Versus Nissan cube: First Place: Nissan cube Fri, 08 Jan 2010 16:59:59 +0000 Cubism

Driving enthusiasts, given the choice between the Soul and the cube, will opt for…a Honda Fit. So this comparison between Kia’s and Nissan’s boxes-on-wheels assumes different priorities. Which provides the most relaxing refuge from the seriousness of work when commuting to and fro? Short answer: the cube.

The hipster haircutLike the Soul, the cube is a riff on the basic box popularized in the U.S. by the original Scion xB. Unlike the Soul, the Nissan’s major lines are either parallel or perpendicular to the pavement. In other words, it’s a box.

And yet, unlike the classic xB, it’s not simply a box. There’s some subtle surfacing in the bodysides. The window openings have rounded corners. Further outside the box: the cube is asymmetrical. There’s a small window in the right side C-pillar, and the pillars around this window are blacked out, but no corresponding window on the left side, where the pillar is body color. This asymmetry is even functional. From the driver’s seat you couldn’t see out such a window on the left side anyway. And with no window, there can be a storage bin inside the left C-pillar.

Yes, many people hate the cube’s exterior. Or find a car that looks like a Toontown escapee both silly and pointless. But this silliness is the point. Some people want a car that doesn’t take itself seriously, and that displays a clear disregard for convention. If you’re going to diverge from mainstream auto design, why stop short of challenging people? The Soul’s design isn’t challenging. The cube’s is.

The Soul’s styling is optimized for 18-inch wheels. The cube’s exterior is far less wheel-centric, so its 16s are plenty large. This one’s all about the box. The tested cube was a krom model, meaning a unique grille with Ford-like faux chrome bars, side skirts, and unique wheels. I’d pass on these bits, as they don’t add much to the appearance of the car, and the side skirts make little sense given the overall mission. 100_5610

With some notable exceptions, Nissan wasn’t as adventurous with the interior design. The most notable exception: the headliner far above your head is molded to form a series of concentric waves around the dome light. Think Japanese rock garden. A sunroof would interrupt the pattern, which might be why none is offered. The instrument panel similarly includes some very zen circles and curves, and forms a wave when viewed from above. This wave motif continues with the floormats. Very calming.

But why is the cube interior only available in light gray or (in the car I drove) off-black? The VW Beetle, Chrysler PT Cruiser, and (to a lesser extent) Kia Soul all offer vibrant color inside the car. Nissan offers colorful vent surrounds as dealer-installed accessories, but these hardly compensate for the overwhelming colorlessness of the rest of the interior.

The instruments include a weak attempt at whimsy, with blue and white graphics that are too obviously painted on. But why did Nissan’s inexplicable infatuation with orange LED displays have to infect the cube? Not only does the orange trip computer nestled between the tach and speedometer clash with the blue and white graphics, but orange simply isn’t a soothing color. Consult a zen master for better alternatives. Perhaps a cool blue?

The driver can select among 20 colors for the ambient lighting in the footwells and cupholders. This feature would be more compelling if you could change the color of all of the instrument panel readouts to something other than orange. As it is, the carpet doesn’t match the drapes unless you opt for even more orange. One electronic feature the cube could do without: the $100 alarm system that goes off if you attempt to open a locked door. Or breathe on the car. It’s not entertaining.

Ripples in the CubeThe problem with striving to be whimsical is that some jokes are bound to fall flat. Case in point: the cube’s optional (and removable) “dash topper.” What’s a dash topper, you ask? Well, it’s a small circle of shag carpet velcroed to the top center of the instrument panel. No doubt the intent was to make being inside the cube more like being inside one’s family room, to give you a little piece of home the moment you leave work. The original concept might have called for covering the entire top of instrument panel with shag carpet, 1970s custom van style. The airbag engineers would have nixed any such concept. Cut a little here, and little there, and you get the small circle in the center. Even in the context of the cube, the car toupee (as I came to call it) seems pointless.

Once past color and the car toupee, the interior gets better. When packaging the cube, Nissan made much different choices than Kia. The cube’s windshield is much more upright than the Soul’s and its instrument panel was designed to take up as little visual space as possible. The downside: unless you have long arms, you’ll have to lean forward to operate the radio. Or use the redundant controls on the steering wheel. Also, the upright windshield yields huge front side windows. Generally a good thing, but the non-extending sun visors cover only the forward half of said windows. So, expect bright sunlight in your eyes if it’s westward ho in the late afternoon.

The upside: from the driver’s seat the cube’s interior feels much more expansive than the Soul’s. No cockpit effect whatsoever. You feel like you’re navigating a small room. The broad seats, similar to those in the Quest minivan, are softer than most these days. Lateral support? What would be the point? Much more missed in their absence: heated seats. Wait for the automatic climate control to do its job, power up the Rockford Fosgate audio, then kick back and enjoy the comfort of home on the way home.

Which brings up the name. The point of such a silly car is to forget about life’s necessities, most notably work. Say “cube,” and the first thing most people will think of is the place they spend their time at work. Few want to be in a cube once they leave work. The name originated in Japan. Does “cube” lack this usage over there? Fire and ice?

The cube’s roominess extends to the sliding and reclining back seat, which is mounted high enough off the floor to provide adults with thigh support. My kids loved how well they could see out. Credit the low, unraked beltline.

There’s not much space between the rear seat and the left-hinged tailgate. Enough for groceries, but luggage for four probably isn’t happening. As in the Soul, the front passenger seat does not fold. A pitty, as this feature would be especially useful for long objects given the non-invasive IP and upright windshield. Unlike in the Soul, there’s no hidden storage compartment beneath the cargo floor. While this does provide a deep well, it also means that when the rear seat is folded the cargo floor isn’t remotely flat. Nor can the rear seat be removed or flipped far forward. No magic here.

On the spec sheets, the Soul has a power advantage. Out in the real world, the cube’s 1.8-liter four dramatically outperforms the Soul’s 2.0 even though both vehicles weigh about 2,800 pounds. The cube’s secret weapon: a CVT. This CVT isn’t without its disadvantages—one’s ears often convey the impression that the clutch is slipping. The relationship between engine noise and vehicle speed is decidedly non-linear. And said engine noise is overly buzzy—“buzz box” entered my mind, and stuck there until the phrase (almost) became endearing. But, to give credit where credit is due, the CVT enables the 1.8 to boost the cube to 40 MPH much more effortlessly than it has a right to. There’s no sluggishness off the line or lugging at higher speeds. A responsive six-speed automatic might yield similar performance with a more natural feel—but no competitor offers such a transmission. The Soul’s quick-to-upshift, slow-to-downshift four-speed automatic is decidedly inferior.

Also, recall that you’re not driving a conventional car. In the cube, it seems oddly appropriate to simply prod the pedal and then let the powertrain hoist you up to speed. Too bad you can’t just push a button, as in an elevator. MPG in typical suburban driving came to 25.8.

Zen garden?Handling…how do you want a family room on wheels to handle? Body motions are fairly well controlled, and the door handles remain well off the pavement in hard turns. Agile…not really. And yet more fluid and natural feeling than the Soul, despite vague, overboosted steering that feels directionless on center. Intent on running the Tail of the Dragon? You’re shopping in the wrong class of vehicle.

Given the cube’s mission, ride quality is more important than handling. While the cube’s ride quality is far from luxury class, and can feel a little busy at times, it is smoother and much more forgiving of road imperfections than the Soul’s. You have a much better shot at relaxing during that commute to the cube in Nissan’s cube.

At the cube’s price (still just over twenty grand when loaded up with the krom bits) you expect some shortcomings. And the cube has them. Nissan needs to change the IP lighting, kill the (engine) buzz, tighten up the on-center steering, extend the sun visors, and heat the seats. But even with these shortcomings the cube outpoints the competition in combining an offbeat exterior with an expansive interior and relaxing driving experience. Those that “get it” should get it. The rest of us…well there are plenty of more conventional cars for us.

[Michael Karesh operates TrueDelta, a provider of pricing and reliability data]

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Comparison Review: Kia Soul Versus Nissan Cube: Second Place: Kia Soul Mon, 04 Jan 2010 20:49:12 +0000 Sould?

Back in 1997, when Volkswagen introduced the New Beetle, my wife badly wanted one because it seemed so much more young and fun than her current car. But she also wanted children. The two were not compatible, so no Beetle for her. No doubt she was not the only person seeking a cute, quirkily styled car with four doors. But at the time there were no such cars. Chrysler was arguably first to fill this void, with the PT Cruiser. So that’s what my wife has been driving for the past five years. Today there are a number of contenders. The latest: Kia’s Soul and Nissan’s cube. Which comes closest to the mark? Well, since you’re reading about the Soul first, clearly the cube. Here’s where the Soul falls short…

Picture 72First, a step back. Japan has been awash in quirky small cars for years, but the 2004 Scion xB was the first to reach American shores. The extreme rectilearity of the xB polarized opinion. Most people found it ugly, but enough found its combination of anti-style, roominess, and economy appealing enough to make the first-gen xB a hit.

The Kia Soul is Korea’s response to that xB. It answers the question: what happens if you keep the basic box, but do more with it than add wheels? What if you actually put serious thought into the design? In the case of the Soul, an upward angled beltline, downward angled roofline, flared wheel openings, and various other details perfectly meld to form a much more attractive box. This is the sort of innovative yet cohesive design Honda used to be capable of, but somehow forgot how to do. The Soul hasn’t repulsed people the way the xB has, and I’d personally feel much more comfortable driving one.

But perhaps this is a sign that Kia hasn’t pushed the envelope hard enough. While attractive, the Soul doesn’t challenge aesthetic conventions the way the xB and cube have. It doesn’t seem as quirky, and doesn’t stand out as much in a sea of other cars. So it doesn’t appeal as much to people like my wife who want something clearly different from the mainstream. Those macho fender flares and angles might also be a factor: there’s more sport and less cute in this exterior design than in the cube’s.

Inside, color provides the Soul with much of its soul. Well, not in the lower two trim levels—their interiors are un-fun solid black. Soul! InteriorBut the !’s interior (yes, ! is a trim level, as is +) is a combination of beige and black, while the sport’s (lowercase intended) is red and black. Opt for the red only if you really like red. There’s a lot of it, including nearly the entire instrument panel, and hard plastic is clearly hard plastic in this particular shade. You’ll want to wear your shades. Beige veers too far in the other direction, but houndstooth seat inserts save the !’s interior from appearing mundane.

The Soul’s most unexpected feature: speaker lights. The great-sounding 315-watt, eight-speaker audio system has lights in its two front door speakers. And, no, that’s not the end of it. These lights have four settings: off, on, mood, and music. In “mood,” you set the frequency with which they blink. In “music,” they beat to the music. An excellent way to entertain the kiddies—except that the rear door speakers are not similarly endowed. Why not?

Another problem with the speaker lights: responses to TrueDelta’s Car Reliability Survey suggest that they often failed to work as designed. Kia has a fix for this problem, though, so it shouldn’t affect recently produced cars.

Sitting in the Soul feels much like sitting in a regular compact, just with your rear a half-foot further from the ground. While a protruding center stack benefits ergonomics, it also reduces the perceived roominess of the interior. Similarly, the large, modestly raked windshield provides a familiar view from the driver’s seat, but cuts into perceived roominess more than an upright windshield would.

Picture 74All of these tall boxes provide more rear legroom and headroom than in the typical small car, and the Soul is no exception. Two adults will fit in back, no problem. Cargo space with the second row up is limited, but simply fold the rear seat to more than double it. The Soul could carry even more stuff if the front passenger seat also folded, as in the PT Cruiser. Alas, it does not.

Unlike in the cube, the cargo floor is flat when the rear seat is folded. The trick: a false floor behind the rear seat. Useful storage compartments occupy the space between this false floor and the floor over the spare. Up front, storage areas include a huge bi-level glove compartment and a storage box atop the IP. So there’s plenty of space for four people or stuff, if not four people AND their stuff.

The Soul looks like fun, and it has those nifty speaker lights. But it is fun to drive? A 2.0-liter four good for 142 horsepower motivates 2,800 pounds, not a bad ratio. Problem is, the automatic transmission has only four speeds, and upshifts much more readily than it downshifts. So, at least with this transmission, the Soul feels much more sluggish than the numbers suggest it should. An additional ratio or two would also permit more relaxed and economical highway driving.

The Soul sport has a sport-tuned suspension. The most obvious difference between it and the !: the sport’s heavier steering feels less natural and makes the vehicle feel less agile. With either suspension, body roll is fairly well controlled for a 63-inch-tall vehicle and there are none of the fore-aft bibbly-bobblies found in some tall boxes. The Soul generally feels tighter and firmer than key competitors do. But for truly fun handling you’ll want something with a lower center of gravity. Sick of the puns yet?

The Soul’s handling advantage vis-à-vis direct competitors comes at the evident expense of ride quality. On subpar pavement the busy ride borders on punishing, for the ears even more than the seat of the pants. While the base Soul has 15-inch steelies, and the + has 16-inch alloys, both the ! and the sport are shod with 18s. The Soul’s bold fender flares certainly pair best with the large wheels, but the attendant low-profile tires thump loudly across every bump and divot. This sort of ride might be worth paying for sports car handling. But many sports cars these days ride much better, and the Soul certainly doesn’t handle like a sports car.

In the final assessment, the Kia Soul is an attractively styled, functional box with some rough edges. Perhaps Kia will add some needed refinement in coming years. The powertrain from the Forte SX and more polished suspension tuning would be a good start. Even as-is, the Soul will appeal to those who prefer sporty to cute and quirky. But car buyers seeking cute and quirky in conjunction with a more relaxed driving experience (e.g. my wife) will be better off elsewhere.

[Michael Karesh operates TrueDelta, a source of pricing and reliability data]

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