By on January 4, 2010


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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30 Comments on “Comparison Review: Kia Soul Versus Nissan Cube: Second Place: Kia Soul...”

  • avatar

    Quick trivial geek hint: for the super-nerdy crowd, which clearly is at least one demographic targeted by some of this vehicles’ features, “!” is pronounced “bang”.

  • avatar

    Why do I hate both generations of the Scion xB with a (!) yet don’t mind the Soul?

  • avatar
    Michael Couvillion

    Too bad I can’t look at the Cube or 2nd gen xB without throwing up a little.

  • avatar

    I have a feeling that the SX4 Sportback does the “appeal to those who prefer sporty to cute and quirky” mission better than the Soul.  However, good luck finding a Suzuki dealer that isn’t either closed, closing soon, or switching brands.

  • avatar

    +1 Michael Couvillion. Add there Honda Box (Element) and Crossturd plus all of current ‘fancy Honda’ line up (it needs rhinoplasty badly!).
    But Soul looks like it’s got some soul.

  • avatar

    Here’s an odd SOUL fact: it’s the most popular of the “little” cars as a taxi in Chicago. As the Crown Vics have faded into the sunset (there’s only so long that a particular vehicle can wear a taxi medallion), there have come a few Priuses and a few minivans or CUVs, but the cabbies seem to like the SOUL best of the new lot. It must impress passengers, hold enough luggage for those solo airport trips, and run cheaply enough.
    In another story, a lot of xB have showed up (first version) as the cars from our public transit agency that would pick up wheelchair folk.

    • 0 avatar

      Yes, my 05 xB was a favorite with a friend who had his leg in a cast for awhile.  He was able to swing into the passenger seat with little trouble.

    • 0 avatar

      I’m surprised that it has enough luggage capacity. Perhaps they aren’t used for airport runs?

    • 0 avatar

      This makes sense.  I spend a lot of time in and out of cabs and I’d really prefer something like the Soul to the low roof head-crackers with no though support like the Vic or Impala.  For taller folk, they’re much better choices.
      Michael’s point about luggage is a good one: the Soul and Cube have notional cargo space.  In town this is ok, but large runs would be a problem.  Roof box?

  • avatar

    I drive a Gen 1 ’05 xB.  It is ugly on the outside, but its inner beauty and value won me over as soon as I sat in it.  At 6’7″, I can nearly wear a top hat inside the car.
    The Soul and Cube are what the Gen 2 xB should have been.  They don’t polarize the audience because the xB has paved the way for them, desensitizing people to the boxy econocar look for the last 5 years.  They really aren’t that great-looking, in my opinion, but I would consider each of them.
    I don’t think the Element fits the category, as it is much more SUV-like due to its smaller internal dimensions, higher price, lower fuel economy, weight, and AWD option than the others.

  • avatar

    Nice review, Michael.
    I wonder how the Soul would stack up against the xB second or first gen.

    • 0 avatar

      I haven’t driven a first-gen xB in years. But I recall it seeming both roomier and less substantial.

      The second-gen xB, on the other hand, drives like the larger, heavier, much more refined car than it is–essentially a Camry in a different package. 

      An argument could be made that Nissan and Kia have found a happy medium between the first and second xB.

  • avatar

    Aside from the issue with the speaker lights, few Souls required mending through the end of September. TrueDelta will have updated Car Reliability Survey results covering through the end of 2009 next month. Additional participants always helpful, for all cars.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    As a gen1 xB owner, I can tell you that the Cube has a very similar interior package to it. The Soul has a much steeper raked windshield, and does not offer that distinctive “boxy” feel inside, of having lots of headroom real estate.  The Soul feels more like a typical small CUV than a true box like the gen1 xB or Cube.

    • 0 avatar

      I recall the xB feeling even roomier than the cube, at least in the back seat. But perhaps my memory exaggerates, because of the surprise factor at the time.

      I did note the Soul’s much more conventional driving position and view forward in the review, though perhaps you put it better with doesn’t feel like a “true box.”

  • avatar

    As a 2008 Xb driver, it fits my body type- long torso/short legs- perfectly, and is very open/airy around the driver. These boxes need telescoping steering wheels in order to accomodate long legs/arms.

  • avatar

    “cute and quirky”
    I believe I would prefer “kinky and slinky.”

  • avatar

    The Soul should win this solely on the fact that it doesn’t cause complete loss of bowel control upon seeing it vs. the hideous Cube.
    Also, the few people I’ve seen driving a Cube are wan, skeletal, spike-haired anime/yaoi-wannabe characters.

  • avatar

    On styling, I prefer the original xB. The Soul isn’t bad, though. It somehow reminds me of Popeye. I really dislike the Cube, however. The coldness of its styling reminds me of La Defense, an architecturally frigid business district outside of Paris, with its Grand Arche. Yeah, both the Cube and the Grande Arche are radical, and both, well, I refer you to Forty2, directly above.

  • avatar

    i don’t think the americans get the diesel Soul which is probably the gun model… too bad they only have 1990s spec 4 spd autos and 5 spd manuals

    i don’t mind the Soul either but deep down i’d want a diesel with 6 spd auto/man. and with *some* kind of 4wd gear?

    can’t they run a dummy part time 4wd system like honda

  • avatar

    Umm, they’re station wagons.

    Seriously, why would anyone buy a Kia (!) when they could get a Datsun for the same price ?

    • 0 avatar

      Because the Kia is probably more reliable?
      No, seriously.  Check the Versa’s reliability rankings.  It’s a good car, but it’s also a Mexican-assembled French platform made by a company headed by a famous cost-cutter.

  • avatar

    For that dough and having the experience of a PT Cruiser, I think you might give a Dodge Journey a try. They are a much better vehicle :)

  • avatar

    What’s with these weird cars?
    Oldsters are taken with the Element and the Cube. Honestly, I have not seen these cars driving by anyone without gray hair. So, these cars putter down the road and look weird at the same time. These cars end up looking like big golf carts.

    But that didn’t happen with the original xB, and isn’t happening with the Soul. So far.

    People who bought Toyotas, Hondas and Nissans when they were in college, seem to still think these cars are still somehow youthful. They’ve aged with them. Now that they are retired or retiring, they are still driving them. When they were young, they used to laugh at Oldsmobiles and Mercurys – but now they have Oldsmobiled and Mercuried Toyota and Honda. My mom likes VW beetles and her club friends drive them, as well as they drive Camrys, Accords and PT Cruisers.

    The Soul looks great. Sporty trumps cute. Especially when they are driven by someone who looks like they have a pulse. Kia is getting young people. So is Hyundai. So is Mazda. So is Ford, for crying out loud! Perhaps Toyota, Honda and Nissan are afraid of losing their Boomers, so they have realized that ugly snouts on Camrys and Corollas, upright boxes on wheels like the Element and Cube, and humpbacked monstrocities like their crossovers will keep gramps and grandma buying. But eventually these folks are going to die out and young people aren’t gonna want to drive around in them.

    I am interested in what you say about the Cube – but I just cannot get the sight of those things puttering around town by geezers out of my head. Icky!

    • 0 avatar

      “Perhaps Toyota, Honda and Nissan are afraid of losing their Boomers, so they have realized that ugly snouts on Camrys and Corollas, upright boxes on wheels like the Element and Cube, and humpbacked monstrocities like their crossovers will keep gramps and grandma buying. But eventually these folks are going to die out and young people aren’t gonna want to drive around in them.”

      No doubt.  Our midlife crisis housewife neighbors bought a god awful ugly Element and proudly drives it about.  The cube takes ugly in a entire different direction…but still hits the ugly…right in the face…with the ugly hammer…the meat tenderizer kind. YUCK!  At least he Soul looks a little sporty. Having said that it could lose the huge c-pillar and pockmarked taillights.

  • avatar

    I’d agree that externally the Cube is far more unconventional than the Soul, however internally it looks like Nissan forgot to finish the car and just chuck in whatever they had left in the parts bin – there’s nothing quirky inside. The Soul on the other hand has an interior which ‘fits’ with the rest of the car and feels a far more ‘finished’ vehicle when you take a look around it.
    But enough of my opinions… where’s part two? It’s really quiet at work at the moment and I need something to read!

  • avatar

    1st note>> I did not read comments prior to mine, so I will apologize if I am redundant.

    2nd.. I must say I love this site!

    The article notes the 1st box was the Xb in 2004.. The 2003 Honda Element was, and I have one of the 1st ones off the truck, as they arrived in 2002.

    I also have had my 2010 Kia Soul for nearly a year now, also one of the 1st arrivals.

    The comparison of the Cube vs the Soul.. the Cube is not quite as inspired or interesting or fun as the Soul is. So I can not comprehend what it is that the writer found better in the Cube vs the Soul.

    Yes the Soul is not powerful, it is not intended to be. It is cheap & cute, with some great features. It is a great run-about, not a touring car, so the comfort will not be a key point. But comparing what a car is designed to be is what is important.. a truck is not a sports car, an economy car is not a luxury vehicle.

    Having the Soul for nearly a year now,I am extremely pleased, it is fun to drive, loves corners, wonderful to get around in.. wonderful on gas, versatile interior (I love that secret storage in the back). I have the Exclaim, with the houndstooth interior, and in the alien green.. the color definitely was a great draw! I smile every time I see & drive my little Soul. The drive is very comfortable, for an econo-box.. getting in and out is very natural and comfortable, driving position is exceptional, all all controls are logical.

    Adding about the Honda Element, which mine is over 7 years old now.. it is hands down the best box car that came to be. With rear seats the fold flat, flip to the walls or remove it can be a cargo van.. the non-carpet floor is east to clean, same with the seat material. I can not imagine parting with my Element!

    Noting about the PT Cruiser.. I drove one when they 1st came out, the poor thing struggled with speed bumps. I was drawn to it’s appearance.. but I was turned away by everything else. Only people with out legs could have room in the rear seat, the comfort & driving position are awful, and the utter lack of power. Those I have known that opted for the PT only bought it for the shell, then replaced the engine.. souped it up, customized. So it was no longer the whimpy PT that Chrysler was selling. I honestly did and still think it is attractive, but I want more then something to look at.. i want something to drive, trust, enjoy, etc.

  • avatar

    I testdrove the base and s souls and I think the base is a better or just as good.  The smaller engine is an aluminum block, so the car is nearly 300 lbs lighter.  And the smaller wheels mean the engine has to work less around town.  So it was still quick, better fuel economy and lighter.  And it seemed quieter to me.
    I didn’t get it on the highway, but that’s not what these cars are for, really.
    And in Europe, I think they only have the 1.6 engine.  It’s too bad the design kind of needs the big impractical 18″ wheels.  I’m really on the fence based on looks, so I’m going to mimic this review and go to Nissan next.  I don’t mind some funk in my wheels.

  • avatar

    Amazing how things turned out:
    …The Cube went on sale in May 2009 and since then has suffered an acute case of design decay, i.e, the novelty car blues. Its edgy styling — pun intended — hasn’t worn well with buyers, and its sales have fallen to a trickle. The Cube’s performance is especially glaring when compared with the similarly rhomboid Kia Soul, which is attracting far more buyers in its third year on the market as it outsells the Cube six to one. Still, Nissan is betting on a surge in gas prices for the Cube to turn the corner.

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