Korean manufacturer Kia has built a reputation for making sensibly styled budget cars and for making concessions in quality to maintain an affordable price point. Recently there has been a change in ethos at Kia and its vehicle styling has become far more daring. Kia has become the Skoda of Asia because like Skoda it’s engaged in a heated battle against badge snobbery. Kia’s latest weapon and metal manifestation of its revised thinking is the Kia Soul. So is this unique new ‘urban crossover’ hot property? We spent a week kicking the tyres and lighting the fires to find out.
It’s impossible not to stare when you first lay eyes on the Soul’s extroverted exterior aesthetic. It’s bold and refreshingly risky in how much styling has been retained from it’s original concept car form. The Soul is covered in distinctive styling cues and marks a significant departure from Kia styling of old. A wrap-around glasshouse and a rear pillar that pushes from back to front recreates a motorcycle helmet look desired by the designers. A new corporate Tiger grille sits up front and is set to be a feature of other Kia vehicles in the future. The radical style is finished off by high vertical taillights and on the Soul Burner 18-inch alloy wheels. If you still think the Soul is too plain, many customisation options are available including roof rails, interior trim options, body kits and various decals to make it all your own. Overall the styling is polarizing and although it’s targeted at a youngish market you get the feeling it may equally appeal to female baby boomers.
Jump inside the Soul Burner and you’re greeted with a scorching red and black interior. Once adjusted to the dominating colour scheme the Soul’s controls are sensible and well laid out with stereo controls repeated on the steering wheel. The three-dial instrument cluster is basic but easy to read and strongly illuminated at night. There is an interesting array of interior equipment that ranges from gimmicky like the stereo speaker mood lighting system that pulses to the stereo’s bass beat, through to highly useful like the reversing camera that screens within the rear-view mirror. The stereo itself is an excellent unit with an additional centre speaker and sub-woofer in the Burner model, but what’s most impressive is the full integration when connecting an iPod using a seamless interface.
The front seats are wide, comfortable and offer three-way adjustment for the driver along with a fold-down armrest. The steering wheel only has tilt adjustment, which results in a driving position that is quite upright but makes the most of the Soul’s excellent forward visibility.
Unfortunately wide rear pillars and a small rear windscreen compromise rear visibility, but that’s the price of the unique exterior styling. Cabin space is excellent and the Soul mixes a reasonably low seat-line (good for getting in and out) with a high roof that makes for generous headroom. Luggage space is ample in standard configuration at 340 litres drop down the 60:40 split back seat and it grows to a cavernous 671 litres.
Packed in under the Soul’s short bonnet is a 1.6-litre turbocharged diesel engine developing 94kW of power and 260Nm of torque. It’s no fire-breathing monster but is capable of sprightly acceleration and motorway cruises comfortably. The diesel unit is impressively economical and can achieve a frugal 5.9l/100km combined. It’s matched up to a four-speed automatic transmission, which is one gear shy of many new-car autos. To make up for this shortcoming it’s quite a smart auto box that holds lower gears well when accelerating and high gears when braking. It also offers fairly smooth changes and combined with the torquey diesel motor it’s very functional.
Get out of the city to steam along some windy roads and it quickly becomes obvious that steering and suspension aren’t the Soul’s strong points. For all its SUV styling the Soul is a conventional front-wheel-drive vehicle quite capable of torque steering particularly in the wet. That said, the overall handling and general grip in the Soul is passable but the suspension is set quite firmly which does result in a fairly harsh ride. The Soul at times jumped and skipped over bumps during cornering which was an issue probably compounded by the 18-inch wheels. Likewise general ride quality is affected by intrusive tyre noise on rougher road surfaces. However, little wind or engine noise makes it into the cabin.
The electronically assisted steering is responsive and light making the Soul easy to spin around at low speeds but there is a distinct lack of any real feedback. This makes for a one-sided driving experience and is a telling example that driving dynamics were not the main focus for Kia in the Soul’s creation.
In terms of safety the Soul is well endowed with dual front, side and full-length curtain airbags and ABS with Electronic Brakeforce Distribution and Brake Assist. An Electronic Stability Program is standard on all models and the Soul boasts a five-star NCAP safety rating.
The bottom line is that it’s hard to be scolding of the Soul because it’s a very capable city car that has generous interior space, some cool tricks, is easy to drive and has a modern diesel motor that offers solid power and even better fuel economy. However, the below average ride and steering quickly extinguishes any ideas that the Soul is a true drivers’ car and with Kia’s new styling language comes a new price point that may deter purchasers on a budget.
Will the Kia sell its soul? It will, but not to buyers looking for either a sporting drive or an entry-level bargain. It will sell to those that are hot for its quirky concept car looks and appreciate the accompanying practicality.
Click through to the next page for a full list of specifications.
Price: from $29,990, tested model (Soul Burner) $36,990
What we like:
- Distinctive exterior and interior styling
- Customisation options
- Useful diesel motor
What we don’t like:
- Compromised rear visibility
Words and Photos: Adam Mamo
Kia Soul (2009) – Specifications
Engine type 1.6 DOHC CRDI Turbo Diesel
Displacement (cc) 1582 cc
Compression ratio 17.3
Max. power 94 kW @ 4000 rpm
Max. torque 260 Nm @ 1900 rpm
Fuel economy (combined cycle) 5.9L / 100 km
Co2 emissions (g/km) 156
Diesel Particulate Filter
Gear box 4 speed Automatic
Front suspension McPherson Strut
Rear suspension CTBA (Coupled Torsion Beam Axle)
Braking system Ventilated front discs, solid rear discs
Wheels 18″ Alloy
Space saver spare wheel and tyre
Steering system MDPS power assisted rack & pinion
Minimum turning radius kerb to kerb (m) 5.25
Overall length 4105 mm
Overall width 1785 mm
Overall height 1610 mm
Wheelbase 2550 mm
Kerb weight min. / max 1210 kg / 1289 kg
Luggage capacity (seats up / seats down) 340 / 671 litres
Fuel tank capacity 48 litres
Towing capacity – unbraked (kg) 550
Towing capacity – braked (kg) 1100