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2012 Kia Soul Pros and Cons: Why (Not) This Car?

Kia Soul front quarter view
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Introduction

For its first quarter-century in North America, the Korean auto industry focused on producing Toyohonda-style appliances, for less. But Hyundai and Kia are no longer content with selling cars based on a low price and a long warranty. They want to make cars that appeal to the heart as much as the head. In case the car's styling didn't get this point across, Kia labeled one such effort the Soul ! (with the ! denoting the top trim). How deep is its appeal?

Soul Reviews: Kia Soul front quarter view

"Alien" (green) is arguably the best color. But others also suit the car well. more Soul photos

Soul Reviews: Kia Soul interior

A Sport model with red/black interior is no longer offered. But in the ! sand warms up the black.

Tested: 2012 Kia Soul

4dr Hatch 164-horsepower 2.0L I4 6-speed shiftable automatic FWD

Compared: 2010 Nissan cube

4dr Hatch 122-horsepower 1.8L I4 CVT FWD

Why the 2012 Kia Soul?

  Compared to the cube
Exterior styling
Exterior styling: About the same Better Worse

Most people didn't care for the "so ugly its cool" original Scion xB, but those who "got it" loved it. Then the larger, more overtly styled second-generation xB was just plain ugly. Its archrival, the Nissan cube, flopped in the U.S. for a different reason. Too few Americans possess sufficient whimsy when buying cars. In contrast, Kia has hit the sweet spot the others missed (by miles) with the Soul. Kia's designers took the original xB's radically boxy box and, by angling the roof downward a few degrees, raking the belt line upward a few degrees, and artfully flaring the wheel openings, actually made that box stylish. Seeking a small car that doesn't look like the typical small car, but that doesn't try so hard to be different that it's not pretty? It's here.


Interior styling
Interior styling: Better Better Worse

The fun continues inside the Soul, with playful (but well short of whimsical) shapes, a healthy amount of color on the dash and doors (in the ! trim), and lights encircling the front door speakers that flash with the beat. Materials are decent for the Soul's price, with soft-touch paint coating much of the interior's hard plastic.


Soul Reviews: Kia Soul rear quarter view

Also a stylish box from this angle.

Soul Reviews: Kia Soul instrument panel and interior

Controls easy to reach and operate.

Price or payments
Price or payments: Better Better Worse

With a starting price under $15,000, the sparest 1.6-liter Soul is among the least expensive new cars. An automatic (which brings cruise, Bluetooth, and deep-tinted glass with it) adds $1,800. The top trim 2.0-liter Soul! starts at $20,350. The Premium Package, with heated leather seats and nav, adds $2,500. Even a mid-level Soul+ ($17,050 plus $1,000 for the automatic) has about $900 in additional features compared to an identically-priced Scion xB (plus a longer warranty). You can't even get many of the Soul!'s additional features on the Scion. Those you can get are pricey dealer-installed accessories. The Soul's price also undercuts that of conventional compacts like the Hyundai Elantra.


Driving position & visibility
Driving position & visibility: About the same Better Worse

Crossovers have become very popular because their taller stance makes for better forward visibility in traffic. Also, their seats are at just the right height when getting into and out of the car, no need to drop down or step up. The Soul puts this crossover driving position into a smaller package. A further benefit of high seating: more space inside a given footprint. The Soul is only 162 inches long--ten less than a Ford Focus hatchback--but adults easily fit into both rows.


Why Not the 2012 Kia Soul?

  Compared to the cube
Ride smoothness
Ride smoothness: Worse Better Worse

At speeds under 40, the Soul rides fairly well, even on the !'s low-profile 235/45R18 tires (the other trim levels have 16-inch wheels). Above that speed, though, the Soul can ride roughly. Even modest bumps upset its composure. Regularly-spaced tar strips on the highway induce rhythmic bouncing and a d-d-d-d-d-d-d-d patter from the tires. Even a four-hour road trip to Chicago proved taxing. The automatic transmission doesn't help, as it also gets busy at highway speeds. Eco mode calms it.


Handling
Handling: About the same Better Worse

Given the Soul's compact size and firm suspension, you might expect agile handling. The Soul is in its element in the cut and thrust of urban traffic. But this is the full extent of its dynamic strengths. The chassis does no better with bumps in the road than it does with curves in the road. Body control is poor, with considerable bobble and float. Take a curve at speed, and the Soul plows clumsily. On the highway, the steering feels darty and requires frequent corrections.


Soul Reviews: Kia Soul view forward

Excellent visibility for urban driving.

Soul Reviews: Kia Soul rear seat

The seat has a deep cushion and is very high off the floor. Much roomier than this photo suggests.

Front seat support & comfort
Front seat support & comfort: Much worse Better Worse

The seats are similarly sufficient for casual around-town driving but subpar for even moderate distances. Less than half way through our four-hour drive the hard, flat cushions grew uncomfortable.


Cargo capacity
Cargo capacity: Better Better Worse

We saw a few Souls being employed as taxi cabs. Between its urban maneuverability and roomy interior, the compact crossover should make for a very good cab--as long as the fare doesn't have luggage. The high seating position does a lot for passenger space, but very little for cargo space. There's only room for a couple of medium-sized duffels without folding the rear seat. The interior would be more versatile if the front passenger seat also folded, as it has in some compact cars, but it doesn't.


Other features of the 2012 Kia Soul

  Compared to the cube
Fuel economy
Fuel economy: Worse Better Worse

Original review:

The EPA tests suggest that you give up only about one mile-per-gallon with the 164-horsepower 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine compared to the 138-horsepower 1.6-liter, and nothing going from the manual to the automatic. The 2.0/automatic is rated 26 city / 34 highway, not as good as a conventional compact but higher than other similarly tall vehicles. The Soul's height harms fuel economy more the faster you go. You might match the EPA highway number if you can keep your speed under 60. Drive over 70 and 30 MPG becomes just doable, with high 20s common. Some sedans with over twice as much power will do as well, but this is still good for a crossover.

Update:

After this review was written, Kia had to revise many EPA ratings downward and compensate owners. The Soul 2.0 AT is now rated 23 city, 28 highway, more in line with what I observed, and considerably less impressive. Even compared to the Soul with the 1.6 (25/30) the cube does a little better (27/31).


Conclusion

The Soul offers a lot of style, space, and features for an affordable price. Performance and fuel economy are also pretty good. But ride, handling, and seat comfort aren't. For casual, in-town driving the Soul does well enough. But if you'll be doing much distance driving, or prioritize handling, you'll be happier with something else.

Soul Reviews: Kia Soul 164-horsepower 2.0-liter engine

With more power and two more gears for 2012, the 2.0 has no trouble with the Soul's 2,800 lbs.

Soul Reviews: Kia Soul cargo area

Luggage for two people for a weekend.

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2012 Kia Soul pros and cons, according to Michael Karesh: the best reasons for buying (or not buying) the 2012 Kia Soul. Join TrueDelta to post your own impressions.
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