It is a strange paradox that the simple form of a box happens to be easy for us humans to build and fit things in, but lousy for aerodynamics. That may have been nature's way of telling us not to build cars, but it did not stop Kia from building the 2012 Soul.
With its boxlike shape, the Soul is very practical. It's easy to get into the front or rear seats with their comfortable, upright position. Likewise, the cargo area, accessible through a wide hatchback, makes it easy to stack boxes, humanity's typically practical means of transporting most things.
However, the Soul's looks are polarizing. As easy as it is for us humans to build boxes, we don't consider them particularly attractive. Kia managed some good aesthetic tricks to dress up the Soul. Black A and B pillars make the body-colored top appear to float over the car, while a sharp contour runs at a downward angle along the belt-line to the front.
Kia also dressed up the front end of the Soul, making it a little curvier than on previous generations. The model now sports the tiger-nose grille, a Kia design cue, and the headlight casings hang far over the parking lights. I know few people stand with me on this, but I like the Soul's looks.
Perhaps proving the intractability of boxy aerodynamics, the Soul seems stuck at an EPA average of 29 mpg for its combined fuel economy, which breaks down to 26 mpg city and 34 mpg highway. The number doesn't change between the six-speed automatic and six-speed manual transmission options. And it doesn't change much going from the 2-liter four-cylinder engine on the upper trim models to the new direct-injection 1.6-liter on the base vehicle, that latter engine getting about 1 mpg better in the EPA cycles.
CNET's car, being in the ! (exclamation mark) top trim, came with the 2-liter engine and the six-speed automatic. That engine makes 164 horsepower and 148 pound-feet of torque, fine for low speeds but barely adequate when pushing a box at 65 miles per uphill. Keeping the Soul up with traffic speeds requires constant attention to the gas pedal.
Held by the brakes at a stoplight, though, that engine just begs to let loose what power it has. The Soul felt like it was squirming as I waited for the green. As a test, I put the six-speed automatic in neutral, and the car settled down. When you let off on the brake, the car creeps fast, and responds well to throttle input.
The combination of the six-speed automatic and electric power steering, overboosted to make turning the wheel very easy, leads to a very uncomplicated driver. The Soul is the kind of car I could jump into for quick errands or longer trips, knowing it would give me no hassles, that I would not have to worry about anything except whether it had enough gas. The smart key, which I never had to take out of my pocket, aided this perception.
The Soul's suspension is fairly typical for this class of vehicle, with front-wheel-drive architecture supported by an independent suspension, and a torsion bar at the rear axle. However, Kia does fit it with disc brakes at front and rear. The ride quality is typical for an economy car, tuned on the rigid side for better handling. The Soul took the turns all right, but I would not want to push it too hard.