Risk-adverse by nature, car companies don't often make radical moves, and although the 2010 Kia Soul looks unique, it follows the Scion xB by five years in body style. In fact, the success of the xB spawned two imitators, the Soul and the . These cars all share a boxy four-door style, generally eschewing sports car lines in favor of easily accessible seats with an upright seating posture. With its rakish roofline, the Soul suggests sportiness, but that won't be the experience behind the wheel.
Lacking real driving excitement, the Kia Soul makes up for it with some impressive electronics, all standard with the Exclaim trim level. It works impressively well with cell phones, and offers a good interface for iPods. To clear up any doubt about the Soul's intended demographic, red lights in the door speakers pulse to music. The one missing ingredient is GPS navigation.
Lights and sound
Kia has been upping its tech game substantially in recent years, so we weren't surprised to find an iPod port at the base of the stack in the Soul, similar to those we've seen previously in various Hyundai models, such as the . A business card-size monochrome screen dominates the top of the stack, surrounded by standard radio buttons and a slot for a single CD player. That screen shows the iPod's menu, with lists of artists, albums, and genres. It's not the best interface, as we often weren't sure whether to push a button or turn a dial to browse through music.
iPod integration is standard in the Soul Exclaim, replicating the iPod menu on the car's stereo controls.
The iPod port is comprised of an auxiliary input, suitable for any audio source, and a USB port, which can also read MP3 tracks from a thumb drive. The CD player can read MP3s too, and the car comes with satellite radio, rounding out the audio sources.
Although gimmicky, we were entranced by the pulsing red lights in the speakers. Unfortunately, only the front seats are treated to this display, as the rear door speakers only produce sound. Taking it further, Kia includes a control knob for the light show, letting the driver choose from music or pulse modes, along with controlling the intensity. And, most important, it can be turned off.
Beyond the light show, Kia equips the Soul Exclaim with an impressive audio system, with six side speakers accentuated by a subwoofer and center channel. At first, the audio sounded tinny, but some distinct snaps from drums made us realize that the system is biased toward treble. Adjusting the three-band equalizer to emphasize mids and bass, the audio became more balanced, and we enjoyed the clarity of the instrumental reproduction. Tracks with heavy bass didn't deliver the thump we would have liked, though, rather only a general hum from the interior panels.
The cabin tech that surprised us most in the Soul was the Bluetooth phone system. After pairing up an iPhone, a simple process with the voice command, we started looking around to see if it had any real phone book functionality. Usually, a phone system in a car in this price range will merely receive calls or let the driver voice dial by number. But the Soul actually downloaded our phone's contact list and let us dial by name. It was very accurate, even asking if we wanted mobile, work, or home when we asked for a name with multiple numbers in the phone book. With an iPhone, we found one little glitch: we had to say last name first when asking it to dial a contact.
Ask for a contact by name, and the Soul will dial the associated number from the phone book.
This technology is similar to Ford Sync's telephone functions, which we first saw in the, but Kia doesn't replicate the Sync's capability to use voice commands to select music from an MP3 player. Voice command in the Soul works only for the phone system.
Slow and steady
Typical for this class of car, the 2010 Kia Soul is powered by a 2-liter four-cylinder engine, made more efficient by Kia's variable-valve timing technology. A five-speed manual transmission is standard, but ours had the optional four-speed automatic. Yes, only four speeds. This transmission makes the car cheaper to produce, but doesn't do much for the driving experience.
Attempting a 0-to-60 mph run, the Soul's front tires give a slight chirp while the engine makes a low growl up to about 30 mph. Things feel fast for a moment or two, but then a glance at the speedometer shows that 60 mph is still a long way off, and the car is done with any serious acceleration.
The engine produces 142 horsepower at 6,000rpm and 137 pound-feet of torque at 4,600rpm. Kia would have done better tuning the engine for more torque and less horsepower, as small city cars feel more sprightly with higher torque. But the real culprit in the Soul's slow acceleration is the automatic transmission, which upshifts to fourth by about 30 mph, putting the car in top gear at a relatively slow speed. This transmission does have a couple of tricks to improve that performance. A button on the side of the shifter turns off overdrive, meaning the transmission tops out in third gear. Get ready for unpleasant noises from the engine as the tachometer climbs. There are also a couple of low ranges, which will really keep the gears down.
The four-speed transmission has two low ranges, plus a button to keep it from using the top gear.
Of course, engaging in this type of behavior sacrifices fuel economy, the reason for the transmission's early upshifting. The EPA puts the fuel economy for the 2010 Kia Soul Exclaim at 24 mpg city and 30 mpg highway. In our testing, which involved a variety of city, freeway, and mountain road driving, we averaged 24.1 mpg, coming in at the bottom of the EPA range.
At freeway speeds, the tachometer holds steady at 3,000rpm. An extra cog in the transmission could have let the engine run a bit slower, improving overall fuel economy. Stomping on the gas for a passing maneuver yields small results, a delayed reaction while the transmission decides that it's OK to downshift.
With its 18-inch wheels, the ride quality on the freeway feels smooth, but the economy car suspension becomes much more apparent at slower speeds. There isn't any softness in the Soul's underpinnings, so potholes and other road imperfections are felt strongly in the cabin. However, the rigidity of the Soul's suspension lends to surprisingly good performance in corners. Kia enhances the multilink front suspension with a stabilizer bar, helping keep the car flat when inertial forces want to pull it over.
We tested that handling out on our favorite winding routes, diving into corners to see how much stress the Soul could handle. It took the turns without feeling tippy, although the power train isn't responsive enough to make this type of driving really exciting. Again, the Soul isn't a sports car, but the handling is more than adequate for emergency maneuvers.
In its power train and suspension, the 2010 Kia Soul Exclaim doesn't stand out in any particular manner. The handling is good, but the power is a bit weak. Fuel economy is decent, but not great. The stuff that makes the Soul go is all fairly average. It ranks a bit higher for cabin tech, the phone system being a particular high point. The iPod integration and the audio system also raise its score, but then it takes a hit from the lack of a GPS option. Finally, it earns an excellent design score for the cool look of the car and its overall practicality. The design score only takes a hit from the iPod and satellite radio interface, which could be more intuitive.
|Model||2010 Kia Soul|
|Power train||2-liter four cylinder engine|
|EPA fuel economy||24 mpg city/30 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||24.1 mpg|
|Bluetooth phone support||Standard|
|Disc player||Single CD, MP3 compatible|
|MP3 player support||iPod integration|
|Other digital audio||Satellite radio, USB drive|
|Audio system||Standard 8 speaker, 315 watt|
|Price as tested||$18,595|