Too often, the only virtues cheap cars bring to the market are low price and decent fuel economy, and that latter feature is only a byproduct of a small, inexpensive engine. But Kia's Soul manages to add tech, usable space, and a little bit of fun to the usual features. We realize that the Scion xB did all of this first, but it doesn't necessarily do it better.
We spent a little time driving the Kia Soul, in its Sport trim, at a recent driving event, and had our tech sensibilities thoroughly pleased. The top-of-the-line Sport trim Soul goes for $17,900, while the base model is only $13,300, but both come standard with iPod integration. Better yet, you only have to step up to the $14,950 Plus trim to get standard Bluetooth hands-free system, also a feature on the Sport model.
Lacking an iPod during our drive, we plugged an MP3-laden USB drive into the car's USB port, and navigated through the folders on the car's head unit. The red radio display proved large enough so that it was easy to find music we wanted to hear. And the sound quality was surprisingly good, as the Sport trim Soul comes standard with a 315-watt audio system that complements the usual doors speakers with a center fill and sub.
The fun came in the form of sound-activated lighting in the door speakers. As the bass beats played, red accent lighting pulsed. A dial lets you increase the light's intensity, or switch it to a Mood setting, where it pulses to its own beat. It's a gimmicky feature, but we like it.
Missing from the Soul's tech roster is a navigation system, not terribly surprising for a car in its price range, but a feature we would, nonetheless, like.
As you can probably guess, the Kia Soul is no powerhouse. Everything but the base trim gets a 2-liter four cylinder engine producing 140 horsepower, adequate to get the car around, but don't expect a lot of speed. That engine is made efficient through Kia's continuously variable valve timing, giving it an economy figure of 24 mpg city and 30 mpg highway. This is not bad for a car that can squeeze in five people plus cargo.
This Sport trim model also uses a front stabilizer bar and a more tightly tuned suspension than lower trims, giving it surprisingly good handling. We drove the Soul on the track, and found it was the engine, not the handling, that held it back. Kia gives you the choice of a five-speed manual or a primitive, but serviceable, four-speed automatic transmission at no extra cost in all but the base trim.