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.
Similar to the ease of driving inherent in the Soul, the cabin electronics are also made very uncomplicated by an attractive and usable interface. The cabin tech features may be limited to the basics, app integration being the most notable missing element, but of all the cars I drive, I really like Kia's cabin tech interface. Hard buttons at the bottom and top of the touch screen call up navigation, stereo, and the phone system, while the screen graphics look good and are easy to figure out.
The Soul also features a voice command system that controls both phone and navigation system, but I had a very difficult time getting it to understand anything I said. Maybe the microphone, positioned low on the center console, or the car's own sound insulation were not optimized for the voice command system, but I found it an exercise in frustration, especially when trying to input a street name.
Kia has another voice command system called UVO with a broader range of features, but the company hasn't integrated it with the navigation system. Currently, UVO comes standard with the car, but opting for the navigation system displaces it.
Resorting to the touch screen for the navigation system, I found that it responded very well, making it easy to enter destinations and get a route started. However, the navigation system offers no Internet-connected search options for local business, instead relying on its static points-of-interest database. The maps are limited to 2D views, but they do show traffic information.
The car's Bluetooth phone system offers the ability to download a paired phone's contact list, making it available onscreen and through voice command. One trick I have learned with prior Kia phone systems and the iPhone is that it wants last name first when using voice command to make a call.
Kia is also good about including modern, useful digital-audio sources. A USB port in the car handles USB drives, and an adapter cable works with iPods and iPhones. Bluetooth streaming also works well, but does not show the current track on the car's display. Browsing a music library from a connected USB drive or iPod was easy with the responsive display, and the Soul also let me cover the screen with album art, when it was available on the storage medium.
In exclamation mark trim, the Soul also gets an eight-speaker Infinity audio system. That means six door speakers complemented by a center channel and subwoofer. I found this system well-balanced, with neither bass nor treble overwhelming other frequencies, but the sound was a little muddy. Vocals from tracks on The Smiths' "The Queen Is Dead" sounded muted, and bass came through as distant.
However, I took an unreasonable amount of pleasure in the light show given off by the woofers in the front doors. These speakers have light rings, from the factory, and a dial in the car let me set them to pulse to the music. It was very fun to drive around at night looking for tracks that would make the lights pulse as they cycled through their various colors.
As is typical with this generation of Kia models, the 2012 Soul's cabin electronics do not push any boundaries, but do offer core, useful functions. App integration, rapidly being adopted by other automakers, is the real missing ingredient here. Likewise, the engine, transmission, and suspension are solid and modern, the highlight being the engine's dual-valve timing. The direct-injection engine on the base model sounds intriguing, but its numbers do not make it a good alternative to the larger, port-injected engine.
The Soul really stands out for its design. Love it or hate it, the Soul will never be mistaken for another car. That boxy design leads to very practical interior space. The design of the cabin-tech interface is also excellent, uncomplicated, and easy to use.
|Model||2012 Kia Soul|
|Power train||2-liter 4-cylinder engine, 6-speed automatic transmission|
|EPA fuel economy||26 mpg city/34 mpg higway|
|Observed fuel economy||27.4 mpg|
|Navigation||Optional flash-memory-based system with traffic|
|Bluetooth phone support||Standard|
|Digital audio sources||Bluetooth streaming, iPod, USB drive, auxiliary input, satellite radio|
|Audio system||Infinity 8-speaker system|
|Driver aids||Rearview camera|
|Price as tested||$22,950|