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Car reviews - Kia - Soul - 5-dr hatch range

Our Opinion

We like
Diesel engine, interior space, creative options list
Room for improvement
Petrol engine NVH, manual shift feel, steering feel, no cruise control

3 Apr 2009

YOU can’t help but be a little wary when a car manufacturer puts emphasis on a new model’s accessory features, calling them things like ‘body art’.

It makes you wonder if the marketing team managed to elbow the engineers out of the way when being allocated development budget and if the resulting car could be all style and no substance.

Luckily, Kia’s new Soul is more than just the sum of its ‘body art’ accessories and mood-lighting speakers, although it does not exactly break new ground with its torsion beam rear axle and drum rear brakes (on the entry level model Soul Squared and Soul Cubed get discs all-round).

Having said that, there are some good, solid attributes such as the anticipated (but not announced until May) Euro NCAP five-star crash safety result and a state of the art diesel engine.

The only catch with the safety result is it can’t include the base Aussie market Soul as it doesn’t have ESP.

Even though the 30-plus dealer-fit options list doesn’t read like the shortlist for a automotive engineering innovation award, it is a pretty interesting effort in creative customisation options.

The Soul’s design is potentially that winning combination of conservative yet strangely cool, because its shape is quite practical and not exactly avant-garde. It draws on the people-mover and SUV tall-boy proportions to good effect, though in the metal it doesn’t really seem to have the height of a tall-timber SUV at all.

Even though the temptation is to believe the marketing speak and see this as a unique, funky look, there are elements of Dodge Nitro and (now superseded) Daihatsu Sirion in the Soul.

Some of design elements, such as the Schreyer grille, seem contrived too, added by the then-new design chief Peter Schreyer when the Soul was well into design development. The rounded rear hatch is not exactly a masterstroke, either.

If you want to look different (and assuming Nissan doesn’t start selling the similarly shaped Cube here) then the Soul is about the only boxy-but-good five-door small hatch in the class, even though there are other cars like the Dodge Nitro that have a similar look.

The interior is spacious and well laid out, with a neatly arranged dash presentation. The controls don’t require tweezers, a magnifying glass and a good two hour’s tuition to operate as some vehicles feel like they need, instead offering clearly marked large buttons and dials in the driver’s field of vision.

A feature that is missing is cruise control, which will appear as an option from August production, but in diesel versions only.

The glovebox and dashtop compartments – even in the cars with plain, entry-level graphite black interiors – both are painted bright red. Presumably, this would be matched by the dash surface colour in the Cubed when fitted with the ‘red demon’ interior, but in the plain interior it is an odd feature.

Ample cupholders and storage trays complete the picture, and the easy-to-operate iPod-compatible audio is a nice touch.

The seats are on the soft side and not the latest word in support either, but not the cause of any discomfort after a day’s driving. For some, the steering wheel position, which provides height but not reach adjustment, might not be ideal.

The Soul’s legroom and headroom in particular, can only be described as ample for the class. It’s no LandCruiser, but this would be one of the few small cars that could comfortably carry four lanky adults over extended distances.

The rear seat is flat and quite softly cushioned, with minimal centre floor tunnel intrusion. Like most, the rear seat is shaped for two outboard occupants, while the centre seat is not the overly firm uncomfortable pew it is in many cars.

The boot space has a relatively high loading lip but, in entry-level models, offers a deep well, which is covered with a hinged false floor in the two upper-spec models.

The seat fold-down arrangement is not the latest word in interior flexibility, though, with the seatback folding in a 60-40 split but not sitting quite flat on the base. While the cargo false floor on Squared and Cubed gives an almost-flat load floor with seats down, the entry-level Soul has step up of about 20cm from cargo floor to folded seat. It’s not the worst design, but it could be better.

The space-saver spare is buried under the floor, from where it is a struggle to retrieve it in the Cubed model, as a bulky foam storage tray has to be removed first.

The new Gamma 1.6 petrol engine was briefly sampled in the base model manual, and it has to be said that, while not sluggish down low or objectionable in top-end performance, it is by no means the smoothest or quietest 1.6 around. The manual shift quality is verging on rubbery, too.

The diesel is the pick of the Soul engines, with a flat torque curve that has almost banished the lag that is a common turbo-diesel trait, and is quiet and refined for such an engine. Even though you won’t get the V8-like torque surge some turbo-diesels offer, there is a lot to like in the flexibility and quiet willingness offered by this engine.

First impressions of ride and handling are good, with no wallowing or crashing through bumps (even with the low-profile 18-inch tyres, ride was not bad) and a reasonable amount of grip and decisive turn-in at low speeds.

Delve a little deeper, though, and the steering weighting is inconsistent, seeming to load up just off centre. The steering also lacks feel. The standard tyres grip surprisingly well, but the front end tends to push and you really feel the body starting to lean, perhaps exacerbated by the Soul’s tall stance. No hot hatch and perhaps not the most balanced chassis in the world, the Soul is not bad by any means, either.

The Soul is a good car, especially as a diesel, but it didn’t show any glimpse of exceptional ability during this first look. It might be considered funky and cool, and you can only hope that Kia’s considerable efforts will be rewarded by both improved brand image and sales volume.

Yet Australians appear to be dispassionate about such cars. Past efforts such as the Volkswagen New Beetle, Chrysler PT Cruiser and Dodge Nitro never reached dizzy sales heights in Australia.

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