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

Our Opinion

We like
Airy cabin, eager handling, offbeat styling, trim options, powerful and refined diesel, easy to drive and park, fuel economy, build quality, interior layout, long warranty
Room for improvement
Silly name, some road noise intrusion, no reach adjustability for steering, no six speeds for manual gearbox, no cruise control (yet), rubbery manual shift, feel-free (though sharp) electric steering, protruding left footrest, high pricing for CRDi

29 May 2009

CLICHÉ alert!

THERE is nothing new under the sun (or ‘sol’ to many Latinos), but does the same apply to Kia’s Soul?

The answer is no to the car, and no to it being a cliché either, making the latest Kia a fresh, interesting and – as you shall see – charming alternative to a surprisingly varied number of rivals.

These include the bevy of light and small car alternatives priced up to around $30,000, but also smaller SUVs/crossovers such as the Suzuki SX4 and Nissan Dualis, the oddball Skoda Roomster, and – perhaps most obviously looking at the Soul’s styling – ‘icons’ ranging from the ageing Volkswagen Beetle and Chrysler PT Cruiser to the Fiat 500 and BMW Mini.

In fact, like the latter two, the Soul is more a crossdresser than a crossover, since it can be customised quite extensively at factory or dealer level, and its styling seems to purposely lend itself to this.

Dealers can alter the Soul’s, wheels, indicator housings, pedals and audio, or add a body-kit, body graphics like stripes and ‘burner’ decals in the guise of three option packs (Body, Chrome and Sports), while the factory offers 11 exterior hues, a rear-view camera and a sunroof.

Admittedly, this is not Mini levels of maxed-out personalisation choices, but it is more than you might expect from a sub-$30,000 Korean car.

What you make of the (American-penned) design lurking under all that is clearly subjective, but somehow that blunt bull-nosed snout, Mini-esque ‘floating’ roofline and pillar angles, and Nissan Cube/X-Trail-like rear actually work for the car. There’s a controlled chaos to the styling, like somebody has taken a Picasso portrait and rearranged the features in matching symmetry.

This is a big part of the Soul’s charm, but it is a superficial attraction that would wear very thin very quickly … if the basics underneath (and inside) were not as surprisingly sound as they are.

The ingredients – mostly cribbed from Hyundai/Kia’s MC light car platform that underpins the Rio, Accent and upcoming i20 - are utterly conventional, which helps keep the price lower than you might imagine.

Although sufficiently sharp and responsive, as well as commendably light in most scenarios with a nicely tight turning circle, the Soul’s electric power steering is disappointingly devoid of tactility, and quick inputs can occasionally outsmart the power assistance so you are left with a heavy, gloopy feel.

Never mind the rollover warning sticker pasted on the driver’s side sun visor though: the Kia will turn instantly into a corner, carve up a long curve and keep itself from rolling about too much through a series of S-bends, making the Soul more fun than its boxiness suggests. Anti-roll bars at each end work hard to keep the Kia flat and surefooted.

But that fairly utilitarian suspension set-up (MacPherson struts up front and a torsion-beam rear axle with trailing arms and coil springs) does not offer much cushioning finesse or cornering attitude adjustability. Bumps and ridges can at times transfer uncomfortable thumps into the cabin, revealing a terse side to the overall ride composition. That’s on the 205/55 R16 Hankook Optimo rubber as fitted to the mid-range Soul Squared model we tested.

They don’t mind transmitting some road noise inside, either, and this is in a diesel-powered car, don’t forget. The lack of a rear parcel shelf didn’t help refinement matters much, either.

However, the thoroughly modern mill 1.6-litre twin-cam 16-valve CRDi common-rail turbo-diesel is one of the best of its type, elevating the Soul Squared to a sort of pseudo hot hatch for the high hats, yet with a devout monk’s propensity for liquid abstinence.

Performance first: why can’t more diesels be as smooth, responsive and enjoyable to drive as this? Derived from the engine found in the impressive Hyundai i30 CRDi, it delivers strong acceleration with only slight levels of lag, followed by a consistent and fat wad of torque right up through to the red line.

We trundled at low speeds in top gear and the Soul CRDi pulled away cleanly. Conversely, we revved it out in the lower gears and the diesel din wasn’t deafening, and we barely noticed the fuel gauge needle moving.

Overall, whether you’re using the Kia to nip in and out of urban traffic or cruise along the highway, the diesel option is one definitely worth considering, particularly as the petrol models we tried at launch seemed coarse and under-endowed in comparison.

However, the notchy, long-throw five-speed manual gearbox is not particularly great to use, and the lack of a sixth forward ratio is disappointing, so the auto might be the better overall bet.

Annoyingly, cruise control is not yet available, and when it arrives from August production, only the CRDi manual gets it.

Back to cabin noise, the fairly upright windscreen and large exterior mirrors do contribute some wind whoosh, but overall it really mostly the road noise intrusion that might be noticed.

The Soul’s interior rates highly for functionality since there is none of the style-driven nonsense that mars the Mini’s cabin which suffers for having an oversized mid-mounted speedo that can be seen from space.

The tall body design and high stance result in easy access to seats that are comfortably firm though quite flat (overly so if you’re sitting in them for a long time – some lumbar support would also be appreciated).

One of the few style flourishes can be found in the storage lid in the upper centre console and deep, double-decker glovebox to the left of that – trimmed in our test car in bright red plastic that brings to mind somehow the Rocky Horror Picture Show!

Everything else inside is conventional – from the super-clear three-prong instrumentation (tacho, speedo, fuel and temp dials, with no fancy lighting or weirdo fonts), to the attractive radio header unit and generic HVAC heater/vent/air-con knobs, all placed nice and high on the angled upper-console fascia.

At either end of that as well as on the dashboard’s extremities are regular and unmolested air outlets of regular design and operation.

We feel that perhaps Kia could have been a little bolder with the dash after sampling, say, the Ford Fiesta’s brilliantly realised fascia, but at least it isn’t twee or rattly or too cheap in feel. We also noticed no rattles, squeaks or zizzes, which is encouraging.

The driver sits elevated, and can be perched almost as high as in a regular SUV, but the lack of reach-adjustment for the steering column betrays this car’s price-focussed light-car origins. Some of us also found that the left footrest jutted forward too much, setting off a case of ankle ache over an extended journey.

The wheel itself looks like the item found in the handsome new Cerato, as does much of the layout and function of the door pockets and lower console storage areas that include two exposed cupholders.

Speaking of storage, the big round recess that lives on top of the dash seems as incongruous as a crop circle, but it is the home to a space-age speaker system on higher-spec Soul series.

‘Hard wearing’ best describes the cold hard plastics and sheeny seat covering both miss the point really, as a funkier level of trim and design would be more appropriate for a car that is so obviously trying to emulate the Mini. Only the beige ceiling trim alleviated the dourness of our inner Soul – oh, as well as those raging red storage inserts. More money buys body-coloured dash and door trim that really livens things up inside.

On the other hand, the deep side windows and boxy proportions help make child’s play of placing this car in tight spots, and really add a sense of practicality and usefulness to what could have seemed like a twee plaything.

Rear-seat accommodation is first-class for a light car, thanks to the relaxed angle of the backrest. Kia’s decision to mount the front seats high, and scallop the rear backrests pay handsome dividends for back occupants’ legs and knees, while the centre pew is usable for adults in short-haul stints.

The overhead grab handles are a nice touch, but the rear windows don’t fully retract, unfortunately.

On our test car, both rear-seat backrests (split into two-thirds to signify that three people can fit across the rear with some dignity, thanks to the Soul’s wide dimensions) needed a hefty tug before moving.

The good news for carers of children is that the child-seat anchorage points are mounted directly behind each backrest, while the cargo area is almost wagon-deep if not especially long because of the low floor, which contains a space-saver spare wheel.

Furthermore, while the rear hatch aperture is perhaps a tad too small, it is sensibly square and so easy to manoeuvre items around when loading and unloading.

We can’t help but lament a lost opportunity in packaging. Imagine how much better the Soul would be if the rear seats folded flat with the cargo floor, slid like a Toyota Yaris’s, or were removable, Renault Scenic style, so the Kia could turn into a pseudo panel van?

As it stands, this car is pretty much standard small hatch practical with a 546-litre boot space, instead of being Honda Jazz-style supercalifragilisticexpialidocious amazing.

You know, the more we lived with and drove in the Soul, the fonder we became of the capable little light car living under the weight of its flashy styling.

We marvelled at the diminutive CRDi’s zesty performance and outstanding economy, revelled in the quick steering and zippy handling, appreciated the cabin’s sturdy no-nonsense usability, and even grew to respect the Kia’s individual styling.

And while equipment levels are not brilliant for the $26,690* Kia charges for the Squared version, all the safety gear is there (including the four-wheel disc brakes and stability control that are not standard on the base version at $20,990*).

The thing is, we enjoyed using the Soul – with the diesel engine centred at the heart of its appeal.

And there is something alluringly bolshie about the way Mini and Fiat 500 drivers sneered at us in our Kia, only to often be left behind at the traffic lights, or at IKEA once we loaded it all up while they were left to ponder an alternative way home for all their flat-packed goods.

Obviously the Soul CRDi is not for everyone but at least Kia has injected enough sensibility in this car’s execution for it to have no major shortcomings.

We reckon it is Kia’s best-ever car.

It’s certainly the most characterful Korean car under the Australian sun right now.

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