Edgy and Confident, Boxy Kia Aims for the Urban Soul

Njuguna Kabugi | 11/28/2012, 1:23 p.m.

If you've watched TV at all in the last few years, there's slim chance you would have missed one of the most memorable car commercials. The one with the hip, adorable, oversized hamsters, jamming to loud music while driving down the street in a small, boxy, bulldog nosed SUV.

That car, the Kia Soul is the Korea-based automakers balm for people who think it is hip to be square. It's a quirky styled box that balances young attitude with practical passenger and cargo space - a hidden automotive gem that provides good looks functionality, technology and efficiency.

Amazingly, the Kia Soul doesn't take up any more space than a subcompact car, yet its tall roof and boxy shape provide a lot more usefulness. Inside there's a roomy, versatile, almost minivan-like layout with enough room for up to five (more headroom and legroom than the Optima sedan), and plenty of cargo if you fold the rear seats forward.

Throw in the new equipment plus wacky paint colors and you will understand why the Kia Soul has been a very popular small vehicle, far outselling other boxes like the Nissan Cube and Scion xB.

Since debuting in Spring 2009, Soul has earned a trophy case full of prestigious awards, including earning a 2009, 2010 and 2011 "Top Safety Pick" from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), being named a Consumers Digest "Best Buy," achieving a "Top RecommendedVehicle for 2011" by Edmunds.com and being a recipient of TopSpeed.com's "Top 10 Small Cars For Under $20K."

This Kia is very well loaded with accessories - it offers a solid array of features for the money. There's the customary assortment of power accessories, keyless entry, USB and auxiliary connections, and a bevy of safety gear. Fuel economy is top-notch for a rolling box. After a week driving the Soul around the Washington area, we averaged 29 mpg in combined driving.

I liked the driving position, and found the car quite accommodating to tall passengers. Though the interior isn't upscale by any stretch, it's well-done with decent materials and good build quality. It's a light and airy place to enjoy the nation's capital and its many wonderful suburbs.

The Soul is not as quick or agile as its looks imply. Acceleration is decent from a standstill, but still unimpressive on the highway when gearing and aerodynamic drag is working against it. This is especially noticeable in the base Soul which comes with a 1.6-liter four-cylinder, which is good for 135 horsepower and 121 pound-feet of torque, coupled to either a six-speed manual or automatic transmission. The vehicle works very well as an urban runabout but for a more congenial drive over longer stretches, the larger 2.0-liter four, which makes 164 horsepower yet returns nearly the same fuel economy, is the more eager partner. Handling and low-speed responsiveness also improves considerably.

The 2012 Soul is covered by Kia's warranty program, which offers consumer protection at an exceptional value. Included in this program are a 10-year/100,000-mile limited powertrain warranty, a five-year/60,000-mile limited basic warranty and a five-year/100,000-mile anti-perforation warranty. A five-year/60,000-mile roadside assistance plan also is part of the vehicle coverage.

A base Soul with the 1.6 and a manual starts at $14,650, with the automatic adding $1800 to the price. The mid-range Soul Plus starts at $17,050 and includes more equipment, including the 2.0-liter. The top-spec Soul is auto-only and runs $20,350 and up.