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The Kia Soul is dull to drive, but it's an appealing, quirky product allthesame

Kia’s aim with the Kia Soul was to make a car that, for the first time in its history, had customers checking the colours and accessories before they checked the price. The Soul has broadly the same footprint as today’s oversized superminis but, being tall and square-cut, it has more interior space and an almost SUV-like presence.

Maybe that makes it more ‘urban’, an approach that the potent sound system and the accessory options build upon. The Soul is billed as a fashion object in the same vein as a Mini or a Fiat 500.

The Soul appeared first as a concept at the 2006 Detroit motor show

Kia has tried to keep the Soul current and cool by launching different special-edition models annually. We’ve had some cracking names so far, including Burner, Shaker and Searcher.

Question is: will the Soul be a car to make you do some soul searching of your own? Is there substance to match its bold looks?

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DESIGN & STYLING

Kia Soul headlight

There are ground rules for good design, but it’s still a very subjective area. That’s why some people consider the Kia Soul an edgy piece of quasi-military styling that’s just right for its role as an urban protection module to be filled with pals sharing musical tastes. Others think it plain ugly. Either way, it polarises opinion.

The visual toughness comes from the high body sides, the thick roof with its corrugated reinforcements and the way that the side window section, with its blacked-in screen pillars, tapers towards the rear to add to the notion of viewing hostile forces through a narrow-vision slit.

The Soul is nothing if not eye-catching, particularly with optional body graphics

The bonnet is high, the rear lights are protected beneath huge, glass-like covers, the wheel arches bulge, and both front and rear valances incorporate fake skid plates to hint at SUV tendencies. There’s even a false air vent on each flank, aping those on a Range Rover Sport.

The roof header rail is unusually bluff, helping to provide plentiful headroom and a quasi-military look. Thick rear pillars and masking on the edges of the rear window restrict the rear three-quarter view out. This and the high, rising waistline mean that close parking takes practice.

The rear lights have clear covers; the indicator has a pink reflector in an (unsuccessful) attempt to tie it in with the red one below it. The Soul’s upright tailgate is opened by tilting the Kia badge, although the load sill is higher than it looks.

INTERIOR

Kia Soul dashboard

If your Kia Soul were one of the various special editions, you would get the concept car experience and the full drama of the cabin design. But where does that leave the simple Soul 2? In shades of grey, mostly - although the hard plastics of the doors and dashboard do fit well and have high-quality textures. And if you open the glovebox or the smaller compartment above the stereo, you are greeted by uterine bright red internals.

Bold red LCD display graphics and instrument needles continue the theme, and the white-on-black dials, set in an oval pod, are ultra-clear. Between you and the pod is a thick-rimmed, leather-covered steering wheel with stereo controls, which adjusts for rake but not reach.

The five-inch drop down to the boot floor from the load lip is very annoying. It makes picking up heavy items difficult

That apart, the driving position is easy to tailor and, being high-set in SUV fashion, it gives a great view of the road ahead from your comfortable and adequately supportive seat. The view aft is not so good, hampered by the rising waistline, very thick rear pillars and a narrow rear window.

The high roof means that there’s plenty of headroom, and rear passengers get generous legroom and foot space, too. Their seats’ 60:40-split backrests flip forward on to the cushion below, but that’s it for folding; the resulting load platform is high and far above the level of the boot floor. Top-spec Souls get a removable false floor that matches the level of the folded seats.

You do get an interface for an iPod or anything using a USB or jack-plug connector, though, and the optional rear parking camera displays its image on a section of the interior mirror. The silvered surface reappears when you stop reversing – very neat.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Kia Soul rear quarter

A new petrol engine was the chief change in the Kia's last round of revisions for the Kia Soul. It is still 1.6 litres but now has 138bhp instead of 122bhp thanks to direct injection.

This all-aluminium unit is mated to a choice of manual or automatic six-speed gearboxes, which replaced a five-speed manual and a dated four-speed auto. Peak torque also rises but is delivered at a high 4850rpm. The extra gear ratio means that the intermediates can be close enough to mask this trait while still giving relaxed cruising.

Soul's 1.6-litre engines are better performers than the on-paper figures suggest

The 138bhp engine transforms the Soul, with a keener throttle response and, surprisingly, an almost turbo-like depth of thrust from low revs despite that lofty torque peak. The engine is smoother, too, and squirting the Soul through a series of fast, hilly bends now becomes a pleasure thanks to the broad torque spread.

The Soul’s original petrol engine was thrashy and really needed working to make progress. There were also a few performance discrepancies on our original road test of the Soul – but in a good way. Kia claimed a 0-62mph time of exactly 11sec, but the test car reached 60mph in 9.7sec.

The car's manual gearbox has a smooth, accurate shift, the clutch has lost its former anaesthesia and even the brakes feel quite progressive.

On the diesel front, buyers can opt for Kia’s 126bhp 1.6 CRDi unit. The diesel engine is the better choice than the petrol, with torque enough to motivate the Soul’s relatively chunky kerb weight and, of course, the improvements in economy and emissions over its petrol sibling.

 

RIDE & HANDLING

Kia Soul cornering

To make a tall car handle crisply and with minimal body roll and ride with suppleness is an achievement comparable to an alchemist’s dream, but Kia has made a good attempt with the Kia Soul. The high seating position would make body roll obvious were it excessive, but the Soul stays level enough unless it’s being pressed hard, and takes up its cornering stance in a progressive, well-damped way.

There’s nothing particularly inspiring about its dynamic demeanour that makes you crave interaction, and its electric power steering certainly opens no doors of perception. But it resists understeer well on a dry road and is quick-witted enough to thread its way effectively along tight lanes or along an urban obstacle course.

The Soul responds securely and faithfully at its limit

At speed on a straight road, however, the Soul is easily deflected from its course if any crosswinds are blowing. This is partly down to the high sides, which catch the wind, but even on a calm day, it needs a surprising amount of fine steering adjustment to keep it straight.

This shows up the steering’s worst feature: a heavy, rubbery resistance around the straight-ahead at speed, which means that even quite firm efforts achieve scant directional change. Subtlety and finesse are absent here, as with many such electric systems, and there’s no genuine feel of the road. Once past the centre point, though, the response becomes more precise and credible.

Lotus has done a good job in honing the primary ride. It’s mostly relaxed, level and well damped.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Kia Soul 2009-2014

Whatever your views on cars as fashion accessories, Kia's seven-year, 100,000-mile warranty is a potent draw. The purchase price of the Kia Soul is competitive, too, with the range starting at little more than £12k.

The Soul is short on direct rivals. A Nissan Juke is less spacious, a Toyota Urban Cruiser is too anonymous and a Skoda Roomster lacks the style. Chances are you’ll be buying a Soul as much for the way it looks as the way it drives.

The Soul was one of the first Kias which appealed for looks as much as a long warranty

As for running costs, the official CO2 output of the more popular diesel model is a respectable 129g/km, with the petrol coming in at 149/km. Economy is 54.3mpg for the diesel and 44.1mpg for the petrol. Certainly, they’re not cars to break the bank, but the real-world economy is not as great as the claimed figures. No great shock here, but the Soul’s boxy shape does heighten this typical discrepancy. Expect a 1.6-litre petrol to return mid-30s to the gallon, and a diesel low-40s.

As for insurance, the Soul sits between groups 14 and 17, depending on the variant you choose. A Nissan Juke, for comparison, sits between 16 and 25, although there is a wider range of engines for the Nissan Juke in a range topped by a potent 188bhp 1.6 turbo petrol option.

VERDICT

3 star Kia Soul

Only you can decide if you like the way the Kia Soul looks or whether to make room for one in your life. But it does have presence, looking like an escapee from a motor show, and its cabin is very roomy.

You also can’t help soaking up some of the feelgood features that the designers have incorporated. The red glovebox lining is daft but your passengers will talk about it, and the sound system is excellent. And although the Soul is hardly a rousing drive, it’s quite a good one – at least until those Nexen tyres encounter a wet patch. Ownership will be cheap and painless, too.

Concept car looks and a great stereo aren’t quite enough to do it for me

Kia’s attempts to pitch the Soul at a fashion-conscious audience, via some wacky advertising that includes triangular Polo mints and a postbox shaped like a rocket, may or may not work. But we like the idea and, despite its faults, we like the car.

Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

Kia Soul 2009-2014 First drives