If the name of Kia's new car -- the Soul -- isn't memorable enough, the look of the five-door, small wagon surely is.
At 5.3 feet tall, the Soul is a boxy car that's shaped like a Converse high-top sneaker. Its interior is nicely done with a driver's seat that adjusts high for good views out, jazzy interior colors and fabric, and a generous number of features.
The Soul also has the lowest starting retail price of all the newfangled "box cars" in the United States -- $13,395 for a base, 122-horsepower model with manual transmission. Buyers must move up, however, to a 142-horsepower Soul Plus and a $16,595 starting retail price to get an automatic transmission.
2010 Kia Soul Sport
- BASE PRICE: $13,300 for base model; $14,950 for Plus with manual transmission; $15,900 for Plus with automatic; $16,950 for Exclaim with manual; $16,950 for Sport with manual.
- AS TESTED: $18,345.
- TYPE: Front-engine, front-wheel drive, five-passenger, small wagon.
- ENGINE: 2-liter, double overhead cam, inline four cylinder with CVVT.
- MILEAGE: 24 mpg (city), 30 mpg (highway).
- TOP SPEED: 116 mph.
- LENGTH: 161.6 inches.
- WHEELBASE: 100.4 inches.
- CURB WEIGHT: 2,800 pounds.
- BUILT AT: South Korea.
- OPTIONS: Power sunroof $700.
- DESTINATION CHARGE: $695.
Still, it's worth noting that all Souls, even the base model, have a full complement of standard safety features, including curtain air bags, side-mounted, front-seat air bags, traction control, electronic stability control, antilock brakes, electronic brakeforce distribution and anti-whiplash front head restraints.
Each Soul also has power windows and door locks, air conditioning, tilt steering column, cargo area light and auto-off headlights.
In comparison, the 2009 Scion xB, which is a small, boxy wagon that's some 6 inches longer than the Soul and some 200 pounds heavier, starts at $16,420 with manual transmission and 158-horsepower four-cylinder engine. The 2010 Nissan Cube, which is 4.3 inches shorter in length than the Soul, has an MSRP plus destination charge of $14,710 for a 122-horsepower base model with manual transmission.
Like Nissan and Scion, Kia looks to attract younger buyers to the new wagon. Officials sometimes note that "ugly is cool" in this new niche, where styling is meant to attract video game-playing youth.
But you know what? The low prices, plus the impressive and accommodating interior space and decent gasoline mileage, make the Kia Soul a worthwhile vehicle for all kinds of buyers.
Older buyers just need to overlook the styling, which they're apt to call "weird."
No matter. The test Soul, a top-of-the-line Sport with sport-tuned suspension, 18-inch wheels, five-speed manual, optional sunroof and $18,345 price tag, was a competent traveler.
On long highway runs, it sipped gas, making its federal government mileage rating of 30 miles per gallon believable. Note this is higher than the 28 mpg rating of Scion's xB. In the city, the Soul's mileage rating drops to 24 mpg, but this is still better than the 22 mpg of the 2009 xB.
Best of all, the Soul feels sprightly and controlled -- not heavy like the current xB and not top-heavy like the Nissan Cube. I maneuvered easily around traffic, thanks to responsive and well-tuned, rack-and-pinion steering and zipped into parking spots without fuss.
It was a bit more strenuous to see out the side rear and back because metal pillars around the rear window glass are thick. It's too bad that a rearview camera isn't available as a company option.
The ride was mostly comfortable, though definitely not plush.
The sport suspension on the Sport model provided little wheel travel over large bumps and the 18-inch tires had small sidewalls, so there were some hard impacts in the Soul test car.
There was some wind noise inside on blustery days, but overall, the ride was quieter than I expected in a car priced this low.
Another surprise: The quality appearance of the plastic on the dashboard and interior doors. It was hard plastic, for sure, but the cross-hatched design matched the design of the seat fabric perfectly. And the fit and finish inside the test car were excellent, with gauges easy to read.
Kia designers added special touches. The test car had bright red pieces mixed nicely, if you can believe, with black pieces on the dashboard and even steering wheel. This tied in with the bright red fabric on the sport seats. I could have used some lumbar adjustment, however, for the driver's seat.
The Sport model also came with a standard audio system that provided strong tunes through six speakers and even a Sirius satellite radio with three months of free service.
Bluetooth connectivity is standard on all Souls, too, except for the base model.
About the only recurring issue was the notchy five-speed, manual transmission shifter. I frequently struggled to move into the correct forward gears. Note that the automatic for the Soul is only a four-speed.
Still, the Soul was perky. The 2-liter, double overhead cam, four-cylinder engine with continuously variable valve timing had good horsepower for a car that weighs just 2,800 pounds. This is the uplevel engine from the 1.6-liter four cylinder that's in the base Soul, and it's clearly competitive with the four cylinders in other "box cars."
Torque peaks at 137 foot-pounds at 4,600 rpm, and the engine gets noisy and strained at the higher revs.
Side windows are large, and it's great to see that Kia added a slide-out section in the front sun visors so when pushed to the side windows, the visor can cover the entire top of the large glass area.
Rear seats are accommodating for two adults -- even 6-footers. Three adults sit closely, but everyone gets a head restraint, and the rear floor is flat. The Soul has a decent 19.3 cubic feet of cargo space behind the rear seats, which is more than what's found in many mid-size sedans.
With rear seatbacks folded, the Soul offers a generous 53.4 cubic feet of room.