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Little bit o’ Soul--Kia’s Gen-Y transporter promises a lot of wheels for the money

Rafay Ansar

It’s two-thirds Scion xB and one-third Honda Fit. Or maybe that’s one-third Scion xD and two-thirds Honda Element. Think of the Kia Soul either way, and you’ll get pretty close to its core mission.

The 2010 Soul is a two-box, five-passenger, value-priced transport aimed at youthful, style-conscious buyers, arguably with a bit more styling flair than existing competitors. Preliminary indications suggest the Soul is on target, and Kia promises a base price “in the low teens” when it hits U.S. showrooms next March.

Introduced as a concept at the Detroit auto show in January 2006, the Soul has evolved for production into something quite a bit different. As executed by Peter Schreyer, the ex-Audi designer who now directs Kia’s styling department, the production Soul is more subtle than the show car but interesting in its own right. With a dozen color schemes, factory wheels up to 18 inches and a multitude of dealer accessories, the Soul’s character can change dramatically depending on how it’s decked out.

The Soul is built on a variation of Kia’s Rio subcompact platform--stretched a bit and packaged like the more conservatively styled Rondo mini-minivan. Its overall length falls halfway between Scion’s larger xB and smaller xD. On a wheelbase of 100.4 inches, the Soul offers a remarkably spacious rear seat. There’s comfortable seating for rear passengers taller than six feet, even with the front seats positioned for similar-sized occupants, and there’s still plenty of cargo space under the hatch. There are also lots nooks and crannies for stashing stuff.

The Soul debuts in the United States with two engine choices: a 1.6-liter inline four generating 122 horsepower and 115 pound-feet of torque, and a 2.0-liter four delivering 142 hp and 137 lb-ft. Both feature continuously variable valve timing, and both will come standard with a five-speed manual transmission. The 2.0-liter four will also be available with a four-speed automatic. The suspension applies a conventional strut design in front. A solid torsion-beam axle in back minimizes encroachment into interior space.

Based on limited seat time in a pre-production Soul, we might draw some conclusions. The 2.0-liter four gets down the road as well as an xB, and Kia promises higher mileage. Kia’s Beta II four-cylinder isn’t Honda-grade in its overall refinement, but it's not tinny, either. It delivers decent torque across the range and breathes well up to its 6,000 rpm power peak. We didn’t try the automatic, which Kia expects most Americans to buy, but we probably don’t need to. We suspect it’s not something enthusiast drivers will savor.

The Soul’s ride is compliant, and smooth even with the 18-inch wheels--at least on the tarmac roads in rural Korea. Handling is adequate, with about as much sway as one experiences in a standard xB, but it’s not particularly sharp or inspiring. Steering is on the light side, and the hydraulic pump can get a little skippy when you work the wheel quickly back and forth. Kia will eventually offer a sport suspension in the United States, though we weren’t able to try it. It may be worth the wait.

Interior packaging is one of Soul’s strong suites. The dash features a center switch pod, with nice, big knobs. Some of the surfaces feel a bit hard, but the finish looks great for this price range, and the seats are impressive. All but the base Soul will come with features such as Bluetooth connectivity and dark-tinted solar glass, and the 325-watt stereo upgrade sounds like the car should cost $20,000 more.

The Soul will debut in the United States in four trim levels, though exact content is still being sorted. All we know for sure is that the base car will come with the 1.6-liter engine and 15-inch steel wheels. We won’t get some of the up-market options, such as a back-up camera and auto dimming mirrors, offered in other markets. More specific pricing will come when the production Soul debuts at the Los Angeles auto show in late November, but Kia says that with all the bells and whistles the Soul shouldn’t break the $20,000 barrier.

Kia hopes to reach those style-conscious Gen Y buyers with internet-intensive marketing schemes, and it plans to make Soul the center of its brand-building efforts over the next couple of years. Dealer-supplied accessories are a crucial part of the plan, with an abundance of personalizing options such as body kits, stick-on graphics and whacky rims.

Initially, the Soul will displace nothing in Kia’s U.S. lineup. Yet the company hints that if Soul sells well, it may not bring the next-generation Rondo to the States.

The Rondo might not be long for these parts. The Soul certainly has more, um, soul, than its staid sibling, and it holds its own with competitors from Scion. With the typical Korean price/content advantage, it could be a hit. Especially if the aftermarket gets cracking.
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