Kia's new Soul shows the company has a sense of humor and a sense of adventure.
Soul is a deliberate word play on Seoul, capital of South Korea. And Soul, the car, is a boxy little number that's sure to tip Kia's image upside down. Or give it an image in the first place. The automaker thinks it has neither a positive nor negative image and is starting with a clean page.
You, on the other hand, might already have an impression of Kia as the low-price car company you consider if you're on a tight budget.
Soul, though, is what they call "aspirational" in the car business. That is, a model that people want; to which they aspire. Not one for which they settle. It's meant to make Kia your first stop to shop.
Soul is another of a growing number of wheeled boxes, along the lines of Honda's Element, Scion's xB (Test Drive, June 18, 2007) and Nissan's Cube (more about that in next Friday's Test Drive), Soul is aimed at urban hipsters. Thus, the official rollout to reporters in the rich and funky South Beach area of this city — somewhere that in any other context could seem an odd match for Kia.
Funky urban stuff aside, Soul is a nifty car that will appeal on many levels to many people.
The boxy shape is appealingly honest. Rectangles are just what they appear to be — roomy containers. And when designers start with a box, delightful things happen to passenger space and comfort.
For a little car — same length as a Honda Fit — Soul packages enough space to haul adults and their gear in comfort, though three-across in back is a skosh tight. But fore-aft room is generous. In fact, the back seat has nearly as much legroom as most cars' front seats — meaning it has a lot more than most rear seats.
Lanky adults can sit back there without rubbing knees against the back of the front seat, even when it's back far enough for tall folks in front.
For another thing, a box swallows a lot more stuff than you'd get inside a car with the same footprint but a sloping roofline.
All models except the base version have a robust foam cargo tray under the rear floor, too. The tray will hold some types of baggage. Nice.
The backs of the rear seats fold forward with a single movement to form a flat-load floor.
Possibly useful: The glove box door, open, is a tray big enough to hold a laptop computer. There's not enough room to open the laptop's lid and use it, but stowing it on the open glove box door keeps it from sliding off the seat and crashing to the floor in fast stops. Of course, you could just put it on the floor to begin with, but somebody at Kia thought it useful to offer the glove-box tray, so there it is. If nothing else, it seems to impress people when you show it off.
Also showy, for extra dough: lighted door-panel audio speakers, with four modes, no less. Off, for no-nonsense folks. On, for those who like the constant glow: Pulsing (called "mood"), and pulsing to the beat of music (called "music"). Amusing, and that's a useful attribute these dark days of iffy jobs and a murky economic future.
And dashboard lights zigzag around some controls, innocuous by day, striking at night.
You get smooth, touchable surfaces everywhere, and controls that are well-located, easy and pleasant to use.