Tiny Kia Soul is a boxy cutie with plenty of space and style

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.

Driving the box mainly is satisfying, though there's a major minus — the drivetrain. The 2-liter engine roars and thrashes, even when not asked for much response. The four-speed automatic jerks on many shifts. The manual box is a bit sloppy moving from gear to gear.

If you were hoping for a taut, rev-happy, go-get-me machine, sorry. Go buy that Mini Cooper.

But for those not married to the sporting life behind the wheel, Kia's go-goodies are good enough. The power's there, it just ain't happy.

Otherwise, the driving experience in the test cars generally was satisfying, because:

•Steering was good. Straight ahead without lots of fussy little jiggles. Firm enough to give suitable feedback in corners, light enough that parking's no hassle.

•Brakes came on right now. Touchy, some folks will say. But in this city, where no lanes seem to be strictly for going, and random stops in front of you happen without reason frequently, maybe touchy's just what you want.

Modern disc brakes are on each wheel; no resorting to drums in back to cut pennies. However, the rear suspension is a beam axle, not an independent setup, so it qualifies as crude nowadays. Still, no hopping and slewing over bumps, as you often get with a beam axle in back.

•Suspension was adequate. Comfortable ride and good control on fast freeway ramps and other moderate challenges. But wind gusts could be taxing, as were really tight, fast corners. It's a tall car, loosely based on the everyday Kia Rio sedan (Test Drive, March 20), so what'd you expect? Go-kart handling?

Soul's striking styling, its fun accessories and the car's remarkable room and comfort add up to powerful appeal. Now, if Kia'd just slap in a refined drivetrain the box would be tough to beat.


What? The latest small, boxy car to hit the market. A subcompact, front-drive, four-door hatchback — classed by the government as a small station wagon, and referred to within the industry's size nomenclature as a "C-segment" car. But forget that. It's just a rectangular way to present a small car. Available in four levels: Soul, Soul+, Soul! and Soul Sport.

When? On sale since Feb. 15.

Where:Made in South Korea.

Why? Boxy could be the new sleek, and nobody wants to miss the trend.

How? Heavily modify a Kia Rio car chassis and craft a boxy body pretty close to a concept car that made its debut at Detroit in 2006.

How much? The base model — which Kia says only 5% of customers will buy — starts at $13,995 including $695 shipping. Loaded models top out around $19,000. Test cars: a Soul+ with automatic transmission and several options ($17,890); a Sport with manual transmission and a $700 sunroof ($18,345).

How many? 40,000 this year, Kia forecasts.

How potent? Base model gets a 1.6-liter four-cylinder rated 122 horsepower at 6,300 rpm, 115 pounds-feet of torque at 4,200 rpm. Others: 2-liter four-cylinder rated 142 hp at 6,000 rpm, 137 lbs.-ft. at 4,600 rpm. Five-speed manual transmission standard; four-speed automatic optional on all but base.

•How big? In inches, 161.6 long, 70.3 wide, 63.4 tall, on 100.4 wheelbase. Passenger space is listed as 83 cubic feet. Cargo area is 19.3 cubic feet behind the back seat, 53.4 when back seat's folded. Base model weighs 2,560 lbs. Others: 2,800 lbs. with manual, 2,820 with automatic. Turning circle is a tight 34.4 feet.

How thirsty? Base model rated 26 miles per gallon in town, 31 on the highway, 28 combined. Others: 24/30/26. Test car with 2-liter and automatic got 21 mpg in lead-foot suburban use, equivalent to 4.76 gallons per 100 miles. Uses regular. Tank holds 12.7 gallons.

•Overall:A nice car needs a better drivetrain.