If You Just Wanna Get There

It’s always fun when a stranger strikes up a car-related conversation with you.  Of course, in the Porsche, this happens fairly frequently.  But recently, while traveling for work, my rental car was a 2015 Kia Soul.  One might think, as an enthusiast, that such a car isn’t worth or wouldn’t bring rise to conversation.  The Soul interests the everyday car-buying population, however, as indicated by the young fellow who, passing by as I climbed out, mentioned to me that he was considering buying one.

I didn’t discourage him.  The fact is, if you don’t care in the least about the driving experience, the new Soul is a pretty great car, especially for the price.

The Kia Soul is in its second generation as of 2014.  The newer Soul incorporates a number of improvements over its predecessor, but the two generations are not obviously discernable from the exterior, unless one knows what to look for.  The Soul has never been, nor is it now, notable for its performance – the base engine in the new model is a 1.6L gasoline direct-inject four-cylinder making 130hp, 118lb-ft, and noise at full throttle that won’t inspire anyone to love automobiles.  In a mostly-freeway 292 miles, I observed 28.1 mpg.

The Soul tugs at the road with its front wheels, tiny 205-60/16 Kumhos scrabbling for grip.  The tires are so narrow that the traction control leaps to the driver’s defense frequently, fending off terminal understeer in the event of a mid-corner bump, stone, or patch of dirt.

The doors feel like the front cover of a three-ring binder.  They’re so thin and light that I took extra care with them in the South Dakota wind.  And the rear cargo area is laughably small, especially with the cargo cover installed (who demands those things anyway?).

I’ve stated all the negatives.  Here’s the thing: the Soul delivers the goods in every other category.

We’ll start with the sheetmetal.  The exterior design is striking—you certainly wouldn’t mistake a Soul for anything else, and Kia offers it in colors and exterior packages that take advantage of its angular, yet un-presumptuous boldness.

All of the seats sit at the perfect height off the ground to make for easy entry and exit for the average consumer.  The seat cloth in my rental-spec Soul was black, and the seats’ shape wasn’t anything special, but they were reasonably comfortable and supportive.  Importantly, the seams were stitched together with contrasting yellow thread—a small, inexpensive, but thoughtful touch that makes a shopper or owner smile.

The top of the dash is rendered in the usual black pebbled plastic, but it is not unpleasantly rigid to the touch, and it is formed around the speakers, HVAC, and gauges with enough curves and creases such that it remains inoffensive.  The two dash-top speakers are actually raised vertically above the dash surface, and are presented in a contrasting brushed-aluminum color, another smile-inducing gesture on Kia’s part.

The infotainment system is the star of the Soul’s interior.  Instead of being overly flashy or screen-intensive, it makes brilliant use of a small monochrome (red text, black background) center screen and a simple, intuitive button layout.  There are a few menus accessible via the “Tune” knob, but an owner wouldn’t make frequent use of them (the only reason I did was to reset the clock for the recent switch to daylight savings time).  The Soul also features easily accessible USB and AUX ports, satellite radio, and Bluetooth.  All of these were, again, simple and intuitive to operate, and the whole center stack is eye-pleasing with a premium feel.  The speakers weren’t praiseworthy, but Kia offers a fix for that with an optional Infinity Audio system.

The steering wheel includes tuning and cruise control functions, governed by glossy buttons that give a feeling of solidity and positive feedback.  The wheel itself looks solid and upscale.  The steering itself is light, only mildly vague, and appropriate for a vehicle of this class.

Astoundingly, despite the three-ring-binder-style doors mentioned earlier, the Soul was incredibly quiet inside as long as I wasn’t caning the engine, demanding more power.  Kia is keen to point out their improvements to the interior noise level over the first-gen Soul, and I’m certain they are not exaggerating.  The solace of the cabin was no-kidding impressive; even more so if one considers the low price.

The reason the cargo area is so small is that there’s a comfortable amount of space in the second row.  Looking back from the driver’s seat, I was surprised how far away the rear seats seemed.  I didn’t think to try putting them down, but Kia’s website shows that they split-fold 60/40 to an almost-flat position.  The Soul’s boxy shape, combined with a flat floor, promises quite a bit of interior cargo capacity (61.3 cubic feet, to be exact).

So, Kia has a winner with the Soul.  It’s racked up a fair number of awards and comparison-test wins, as well as sold very respectably.  After driving one for a week, I can understand its appeal.  If I were the editor, next to “cheap and cheerful” in the car dictionary, there would be a picture of the Kia Soul.

Additionally, the Soul was among the first of the mini-crossover vehicles to reach the consumer, granting Kia a head start in the hottest segment in the market right now.  While other manufacturers are rushing to get their mini-utes to dealerships (Fiat 500X, Jeep Renegade, Audi Q3, BMW X1, Honda HR-V, myriad others), Kia is a generation ahead with a refined product that’s hard to beat.  If you’re buying this type of vehicle, you’re not interested in driving dynamics, so why bother?  The Soul bulls-eyes everything this category needs, and happily ignores everything it doesn’t.

I’ve a coworker who used to drive a 996 cabriolet.  He needed something a little cheaper to run, and traded the Porsche in on a Kia Soul.  And now, I kinda understand why.

Is it green? … Yes. Very.

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