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Too cool for school run. Image by Kia.

Too cool for school run
An early drive in the new Kia Soul indicates that the Koreans are planning to add coolness to their arsenal. Mark Nichol reports.


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| First Drive | Kwangju, Korea | Kia Soul |

Each new car launch is big news for the manufacturer, but it felt like Kia had brought us half way around the world to witness its renaissance when we drove the Soul in Korea. Kia's last big launch - that of the cee'd - proved the Korean maker had learned a bit about European quality, and now this newcomer aims to inject some personality into the brand. But has it succeeded?

In the Metal

The first striking thing about the Soul is how much bigger it looks in the flesh than it does in pictures. Make no mistake; this isn't a MINI. It looks compact, kind of like a shrunken-down Range Rover, but it's taller and wider than you'd expect. Let's put it this way: all the press cars were riding on 18-inch wheels, but the Soul still looked like its arches could comfortably handle an extra inch or two.

Its boxy body runs the risk of appearing distinctly van-like, though to say the Soul looks like a van is to say a Hyundai Coupé looks like a Ferrari. The details make the Korean newcomer stand out as funky, fresh and a different from the hatchback norm (apart perhaps from the oddball Daihatsu Materia and the US-only Scion xB, but we'll forget abut them).

Highlights include split-level headlamps, a thin front grille, shallow glasshouse and flared rear arches. Kia executives want their brand to be perceived as 'youthful and dynamic' from now on, and the Soul is effectively the first step. To that end, Kia will offer the same sort of personalisation options Fiat 500 and MINI owners enjoy, albeit not to the same extent.

What you get for your Money

Lots of space. The Soul is one of the most capacious small hatchbacks you can buy, with masses of head and leg room in the cabin - easily enough for four Premiership goalkeepers. Sadly, though, they'd probably have to send their kits on the team bus because the boot is pretty miniscule. It has a false floor for a flat loading space when the tailgate is open, which lifts to reveal a compartmentalised section. However, Kia UK is battling to have this section removed to liberate more actual boot space. Here, here.

Let's not get bogged down in the boot, though. The Soul should prove a lot of car for the money, with a decent standard spec including air conditioning and an iPod compatible stereo (the centre console even houses a USB port that can read music straight from a memory stick), electric windows and a multi-function steering wheel.

Options include an impressive eight-speaker stereo optimised for the kind of thumping bass all 'the kids' are into these days, as well as a reversing camera (with the display neatly integrated into the rear view mirror), black 18-inch rims straight from the 'Soul Burner' concept car and a set of vinyl exterior decals, ranging from simple bonnet stripes to a massive tribal dragon. You can even get speakers with lights integrated into the cone that pulse and glow in time with the music. That kind of thing will appeal to the Soul's intended audience, which a Kia insider rather sheepishly described to us as the 'young at heart'.

Driving it

The drive is probably best described as somewhere between an SUV and a hatchback, erring more towards the latter. That's good, because it combines the right elements of both, meaning a lofty driving position and good visibility but typical hatch stability. The steering is precise, if a little light and lacking in feel, and the ride is mostly composed, striking a pleasant balance between comfort and communication. It can get crashy, but the Soul never wallows like high-riding MPVs can and it always feels planted. Comfort would probably improve with the standard 16-inch wheels, though we didn't have a chance to sample those.

Ergonomically the cabin is sound, with the stereo set high and steeply angled for ease of use, though Kia has inexplicably opted not to offer reach adjustment for the wheel, which would improve the driving position significantly. The Soul isn't a car you'd buy for the driving experience, but that's not to say it's bad. It certainly feels like the chassis could cope with a little more power - though Kia reckons that's not going to happen, because it has no plans to produce a 'hot' version. We're not getting the 2.0-litre petrol and diesels planned for some overseas markets either, which leaves us with a pair of 1.6-litre units, one of which is good, the other best avoided...

It's the diesel engine that shines, providing infinitely more kick than the dullard petrol unit, which feels flat and sounds strained in comparison. Both have identical 124bhp power outputs, but the diesel packs 188lb.ft of torque against the petrol's 115. It really shows on the road. Only the gearbox is truly disappointing, with a spongy feel across the gate and an all-too-frequent penchant for slipping into the wrong gear. A four-speed automatic will be available too.

Worth Noting

The key to the Kia Soul's appeal lies in its quirks, many of which are found on the options list. There'll be a massive difference between a base spec Soul on steel wheels with a grey interior and, say, a bright orange one with big rims, contrasting wing mirrors, racing stripes, a red interior and speakers with lights in them (though that specific combo sounds horrible). Being smart with the options list is the key to unleashing the true character and appeal of the Soul; changing it from OAP also-ran to, err, young at heart, so to speak. Hopefully Kia will price the options sensibly.

Nothing is set in stone yet, but a Kia insider told us that the maker is planning three trim levels: an entry-level model, a high-volume mid range version, and a top-level 'extreme' variant. No surprises there, but at any one time they'll be supplemented by a couple of themed special editions, which will be changed regularly. We're told you might get 'sporty' and 'posh' versions for nine months, for example, though whether they'll be followed by 'scary', 'ginger' or 'baby' editions is unclear...


The Soul is an interesting move for Kia, and one which the Korean maker hopes will transform its image from cheap-and-cheerful to genuinely cool. It could work, too, because the Soul has the makings of a very popular car thanks to its combination of practicality, good value and, most importantly, character. It's not a driver's car by any means, but as a hip urban fashion accessory it might just have hit the nail on the head. And it's from Korea. How times are changing.

Mark Nichol - 21 Oct 2008    - Kia road tests
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- Soul images

2009 Kia Soul. Image by Kia.2009 Kia Soul. Image by Kia.2009 Kia Soul. Image by Kia.2009 Kia Soul. Image by Kia.2009 Kia Soul. Image by Kia.

2009 Kia Soul. Image by Kia.2009 Kia Soul. Image by Kia.2009 Kia Soul. Image by Kia.2009 Kia Soul. Image by Kia.2009 Kia Soul. Image by Kia.

2009 Kia Soul. Image by Kia.

2009 Kia Soul. Image by Kia.

2009 Kia Soul. Image by Kia.

2009 Kia Soul. Image by Kia.

2009 Kia Soul. Image by Kia.

2009 Kia Soul. Image by Kia.

2009 Kia Soul. Image by Kia.

2009 Kia Soul. Image by Kia.

2009 Kia Soul. Image by Kia.


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