It’s dangerous to start reading too much into car names. They usually have little or nothing to do with the vehicle itself.
Some are chosen purely to slot into the manufacturer’s existing nomenclature, others are concocted in a focus group or result from one of the chairman’s bath time eureka moments. Kia’s Soul might be an exception. It’s an important car for Kia, a brand that has made great strides in terms of quality and engineering of late. It represents the Korean firm’s first real attempt at a vehicle with genuine style and individuality. The hope is that the Soul has got soul and we’re taking a look at the 1.6-litre diesel model to find out.
Soul in this context is a tough thing to define but you know when something has got it. It’s ephemeral combination of how a car looks, how it feels and what it means that somehow makes it into more than the sum of its parts. Manufacturers who manage to put their finger on this elusive quality are usually rewarded handsomely in the sales charts as customers rush to get a piece of what the car in question has got and pay a premium for it. With the Soul, Kia has set about its task in a rather formulaic manner, which isn’t a promising start. Melding chunky 4x4 styling themes with car-like driving dynamics and a catalogue of funky customisation options doesn’t look hugely imaginative but the proof of the pudding is in the eating.
The 1.6-litre CRDi engine is the Soul’s best. The 1.6-litre petrol alternative is cheaper but despite a similar power output, it’s also inferior to the smooth and punchy diesel. Using common-rail injection technology as found in all the best diesels these days, the unit amasses 260Nm of torque between 1,900 and 2,750rpm. This pulling power makes it a more relaxing drive, cutting down on the number of times you need to reach for the five-speed gearbox to maintain progress, and a more satisfying one with a purposeful swell of acceleration readily available through the majority of the rev range. In a wider context, this diesel can hold its own against similar units in rival models. A 0-60mph sprint takes 11.3s and the top speed is 109mph which isn’t too shabby for a small family car like the Soul.
"Kia is attempting to appeal to younger, more fashion conscious buyers than ever before with its Soul model"
The competent engine is let down to an extent by the Soul’s road manners. Kia have attempted to create a sporty flavour that would add to the car’s appeal amongst the younger fashion conscious buyers it’s targeting. In reality the ride is going to be on the firm side for some tastes and it’s made worse if the larger alloy wheel options are specified. All would be forgiven if the Soul handles with real relish but its high-sided body leans more than we’d like when cornered with vigour and the steering doesn’t have the weight and feel that would inspire confidence. On the plus side, the light helm is ideal for city driving as is the wide field of forward vision. The thick C-Pillars make seeing out of the back more problematic.
Kia has had some success with the Soul’s styling. It looks interesting and has a certain aggression about it thanks to the 4x4-esque flared wheelarches and imposing front end treatment. The rear is also distinctive with the square boot opening indented from the plane of the lights and the bumper. It looks almost as though it should disappear into the roof like a roller shutter with a pull on the handle. The floating roof, courtesy of the blacked-out A and B pillars, is another signature design cue but one that was already widely used by Skoda and Suzuki, so no points of originality there. The interior reveals nothing that might damage Kia’s newfound reputation for solid materials and quality construction. In the basic forms, it’s not particularly flashy but attempts have been made to liven up the look of the fascia and higher spec models bring a more upmarket feel.
The Soul is only a fraction longer than a Ford Fiesta supermini but its boxy dimensions help it trump any supermini you’d care to mention for interior space. The boot has a huge opening, a usefully high loading lip and compartments beneath the floor, while space in the back seats is also plentiful. What the car lacks is the adaptable seating set-up that’s to be found in some rival models.
The Kia Soul range is split between the basic 1 and 2 trim levels and the more extrovert Samba, Shaker and Burner versions. The 1.6-litre CRDi diesel engine can’t be ordered in entry-level 1 trim but all of the other options are open. Even in 2 guise, equipment levels are high with 16" alloy wheels, body-coloured door handles and mirrors, a CD stereo with steering wheel controls, air-conditioning and remote central locking. The up-spec versions show the Soul in something closer to its intended form with various specification and trim enhancements
Kia is even venturing down the personalisation route for the first time. Traditional Kia buyers aren’t usually of the sort who will dip into the options list for a sports body kit or a Union Jack roof graphic and Kia products tend not to lend themselves to that kind of thing anyway but the Soul dares to be different. Kia has shed its usual reserve in offering a collection of bodywork graphics, interior styling features and even ‘eyelashes’ that can be stuck on the headlamps to add some personality. Good idea or not, it certainly isn’t Kia’s usual modus operandi.
Models that can manage to capture the public’s imagination and gain a trendy image can usually rely on firmer residual values than more middle of the road alternatives. Kia will be hoping that the Soul falls into this category but only time will tell. In terms of running costs, the 1.6-litre diesel engine returns a creditable 54mpg on the combined cycle and CO2 emissions of 137g/km which is competitive with rival models and selecting the optional four-speed automatic gearbox doesn’t have too detrimental an effect. Economy of 48mpg and 155g/km is what you get from the self-shifter.
Soul is a difficult thing to endow a car with, particularly a compact and affordable one but the benefits of doing so are not in dispute. Kia is attempting to appeal to younger, more fashion conscious buyers than ever before with its Soul model and to do so, the car needs to be perceived as more James Brown than James Blunt. In the final reckoning, the Soul is a good attempt, especially in 1.6 CRDi form, with the looks and the personalisation options to attract the different demographic that Kia is targeting.
The Soul is a model that, if successful, would prove key in gaining the Korean marque real acceptance in the UK market’s mainstream. It could set the brand up as a manufacturer of inherently desirable cars as well as just affordable ones in the minds of motorists. We’ll see how that one pans out. Overall, 1.6-litre CRDi diesel engine is impressive but the driving experience is less so and there could be a slight hint of the multinational corporation trying a little too hard to get down with the kids. Even so, the Soul is still well worthy of consideration alongside the other small family cars at its price point.