The 2012 Kia Soul boasts new engines and fresh styling. The Soul is an inexpensive box-shaped runabout aimed ay Gen Y but perfectly suitable for anyone young at heart. Youthful styling ranks high with these buyers, but so do fuel economy, daily practicality, useful standard features like Bluetooth, and good warranty protection.
Lest the Soul doesn't stand out enough for you Kia offers plenty of personalization, with many accessories and ways to attach your identity to your Soul. Their goal with the Soul is to stand out in a sea of sameness, though the basic shape goes some way to that end.
Kia makes no pretenses about what the Soul is: a car. It's not a compact utility, aka cute-ute, SUV, crossover or van. The mechanical basis of the Soul is similar to a small sedan, and no all-wheel or four-wheel drive is offered.
For 2012, the styling has been freshened.
The big news for the 2012 Kia Soul, however, is under the hood. Two new engines are the same size as their predecessors but deliver more horsepower: 138 hp for the 1.6-liter (up from 122) and 164 hp for the 2.0-liter (up from 142). New transmissions help improve mileage by 1-4 mpg whether automatic or manual, to 27/35 mpg for the 1.6-liter and 26/34 mpg for the 2.0-liter.
Pricing for the Soul has increased because of the new engines and transmissions and we think the upgrades worth it. The base Soul uses the 1.6-liter engine with manual transmission; an automatic adds $1,800 because other equipment is included. The 1.6 is a viable alternative, offering the power of last year's 2.0-liter, but a Soul with the 2.0-liter manual is just $600 more than the base Soul automatic, and many buyers will find the slight mpg and cost penalties well worth it.
We found the Soul felt nimble and light, fun to drive. The lines are smooth and stylish, for a box, and the interior is notably clean and functional. Standard equipment includes six airbags, ABS, and electronic stability control to help keep you safe. The Sport model has been dropped for 2012 but this leaves no hole in the lineup.
The Kia Soul looks like it's wearing a pair of wraparound sunglasses. Because the rear windows are narrower than the front windows, there appears to be a downward rearward slope to the roof, but it's an illusion achieved by the rising beltline below the windows. There's a final and small third side window, an upside-down wedge to complete the shape.
Bold chiseled wheel arches give the Soul strength. The corners are nicely rounded, erasing the hard corners of a box. The grille is small and tidy, the Soul's mouth no bigger than needed to suck in air for the engine, and the new bumper look is called tusk in-house. The front lighting elements are new and remain stylish, even moreso on the Soul! model that includes LED running lamps and projector headlamps.
A black horizontal ding strip on the doors doesn't do much for cleanliness, but adds to the strong straight-line styling and it serves a function. The 16- and 18-inch alloy wheels are larger than often available in this size and class of car.
Big vertical taillamps climb the rear pillars and project a feeling of safety. With the wraparound look for 2012 it's easy to draw a relation between the lights and the ears of a hamster like those in Soul commercials. The liftgate and rear window are clean and smooth (and darkly cool when tinted), with an indented handle under a Kia oval logo and a stylish chrome Soul badge off to the side. All get the tusk bumper design, and the Soul! model has LED taillamps.
Everything inside the Soul is simple, clean and functional, a handsome and ergonomic layout. The cloth is solid, more than basic but never an assault on your senses. Closer to the edge is the black-and-beige houndstooth-like upholstery on the seat inserts of the Soul!
There is one trick option that's a hit with young drivers and drivers-to-be: the throbbing-to-the-beat rim of colored lights around the speakers in the door. It seems a little out of place when listening to talk radio, however. This light can be turned on and off and you can program the way it reacts to sound. It's amusing in traffic jams.
The front bucket seats are comfortable, good for long trips, and the interior vinyl and cloth trim is fine. There are bottle holders in the front door pockets plus cupholders in the console with its own deep compartment, a huge two-level glovebox, map nets on the front seatbacks, a trap-door compartment on the dash (that's molded so things don't slide around), and grab handles over every door. There are auxiliary audio, iPod, and USB port connections, and two 12-volt outlets.
It has a nice steering wheel, with the usual standard controls the same colors as most cell phones. The three-ring instrument panel looks clean and uses an eave so the gauges are readable in the sun. The new center stack is modest with business-like knobs and buttons, changed primarily to accommodate the revised shifter and UVO/Microsoft entertainment system that includes a rear camera. Air conditioning proved very effective.
The front seats offer plenty of room, including a full hand space over the head of six-plus-footers. In the rear seat legroom is the pinch point but it'll be fine for kids or four friends of average height.
The liftgate is light and pops up easily. The 60/40 rear seats drop flat in a heartbeat. There's an excellent compartment under the trunk floor, and below that a space-saver spare tire. Figure 19 cubic feet of space behind the seat, about four under the floor, and 53 cubic feet with the back seat folded.
The Soul is nimble and fun to drive. We drove Souls with the 2.0-liter engine and 6-speed automatics primarily. We didn't get any seat time in the base model with the 1.6-liter engine but given that it's almost as powerful as last year's 2-liter, the car is no heavier, and the transmissions now have more gears, fewer people should feel the need to step up to the + or ! for mechanical reasons.
Both engines get direct injection for 2012, adding high-end power without using any more fuel most of the time. The 2.0-liter engine makes 164 horsepower at 6500 rpm with a good 148 pound feet of torque peaking at a fairly high 4800 rpm. This is more than adequate in a 2,700-pound car and the Soul can keep up with traffic easily; many V8-powered full-size SUVs aren't demonstrably quicker. It does require a serious prod with your right foot to force a downshift for passing or merging, but does so quickly and upshifts in steps as appropriate.
The automatic's shifter has up/down manual control to the left of the D position, handy for long descents or constant elevation changes. We found nothing to suggest the six-speed manual shifter and clutch aren't at least as good as the outgoing five-speed; choosing the automatic over it would most likely be due to packaging and option limitations with the manual.
Following the 2012's debut Kia plans to offer an option on automatics of ISG. This stands for idle stop and go in which the car automatically turns the engine off at stops and restarts it when you lift your foot off the brake to prepare to move again. We sampled this in 1.6-liter Kia Rio models and found it works as advertised, the first time it functioned my driver didn't even notice. It also nets a 1 mpg increase in city EPA ratings; if you spend a lot of time sitting in traffic you may realize greater gains.
Either engine has sufficient power to have traction control reign in tire spin in exuberant driving or sharp turn starts on wet surfaces. No all-wheel drive system is offered nor is it needed. With the majority of its weight over the drive wheels and a lightweight package, a set of winter tires will get you through the neighborhood better than many heavy four-wheel drives.
The power steering is hydraulic rather than electric, and has a nice light but not vague feel. It makes the whole car feel lighter, and it responds to driver input well. Don't expect it to feel like a sports car, but then it's not intended to.
The suspension is good, compliant, okay over speed bumps, and not once did we hit anything that produced any jarring or bashing impacts. It's not sophisticated and will transmit some bumps on rough roads, but you won't find anything noticeably better for $13,000, nor will you upset your passengers. Brakes are all-disc on all models and we found them firm and solid in the wet or dry.
The Kia Soul offers drive-it-and-forget it simplicity (and warranty), four-door upright hatchback versatility, it's easy on gas and the wallet, and its styling still has personality five years on. It will appeal to many ages for the same, and different reasons. It is easy to drive and great fun in urban settings because of its nimble size, driver position and view, and responses. If it has any vices we have been unable to find them.
Reporting for NewCarTestDrive.com by Sam Moses in Miami and G.R. Whale in South Korea.