Some may remember when “boxy” was an automotive insult, hurled at Chrysler K-cars and old Volvos. Lately, though, boxy is foxy, or at least trendy.
Credit the sea change to the original Scion xB (which was a hit with its hipster target), with an assist from the Honda Element (which aimed at the same buyers, but largely missed). The first xB was so well-received that when it came time to remake its rather ordinary-looking sibling, the xA, into the all-new xD, Scion embraced the xB aesthetic completely, resulting in a boxed set of small Scion hatchbacks. Unfortunately, neither the xD nor the new, second-generation xB has same Tokyo cool as the original xB, as both are thicker and pudgier by comparison.
With the Koreans now copying the Japanese as ardently as the Japanese used to copy the Americans, it isn’t terribly surprising to see the new Kia Soul flatteringly imitate the Scions. And just recently, we’ve seen the arrival of the aptly named Nissan Cube, which proudly dons the mantle of Japanese-market strangeness formerly worn by the xB.
As to the Soul, it follows in the tire tracks of the other hatchboxes in several key ways. First of all, it’s cheap, starting at $13,995. Secondly, there’s tons of passenger space inside, particularly headroom; if Justin Timberlake touches off a new trend of guys wearing top hats, Soul owners will be ready. Third, the cabin has cool mood lighting (the door speakers can flash to the beat of the stereo) and glow-in-the-dark upholstery, the better to distract occupants from the cheap hard plastic everywhere. Finally, the Soul is a far better as a funky style statement and mobile party lounge than it is as a car. Although the 2.0-liter four makes a respectable 142 hp (the base car’s 1.6-liter musters 122 hp), the engine drones. And matched to an automatic transmission with only a four speeds, it feels slow. The ride is pretty good over mottled pavement, but plentiful body roll—not surprising from a taller body riding on what is essentially a Rio chassis—takes the fun out of corners (the top-of-the-line Sport model has firmer suspension tuning).
But as Scion has proven, young hipsters don’t seem to care about those things. Perhaps the subtleties of a responsive engine and a well-tuned chassis are lost on you when you’re steering with your knees while you’re driving with both thumbs on your smart phone.
Kia Soul Plus automatic Base price $15,900 As tested $17,795 2.0L I-4, 142 hp, 137 lb-ft front-wheel drive 24/30 mpg