Time magazine recently named the Kia Soul one of the 10 most exciting vehicles of 2010. Wow. Either 2010 is shaping up to be a slower year than I imagined or Time magazine needs to get out more. That's not to say the Soul — like the fire-engine red Sport model I sampled last week — doesn't have its virtues. But let's be frank here: "excitement" isn't one of them.
Not to brag, but I drove the Soul before most anybody else, save the lucky few journalists who jetted off to Korea with me back in the summer of 2008 to sample early examples of the car in its homeland. I wrote then that it was "without question, the wackiest thing to come out of Korea since M*A*S*H." I stand by that one to this day; in fact, I'm surprised at how much of my opinion of the Soul hasn't changed. It's still peppy but noisy, over-wrought but user-friendly, and altogether unsurprising — probably because other automakers (okay, one — Scion) created a cubist-inspired economy car a half-dozen years ago.
It looks a bit silly at first, with those big fender arches and quasi-SUV stance, but the Soul's exterior grows on you, really. Well, it grew on me. Except for an oak-tree-sized blind spot over my right shoulder, I appreciated the Soul's exemplary outward visibility and I found good uses for its squared-off cargo area. It reminds of me (in a good way) of the Ford SYNus concept from the 2005 Detroit show (probably reminds some Kia designers of that car, too), and even I see a little Land Rover in that jaunty front fender. Cute. Inside, things are just as wacky; my car had that loony red-on-black color combo, highlighted (literally) by speaker grilles with rings of red LEDs that flicker, disco-style, in time with whatever music is playing (playing Barry Manilow's "Copacabana" is comic gold) or throb hypnotically to match one's mood (provided you're feeling "red" that day). Fortunately, the knob has an "off" position, too. I used it.
Despite its loonier touches, the interior is quite easy to live with. Gauges are all well-placed and cleanly marked, and connecting and using my phone with the Bluetooth system was a breeze. The driving position and the seats themselves were comfy during my 70-mile commute, though the experience was marred by some trim-material choices that seem beyond regrettable. The armrests are simply godawful: The plastic is achingly unforgiving on the elbows, but not so hard that it effectively deflects the nicks and scuffs of everyday use; the door panels on my 10,000-mile press car looked like they'd served time as a cat's scratching post. Kia really needs to take another look there.
Where the company did get it right with the Soul is in the content department. For a mere $18,345 (including a $695 freight and handling charge), my loaded-to-the-gills Soul has a nice stereo with satellite radio, an iPod connector and a USB port; Bluetooth; a power sunroof; and a passel of safety goodies, including ABS, stability control, a tire-pressure-monitoring system, and side and side-curtain airbags. Not bad, really.
"In the end, as with pretty much every Korean car, the Soul's bottom line doubtless will figure more prominently in its appeal than the way the car goes or looks." That's what I wrote back in 2008 and it doubtless holds true today. There's quite a lot of car here for 18 grand. It's not the most timely or the most timeless design, but it's well-equipped and feels well-made. I'm sure it'd be a fine runabout — spacious and reasonably safe and, um,; high-styled — for somebody.