2008 Kia Soul Concepts

The Soul Project is the latest evidence that Kia, which has strong sales in Europe, plans to distinguish itself in the crowded European marketplace with distinctive design. (Note, we didn’t say “pretty” design.) The Korean automaker presented a trio of concepts at Geneva, each with its own “soul”: the Soul Burner, the Soul Diva, and the Soul Searcher. Underneath their wildly different surface treatments, they are the same vehicle, a smaller-than-Sportage urban wagon/crossover. Think first-generation , and you’ve got an idea of the size and the intended buyers.

“We wanted to show how versatile the car is,” says Kia’s worldwide design chief, Peter Schreyer. “The car is meant to evoke a fantasy. The Burner was done more in the bad boy image, while the Diva is for the ladies.” Gregory Guillaume, chief designer for the Kia Design Centre Europe in Frankfurt, Germany, adds that the Soul “is meant to be a blank canvas, with far more opportunities for customization than anything else in our lineup.”

There is nothing subtle about the Soul Burner, whose matte black paint is accented by shiny appliqué s that are meant to evoke dragons. If the bright red trim used on the 19-inch wheels and the lower air intake makes you think of blood, rest assured, that was probably intentional. “This is the car for a guy who wears a tattoo,” says Guillaume. To bare the vehicle’s “soul,” you lift a lid on the center console to see a video image of flames. Oh-kay, then. We get the message.

The Soul Diva has to be one of the tackiest vehicles on the floor at the Geneva show, and that’s saying something. Its metallic white exterior paint would on its own be quite nice, but Kia’s designers also slathered garish gold trim all over the body of the vehicle. Kia says that the nineteen-inch “gold-finished alloy wheels are sure to leave a lasting impression on boulevards and avenues.” We agree: no one will ever forget seeing them, since they are uglier than anything offered on the aftermarket, and the gold door handles look like something you’d see on a discount Chinese car. Inside, the seats are quilted in a heavy gray imitation leather upholstery that is meant to mimic the style of expensive handbags. That conceit does not work. One nice touch is a large glass roof that is engraved with a pattern that matches the stitching in the seats, and in the right light, it casts interesting shadows through the cabin. Lift the console lid here, and the “soul” that you expose is a large image of a glistening diamond. Diamonds are a girl’s best friend, doncha know, and if we’re indulging in every stereotype of female buyers, why not throw in a few more? The floors are carpeted with faux black pony hide, and the interior is adorned with even more gold trim than the exterior. The Kia Soul Diva is a stunningly ugly vehicle and an insult to the intelligence and taste of young women everywhere.

The last of the trio, the Soul Searcher, is far less provocative and far less offensive. “The Searcher is more zen-like,” says Guillaume. “Its ‘soul’ is a drop of water entering a pool. It is meant to be a haven of tranquility.” Done up in light, soothing colors, the Searcher is a sight for the sore eyes that have just seen the Diva. Taupe-colored felt upholstery is used not only for the seats and dash but also for the roll-back roof panel.

A production version of the Soul will debut in September at the Paris Motor Show. We could see some of the features of the Searcher and the Burner making it to production, but Kia ought to send the Diva to the crusher. In any case, we will get some version or versions of the Soul in the U.S. market, probably in 2009.

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