Back in the summer of 2003, after polarizing Japan for three years as the Toyota bB, the defiantly quadrilateral Scion xB polarized America. Those who got it, loved it; those who didn't, definitely didn't. Like it or not, though, the xB birthed a new brand and stoked its youthful target demographic. Fast-forward almost six years, and we prepare to welcome to America the 2010 Kia Soul, a kimchi-flavored take on the xB and, without question, the wackiest thing to come out of Korea since M*A*S*H. It's similar to the xB in size, specification, and price, and it's identical in aim. Can it cause a similar commotion?
To find out, we headed to Seoul for an early drive of the Soul in its homeland. As long as you missed Kia's very happening Soul concept car at the 2006 Detroit show, you're likely to find the production version mostly unobjectionable, maybe even fetching. It's offered in four trim levels: a base edition, the punctuated Soul+ and Soul!, and the top-drawer Soul Sport. The base car gets a 122-hp, 1.6-liter in-line four and a five-speed manual; the rest of the range gets a 142-hp, 2.0-liter four with the stick shift or a four-speed automatic. We sampled only the 2.0-liter/manual combo during our brief outing. So equipped, the Soul exhibited reasonable pep, although engine and road noise could be intrusive.
The car rides on a stretched and stiffened version of the subcompact Rio's platform, with struts up front and a torsion-beam setup in back. Now, admittedly, this bottom-up platform engineering is the chief enabler of the Soul's low, low price (the base car will sticker in the low teens, and even a loaded Sport model is expected to slide in under $20,000). Unfortunately, the Soul's cost-saving conception inflicts it with road manners that aren't too far removed from those of the fairly uncouth Rio. Initial damping has been tightened, but the resultant ride can verge on cruel over imperfect pavement. And although you'd expect such stiffness to pay off in the curves, the Soul's tallish, mini-minivan body wallows and wobbles during spirited driving.
What it lacks in autocross ability, though, the Soul makes up for in customizability. Buyers will pick from colors with names like "Alien" (pictured) and "Java" and from a profusion of dealer add-ons: wheels, decals, and assorted shiny bits. Beyond some mildly eccentric cabin decor options, including a bold red-on-black color scheme and disco-riffic glow-in-the-dark seat fabric, the Soul's fairly spacious interior doesn't fall too far from the Kia tree: glossy and hard but functional and inoffensive.
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. Perhaps because the original Scion xB long ago took the hits (and the praise) for its outlandish box-car style, the Soul's shape doesn't polarize. Getting attention in this segment of the market calls for risk-taking: anticipation, not reaction; innovation, not imitation. The Soul seems downright sensible, and sensible rarely causes a commotion.