The Kia Soul has such a great, funky shape that is both compact and cavernous, without looking like a box-on-wheels like its competition. The 1.6-liter I-4 is peppy and spunky and is a hoot to use around town. Sadly, equipped with the automatic transmission and start/stop system like this example, the fun ends there. The transmission is hesitant to downshift and loves to shift up to sixth gear as quickly as it can to save fuel. Speaking of saving fuel, the big draw of the $1000 eco package is the start/stop system, which is surprisingly crude. At a stoplight, the engine shudders to a stop; upon releasing the brake pedal, the engine turns over - causing a dip in the battery's amperage and dimming the headlights, then releases the brakes causing the car to jolt forward. While the engine is off, the heater doesn't seem all that willing to heat, either. The fact that this Soul seemed so soulless was sad to me, as the regular Soul with the six-speed manual transmission is a quite fun city runabout that I have recommended to several people.
Donny Nordlicht, Associate Web Editor
I was supposed to drive the Mini Coupe but made a trade for the Kia Soul because I had volunteered to drive two of my friends to our monthly book club meeting. They were quite impressed by the size of the accommodations, especially since the Soul looks so small from the outside. The rear seats have plenty of legroom, and one of the women remarked that her husband, who is well over six feet tall and has a hard time finding cars with enough headroom, would have no problem sitting up tall in the Soul. In addition, you can fold the rear seats and have a decent-size cargo area (53.4 cu ft) to haul bulky items.
The start/stop function in this Soul isn't exactly seamless, but then again, neither is Mercedes-Benz's system. If I were in the market for a Soul, I'd probably forgo the Eco package and opt for the larger 2.0-liter engine and its 164 hp. You'd sacrifice a couple miles per gallon but still get 26/34 mpg.
Amy Skogstrom, Managing Editor
The basic idea behind the Idle Stop & Go (ISG) system fitted to this Kia Soul is excellent: a car idling while stopped achieves 0 mpg, so it makes sense to turn off the engine. However, I am somewhat skeptical as to how much fuel this stop/start system actually saves, because its operation is constrained in several ways. For one, ISG is active only once the engine coolant comes up to temperature, which meant the system never once shut down the engine on my short morning commute. Moreover, the engine cannot stay off for too long or the accessories (headlights, radio, wipers, etc) will drain the battery excessively. I found that the engine typically restarted itself after about thirty seconds, even though I waited at some red lights for one minute or more.
A night of stop-and-go driving around Ann Arbor netted me 26 mpg, according to the trip computer, which is respectable but less than the EPA rating of 29 mpg. And, as others have mentioned, the system produces a noticeable shudder when the engine restarts. Still, I firmly believe engine stop/start systems are a simple, easy way for urban commuters to save fuel. As ISG gets rolled out to other Kia vehicles, I expect the system will become more seamless.
Jake Holmes, Associate Web Editor
A lot of people really like the styling of the Kia Soul and other boxy small cars such as the Nissan Cube, the Scion xB, and the Honda Element. Personally, I'm not such a big fan of how these cars look. Nonetheless, I could totally see myself buying one for the simple fact that they're so useful. In that way, they're almost like minivans -- not the best-looking cars on the road but hard to ignore if you've got a family and/or stuff to move. Their generous rear-seat head- and legroom, versatile interiors, and compact packaging make them easier to park and cheaper to operate than any minivan (with the possible exception of the Mazda 5).
The Kia Soul is just as good as the other aforementioned boxy cars, and the silver paint of our tester plays down its funky looks, which I appreciate. I don't, however, appreciate the overboosted, unnatural-feeling steering. At least the Soul is comfortable and fairly peppy in a straight line, and it doesn't heel over completely when you toss it into a corner. The biggest advantage of a car like this versus a minivan, though, is the availability of a manual transmission, so I was disappointed that our test car had an automatic, and the start/stop system is mediocre.
Rusty Blackwell, Copy Editor
Although its outward appearance lends comparisons to the Nissan Cube and the Scion xB, the Soul feels very different than those vehicles from behind the wheel. In the Cube and xB, the near-vertical windshields and somewhat awkward interior proportions make you acutely aware than you are driving a tall box. In the Soul, the slightly raked windshield, higher seating position, and central storage console between the front seats make it feel more like driving a small SUV/crossover and less like driving a box on wheels.
On the road though, this eco-package-equipped Soul leaves much to be desired. If you mainly drive in urban environments and you put fuel mileage above all else, the negatives of the stop/start system -- rough and slow transitions, and the ability to operate only for short periods of time -- could be worth the incremental improvement in economy. Otherwise, it might be wise to wait until the system is refined a bit more.
Jennifer Misaros, Managing Editor, Digital Platforms
I attended the launch for the car back in 2009, and recall the skepticism that greeted the little Kia and its odd, hamster-based advertising campaign. Mind you, this was at the very beginning of the product onslaught that transformed Hyundai/Kia from an afterthought to a juggernaut. Three years later, it's hard to argue with the Soul's success: Kia sold a spectacular 102,267 of them in 2011. To put that in perspective, Scion sold 17,017 XBs during the same period.
Thankfully, that hasn't stopped Kia from making improvements. For 2012, the Soul received two upgraded powertrains. The base 1.6-liter is still no hot hatch (the optional 2.0-liter and its 164 hp nearly qualify), but should be more than sufficient for the buyer who wants style on the cheap. As my colleague Amy Skogstrom notes, our complaints about the refinement of the start/stop system could also be directed at far more expensive vehicles. For a $17,595 car meant to live in cities, it's a nice addition.
The aesthetic changes to the front bumper and headlights are so slight as to be unnoticeable, which is fine since the Soul remains cute even if it's no longer novel. The car's biggest appeal for me remains that there's actually a comfortable, useful, and decent driving car under that appealing exterior.
David Zenlea, Assistant Editor