Driven: 2010 Kia Soul Sport

By Steven J. Ewing

March 12, 2009

—Miami, Florida

When an automaker launches a new vehicle, there’s usually a lot of corporate enthusiasm built in. All of the engineers, executives, and public relations people get really excited about their latest and greatest offering, and in turn, they hope that the automotive press feels that excitement, too. The Kia people are no different in this regard but, given the automaker’s rather bland current lineup, it’s been harder for them to sell it.

Kia executives seemed to recognize that their current line doesn’t offer any sort of heart-throbbing passion, but they have big plans to completely turn the tables over the next few years, starting with the introduction of the 2010 Soul which we recently had the chance to experience first-hand on the sun-drenched streets of Miami.

We’ve said before that the Kia Soul, in a way, picks up where the original Scion xB left off. The new Scion is much larger (heavier) and it has lost a lot of its youthful charm. Kia says that the Soul “redefines the box,” and it’s using words like “cool” and “urban” in reference to their Generation Y-oriented vehicle. In fact, during our product briefing, there was an entire segment dedicated to explaining who the Gen Y market is. (Your author, at twenty-three years old, did not need to take notes during this part of the presentation.)

Our Soul Sport test car is powered by a 2.0-liter four—a slightly revised version of the engine found in the outgoing Spectra. Power has been boosted to 142 horsepower and 137 pound-feet of torque, which provides ample oomph in this 2800-pound vehicle. A five-speed manual transmission comes standard, though a four-speed automatic is optional. Neither transmission is particularly enthusiastic, but we much prefer the five-speed unit, as it allows us to make better use of the high-strung horsepower. Gear engagement is solid, but the soupy gearbox is a bit lackluster to use. Still, it’s worlds better than the automatic unit, which feels really uninspired. There isn’t a whole lot of power delivered in the low end of each gear, and we found ourselves having to rev high in third and fourth to quickly accelerate to highway cruising speeds. Initial acceleration is decently quick, and there’s plenty of power on tap for bobbing through city traffic, but highway passing situations are not the Soul’s forte.

Soul 2The Sport comes standard with eighteen-inch wheels and a stiffened suspension, which means it’s actually quite a pleasant little car to motor around in. Combined with the Kia’s wide track, the Soul is firm and planted on the road and we were pleased with the amount of suspension damping over rough stretches of pavement. Miami’s busy city streets didn’t allow us much of a chance to throw the Soul around, but even during quick lane change maneuvers and tight turns, the car never once felt top-heavy with very little amounts of body roll. The Soul’s brakes are a bit soft and we noticed ourselves having to stomp deeper into the middle pedal to avoid rear-ending other motorists.

We were quite impressed with how engaging the Soul’s steering is, as we’ve experienced one too many counts of overboosted steering from other Hyundai/Kia products, as well as the Scion xB. The Soul’s helm is a nice diameter and a good thickness, though we wish that the wheel would telescope as well as tilt—a feature which more cars in this segment need to have. Even so, inputs are direct and on-point, adding to the Kia’s overall feeling of nimble agility on the road.

Kia hit a home run with the Soul’s interior. High-quality materials feel solid and we didn’t notice any clunkiness from the glove box, door trim, or dash panels. The Sport model comes standard with a two-tone red and black interior color scheme, which not only looks sporty and youthful, but is worlds better than the cabin of a Scion xB or Nissan Cube. What’s more, the Soul offers more legroom, more hiproom, and much more passenger volume than both the Scion and Nissan, though overall cargo capacity is a bit unimpressive. Useful storage spaces are housed beneath the cargo floor, and the rear seats nearly fold flat, but the smaller Honda Fit still offers more total cargo capacity.

Soul 3The Soul features some optional kitschy quirks like illuminated speakers which can be programmed to light up at different intervals, but be prepared for a raft of dealer-installed aftermarket accessories, such as body kits, roof rails, and suspension upgrades. Kia has no plans to offer performance parts at the moment, but we wouldn’t be surprised if some small turbo kits crop up in the tuning market.

The bottom line here is that the Soul is a big step forward for the folks at Kia, but it’s not life-changing. Consumers who want a quirky design, great warranty, and fantastic interior will be very happy with the Soul. And don’t forget about the laundry list of safety features—it is a Kia, after all. True enthusiasts may be disappointed with the milquetoast powertrain, but we still find it to be a more engaging drive than the heavier Scion.

Kia has high hopes for not only this car, but future offerings like the Forte, Forte Coupe, and next-generation Sportage. And while it knows that it will take time to turn around the brand’s image, the folks in charge have more enthusiasm than we’ve ever seen before. A line from the Soul product presentation best sums up the automaker’s future hopefulness: “Just think: It might actually be come cool to own a Kia.”


Engine: Inline-4, 2.0 liters, 16v
Output: 142 hp/137 lb-ft
Transmission: Five-speed manual
Weight: 2800 lb
Fuel Economy, city/hwy: 24/30 mpg
Base price: $16,950
Price as Tested: $18,345