2012 Kia Soul First Drive

Kia builds a better box.

What It Is
The Soul receives some new life with a host of upgrades and a horsepower bump for 2012.
Best Thing
It looks like nothing else on the road and provides plenty of bang for the buck.
Worst Thing
Without options, the interior looks lacking in...soul.
Snap Judgment
Kia sanded down its box's rough edges and made it into a much-improved vehicle for Gen Y and Baby Boomers alike.


"The rattle snakes ain't rattlin' no more 'cause they're afraid the wild hogs are gonna eat 'em."

That was the first thing I can remember hearing once I stepped foot on Texas soil to drive the 2012 Kia Soul. I'll probably remember it until the day I die.

It's a single sentence that, while evocative of many a Texas stereotype, embodies everything you need to know about the Lonestar State: rugged, gritty, and far more country than rock 'n roll. Only one vehicle does justice personifying the Texas spirit: a pickup truck.

A Few Photos of this Vehicle

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Which begs the question: What in the heck was I doing going to Texas to drive the funky, little 2012 Kia Soul then?

Outside of Austin, the so-called hipster capital of Texas, I had the chance go get behind the wheel of the refreshed 2012 Kia Soul. It's a car that's endearing, if not quite cute in the same way a pug is. Kia emphasized the Soul's position in its lineup as a "We" car, designed for active lifestylers who travel in packs, like the hamsters in its commercials. It's a small-on-the-outside, big-on-the-inside testament to rolling deep and rolling in something you're buying as a personal expression, shunning convention. Just like hipsters. Perhaps Austin was a good place to test the car after all.

Coming in three variations -- base, + (Plus), and ! (Exclaim) -- the 2012 Kia Soul has received substantial power upgrades to both of its engine options. The 1.6-liter four-cylinder in the base model makes 138 horsepower--up 16 horsepower from last year--and the 2.0-liter in the Soul + and ! models jumps 22 horses to 164. Prices don't increase significantly for 2012, but fuel economy does, with the 1.6- and 2.0-liter engines both up 4 mpg on the highway.

Initially, the 2012 Kia Soul was supposed to come with an available idle-stop-and-go package that would further improve fuel economy. However, refinement problems with the system (outlined below), made Kia push back its introduction for another model year.

Starting at $14,650, including $750 for destination and handling, the Soul comes equipped with standard air conditioning, power windows, power door locks, and auxiliary jack for an MP3 player among other features. Our tester was a base model equipped with a six-speed automatic transmission, optional floor mats, and the Eco package that upgrades to 16-inch aluminum wheels and adds ISG, pillar-mounted tweeter speakers, and illuminated vanity mirrors, totaling $17,545. We opted for the one of the few 1.6-liter models with ISG to test out the new technology and see if it made any significant improvements to fuel economy. We were surprised with what we found out.

Walkaround

It's a box on wheels. You'd think the description would end there, except there's a lot more to it. Foregoing all but the most basic features, which really weren't that basic, our 2012 Kia Soul tester featured the standard headlights without LED running lights and halogen-bulb tail lamps instead of the LED units found on the top-level Soul !. It had charcoal-colored inserts in the bumper where fog lights would go on the uplevel models. But otherwise, the Soul we drove looked very much like every other model available, a way Kia doesn't punish its customers for opting to go with a lower-spec car. The feature we did miss from the Soul ! we drove was the 18-inch snowflake-pattern alloy wheels, which accentuate the car's looks. Higher-end models also feature projector-beam headlight lenses with blacked-out housings that give the car some sinister appeal. So paying a little extra does have its advantages.

The Soul's style puts it all together in a way that looks more beatnik- cool than trying too hard like some of its rivals. Its blacked-out pillars, flared wheel arches, and a window line give an edgy appeal that somehow defies a price class and defies the fact that you're still basically riding around in an economy car.

Getting Inside

The 2012 Kia Soul is packaged in such a way that optioning up the Soul dramatically improves the interior's look and feel. When packaged with the UVO infotainment and Infinity premium audio systems, the car pounds with aural delight. Speakers mounted in the doors have red rings that light up to complement the stereo's beats. It's more reminiscent of those places you went on Friday nights during your college years than a car you'd take seriously, but if you're buying the Soul to be taken seriously, you're picking the wrong car.

If you're looking at a base Soul, though, such as ours, the festive interior is toned down with none of the flash. In place of the top-mount center speaker that comes with the Infinity sound system, there's a flimsy plastic insert pressed in place to remind you of the fantastic sound system you decided not to order. It looks a little low-class, if not depressing. Still, the Soul comes standard with Bluetooth, inputs for an MP3 player or iPod, satellite radio, power windows, door locks, and a tilt/telescoping steering wheel -- not too shabby for the price of admission. With something of a vaulted ceiling, supportive seats (albeit lacking it lateral bolstering), and deep footwells, the Soul should be commodious for most taller passengers.

Unlike past iterations of the Soul with the "SOUL" pasted all over the interior, any option level you get will be relatively modest. But it's also lost a little of its charm along with it. It's capacious, capable, and comfortable. But if you don't bother to get the thumping sounds, beating lights, and slightly upgraded interior amenities, it just lacks, well, a little bit of soul.

A Few Photos of this Vehicle

Click thumbnails for detailed view

Driving

Disclaimer: We didn't drive the Soul lightly. In fact, we floored it with vengeance for the better part of an afternoon after thinking we had missed a chance to win a fuel economy contest with other journalists. We got lost in Texas backcountry earlier in the day when we drove the 2012 Kia Rio 5-door and needed to catch up quickly, destroying our average fuel economy during the first leg. So when we got into the Soul, we pushed it much harder than the Rio, thinking of hypermiling futility all the while.

But as one of only two cars equipped with both the ISG system and the 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine in Kia's press fleet, we eked out 30.9 mpg -- the best figure any of the two-dozen teams had achieved all day. It beat out the EPA's combined rating by almost 1 mpg, meaning we could have done much better had we driven the car more gingerly. But our miserly Soul wasn't without its hiccups.

And this is why ISG got delayed by a year. On the prototype vehicle we drove, there was one instance where the car did not start up when pressing the gas pedal. After taking my foot off the pedal and putting it back on, the car regained its composure and started up. That still didn't change the fact that a large truck came a bit close for comfort as I merged onto another road. Kia said it was an early off-the-line model, but coupled with other drivability problems experienced by others--and eager to avoid bad press -- the company decided to delay implementation until this fall.

Otherwise, the car was pleasant, with limited road or engine noise making its way inside the Soul. That's especially impressive with its less-than-wind-slicing shape.

Around the winding roads of Texas State Parks, the Soul also shined. Its steering proved light and easy enough to use. The suspension felt buttoned to the road, absorbing imperfections without shuddering or bucking over every bump. With its wheels pushed out toward the corners, the car felt like it could go well beyond the level we were pushing it without much hassle. It not a sports car by any stretch, but as cars go, our Soul held its own on twisty roads and still returned excellent fuel economy.

Summary

In a class alongside the sedate Scion xB and the polarizing Nissan Cube, the Kia Soul comes out looking like a strong contender for the ideal garage sale relic hauling device. Just fold down its rear bench seat, and watch it engulf almost anything your parents or grandparents could ever imagine. Or, if you're on the other end of the generational buying spectrum, substitute old furniture for a set of bikes or band equipment. It's best when sampled as an urban cruiser with a pumping stereo and a few friends along for the ride.

It's a car we'd like to sample again, perhaps in a more highly optioned package instead of our base model. Our car's dearth of options left us with a time to check out our surroundings: the Texas landscape, unlike any other with its rustic Southern charm and cheap gas prices.

But when we landed at LAX and reality tagged back in, we recognized the truth of our daily commute: a passionless concrete maze we only tolerate out of necessity. Looking at the intended function of the Soul we drove, it's hard to argue against most of it. But with a vastly better Infinity audio system available in a nicer interior that comes with it, we're sure that while our base Soul fits the country well enough, a Soul ! would be much more at home in the big city.

Basic Specs

2012 Kia Soul Base: $14,650 (six-speed manual), $16,450 (six-speed automatic); 138-horsepower 1.6-liter four-cylinder; 27 mpg city/35 mpg hwy (29 mpg city/36 mpg hwy w/ISG)
2012 Kia Soul +: $17,050 (six-speed manual), $18,050 (six-speed automatic); 164-horsepower 2.0-liter four-cylinder; 26 mpg city/34mpg hwy (27 mpg city/35 mpg hwy w/ISG)
2012 Kia Soul ! : $20,350; 164-horsepower 2.0-liter four-cylinder; 26 mpg city/34 mpg hwy

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