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What I think: 2012 Kia Soul

26 Nov

The mid-cycle refresh is a proven way for an automaker to prop up flagging interest in a car that’s been on the market for three or four years. A nip here, a tuck there and a few new features, perhaps, are good at helping revive interest in an existing design that’s losing traction to newer models in the sales race.

It’s a good thing for automotive writers, too, as it often gives us an opportunity to revisit a car that we haven’t driven since it was introduced. We can always go back and read what we wrote about a car three years ago, but it’s tough to recall the nuances that led us to those opinions.

That’s the situation with me and the Kia Soul. I drove one in 2009, just after its launch as a 2010 model. The fast-moving auto industry has changed a lot since then, so the 2012 Soul gets some updates in an effort to keep it current.

Key among them, two new engines: 1.6- and 2.0-litre four-cylinders that replace a pair of power plants of the same displacement. Both are more powerful: the 1.6 (the same one used in the Kia Rio and Hyundai Accent) makes 138 hp, up from 122, and the 2.0-litre (known as “Nu”) gets a 22-horsepower boost to 164. Six-speed manual and automatic transmissions replace the old five-speed stick and four-speed auto.

Style updates, inside and out, are minor. You have to look hard to find the differences on the outside; inside, functional changes are limited to a new automatic shifter and climate controls. The matte silver (so bright it’s almost white) trim on the doors, steering wheel and console is new. It looks good in photos, less so in person. However, much of the dash is made up of decent-looking plastics that feel a small cut above the norm in small cars.

It’s immediately clear that the new 2.0-litre is an improvement over last year’s. It’s a smoother runner and generally seems more refined. The extra power is obvious, too. The 2.0-litre 2010 I tested was no slouch, but this one was noticeably sprightlier. Don’t be surprised to get an earful from the engine room at full-throttle, though; the new motor makes nicer noises, but lots of them still get into the cabin.

The six-speed automatic transmission has its own obvious benefits. Its more closely-spaced ratios contribute to this car’s improved straight-line performance. Kia has done good work toning down its cars’ throttle tip-in (which is to say, the gas pedal is less sensitive), and the Soul benefits here too. A new feature is Kia’s Active Eco drive mode, which further reduces throttle sensitivity and forces the transmission to upshift as early as possible. It lasted 10 minutes with me; I don’t mind the duller responses to my right foot, but I do mind the way it makes the transmission constantly second-guess itself during acceleration, especially on hills. Inevitably, the car would make it to third or fourth gear and then have to downshift again to get the car to the speed I wanted.

Fuel consumption is rated at 7.9/5.9 L/100 km (city/highway) with the automatic transmission (down from 8.5 and 6.6 in 2010), but I suspect the Soul is the victim of Natural Resources Canada’s unrealistic testing guidelines; in cool mid-November weather, I saw 10 L/100 km in city driving and 8.3 on the highway, at speeds between 100 and 120 km/h. (The 2010 I drove in the summer of 2009 averaged 9.5 in the city, and 7.9 on the highway.)

Despite its updated styling, this new Soul rides on the same last-generation Kia Rio underpinnings, so its over-the-road manners aren’t as suave as those of Kia and Hyundai’s latest subcompacts. The suspension transmits lots of noise into the cabin on rough roads, and the ride gets twitchy on broken pavement. Some credit where it’s due: in spite of its “sport-tuned” designation, my tester’s suspension delivered terrific ride comfort over the worst roads I travel on a regular basis. In fact, this is one of the rare vehicles that, in my opinion, could stand a firmer ride; the soft springs made hitting the rear suspension bump stops an easy thing to do when I loaded the car up with four adults and a baby for a day trip.

Interior space continues to be a strong point. The high roof creates loads of headroom all around, and rear-seat legroom is generous for a car with a tidy 2,550 mm (100 in.) wheelbase. A driver’s seat armrest comes standard in all models with the automatic transmission, but a matching one for the front passenger would be a nice touch.

Cargo space measures out to 546 litres (19.3 cu. ft.) behind the rear seats, or 1,511 (53.4 cu. ft.) with the seat folded. Those figures nearly rival the larger Scion xB’s cargo capabilities, and the Soul far outdoes the Nissan Cube. The only things that detract from the Soul’s utility are the not-quite-flat fold of the rear seats, and the narrow cargo opening. The lightweight tailgate is a cinch to pull closed.

The 2012 model’s trim levels carry over from 2011, starting with the basic 1.6 model, moving up through the 2U, and topping out with the 4U.

In 4U form, like the one Kia sent me to try out, the Soul comes with sharp-looking 18-inch wheels, leather-trimmed steering wheel and shifter, sunroof, body-coloured bumpers and a sport-tuned suspension. Choose the automatic transmission as Kia did on our behalf, and the pot is further sweetened with a driver’s seat armrest, cruise control, UVO voice-activated media integration, backup camera, upgraded sound system and kinky “SoulSpeaker” mood lamps. This is in addition to the usual boatload of standard kit you’re used to seeing in Kia vehicles; the basic Soul comes with four-wheel disc brakes, power locks, windows and mirrors, trip computer, fog lights, Bluetooth, heated front seats and side mirrors and a telescoping steering column. The Soul’s base MSRP is $16,595; one like my tester is worth $22,695, before freight.

Notable is the pending arrival (partway through the 2012 model year) of a 1.6 ECO version that, equipped with the automatic transmission, will get an idle-stop-and-go (ISG) setup that will turn the engine off at stoplights. That should make Kia a North American trendsetter for the use of this technology in a non-hybrid car. I’d suggest waiting for it; the 1.6-litre will be plenty of engine for this little box-on-wheels, and its reduced fuel consumption would go some way to fixing what I think is the Soul’s biggest flaw.

This review was originally published at Autos.ca.

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