I can't believe I'm writing this - but I really liked the new Kia Soul.
And I'm talking about the "Burner" version, with pulsing-red, multi-mode, mood lamp speaker enclosures, bright red dash, steering wheel boss, seat inserts and digital displays and styling that must owe at least some its inspiration to a full-face motorcycle helmet.
Wow, where did this one come from? At a guess, right out of left field at a ch'ajon-nori match - the traditional Korean game in which teams carry wood and rice-straw dongchae ("boats") and ram them into each other until one falls over.
I can envision a similar clash taking place in Kia's boardroom between the remaining traditionalists - guys in conservatively cut dark suits who signed off on cars like the big, soft and chrome-y Amanti sedan - and a hip group of newly empowered young execs, designers and marketers - the latter responsible for cars like the neat little Rio5 hatch, the clever Rondo mini-minivan, the kind of classy Forte Koup and now the edgy new-for-2010 Soul.
Whether anybody was actually left upside down in a cloud of rice straw dust, or the old guard simply bowed to the inevitable, doesn't really matter. What does is that Kia has moved from being a cautious newcomer presenting an inoffensive and unimaginative lineup of vehicles sold mainly on price to a bold design innovator with the Soul.
So far the best other companies have come up with to attract young urban buyers looking for something unconventionally "out there" has been Honda's ugly Element, the clumsy cubist Toyota Scion xB and the clunky Nissan Cube.
But the Soul, while playing essentially the same game, has not only a unique style, but one that, judging by sidewalk responses, has very real appeal that reaches across a number of age groups. I've attracted less attention driving a $200,000-plus Rolls-Royce than the $20K-something Soul. Not to mention more smiles.
And it also comes with an interior that shows imagination can in large part outweigh lavish expenditure in creating an interesting look.
Kia calls the Soul an "urban passenger vehicle" and its design is an amalgam of Korean, Californian and European design team notions of what young city dwellers might think is way cool, but also practical. I think Kia aced the "cool" part, and it hasn't done too badly in delivering practicality either.
The price is certainly practical, starting at $15,495 for the base, 1.6-litre-engined model, stepping up to $17,995 for the 2.0-litre-motored 2u, $19,995 for the well-equipped 4u and topping out at $22,195 for the 4u Burner with automatic transmission that I tested.
The five-door bodywork (with rear hatch) is sensible as well. The Soul is built on a version of the platform underpinning the Rio subcompact, but at 4,100 mm it's 110 mm longer, stretching out a bit more than Honda's Fit and making it awkward to slot into either the subcompact or compact category.
There's plenty of room inside for two couples - or a couple of kids in back. But with a bit of abracadabra seat folding, the rear compartment turns into a packing crate with a volume of 1,511 litres. A Toyota Matrix offers 1,359 litres and the bigger-box Honda Element 2,112 litres.
The Burner tested was bone white on the outside, which made its wraparound greenhouse "visor" - enhanced by blacked-out pillars - even more dramatic. Burners also come with sunroof, rear spoiler, unique bumpers and 18-inch wheels.
When you pull open the door, you're hit square in the retinas by the bright-red dash top, steering wheel boss and seat inserts. It sounds garish, but somehow, well, isn't. Just fun - if kind of weird.
That could also be said of the large round speakers mounted in each door, which pulse a dull red in response to a "mood" control on the dash that let's you adjust their brightness and sensitivity. Those of a certain age may recall the small blue lights some fitted to make groping around in the dark a little less awkward.
Quality touches include an LED-backlit gauge cluster, steering-wheel audio controls and Bluetooth connectivity. There's also air conditioning with air filter, upgradeable CD audio system with Aux and USB input jacks, external temp gauge, power windows and mirrors, remote keyless entry, cruise control, heated seats, driver's seat armrest, leather-wrapped wheel and shift knob.
The safety kit includes front, side and side curtain airbags, ABS disc brakes and electronic stability and traction control.
The Soul's 2.0-litre, twin-cam four-cylinder engine makes a useful 142 hp at 6,000 rpm and peak torque of 137 lb-ft at 4,600 rpm. A five-speed manual is standard, powering the front wheels, with a four-speed automatic optional.
With the latter, drivability in traffic is fine, with good initial acceleration. Foot on the floor, second gear will take you quickly enough to highway speeds (where it cruises quietly enough) and, once there, a quick downshift to third will provide plenty of passing performance. Fuel economy isn't bad at 8.5 L/100 km city and 6.6 highway.
Despite having a "sport"-tuned suspension and P225/45 R18 in tires, handling isn't the Soul's forte. It feels fairly firmly sprung but under-damped and it's tall-ish and minivan ponderous, although the power steering feel is okay.
No evil traits revealed themselves, however, and this isn't a vehicle you're going to buy to carve up a country road. Ride over busted-up urban streets is a bit jarring, not helped by that low-profile rubber.
As a trendy-looking around-towner, frugal-enough commuter or family vehicle, the Soul would be well worth a look.
2010 KIA SOUL 4u BURNER
Type: Compact hatchback
Base Price: $19,995; as tested, $22,195
Engine: 2.0-litre, DOHC, inline-four
Horsepower/torque: 142 hp/ 137 lb-ft
Transmission: Four-speed manual
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 8.5 city/6.6 highway; regular gas
Alternatives: Nissan Versa, Toyota Yaris, Chevrolet Aveo, Honda Fit or larger compacts such as Ford Focus, Mitsubishi Lancer, Volkswagen Golf, Honda Civic, Subaru Impreza, Chevrolet Cobalt, Mazda3, Kia Spectra, Hyundai Elantra
- Novel exterior styling
- Outrageously fun interior
- Good performance and economy
- Plenty of equipment for the money
- Handling is a bit clumsy and won't appeal to an enthusiast and the ride is a bit hard