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Kia ups its image by baring its Soul

Kia sees Soul as not just a new offering, but an image changer.

It’s hip to be square.

That’s what Kia wants Canadians to think about the 2010 Soul five-door now in dealerships across the country.

Kia sees Soul as not just a new offering, but an image changer.

Soul is one of the new breed of vehicles that are high on content, high on style, low on price and, well, square.

It’s basically a small box for the engine and drivetrain attached to a bigger box for people.

But what a box!

Inside the cabin can be found Bluetooth connectivity, seat inserts that glow in the dark and illuminated speakers that pulse with the music.

Equipped with everything available like power roof, ABS with stability control, outrageous “Burner” interior trim and spider-spoke alloy wheels, you can’t pay more than $22,195. In fact, pricing starts at $15,495.

The box on wheels is not new. All cars of the 1920s were slab-sided. Post WWII technology that allowed large metal panels to be shaped and stamped took over except for generations of panel trucks which is what the Soul essentially is.

The first time I noticed a return to packing as many people and techno goodies into one compact, square-sided package was at the 1999 Tokyo Motor Show with the Honda Fuya-jo concept designed for “urban night cruising” and the Neukom as a multi-purpose commuter concept that morphed into the Honda Element.

The first to capitalize on this concept of people moving was Scion, a division of Toyota that has been selling the xB in the U.S. for years and is coming to Canada in 2009. Expected next is the Nissan Cube which describes it perfectly.

Kia does not see Soul as a niche product like Nissan and Toyota do with Scion and Cube. For years their economy cars could be best described as cheap and cheerful, not the image any car company wants in these hyper competitive times.

Thus Soul is not just aimed at a broader customer base but is designed to show Kias can still be affordable but now have sizzle.

Kia describes the overall design as “tough not rough.” It looks very urban, very “now” from any angle. For instance, the rear taillights are set high but they protrude out slightly from the body instead of being flush like a Mazda5 or a Volvo wagon. The grille is what Kia calls its “tiger mouth” design, but I see it as more pug-nosed with attitude. The wheels have truly been pushed out to the four corners. Most Pacific Rim cars these days are narrow and tall to maximize interior volume. This is true of the Soul, but the boxy shape hides this well. It’s only from dead astern that this is discernable.

Power is either a 1.6-litre DOHC inline four cylinder found on the base version only producing 122 hp and 115 lb/ft hooked up to a five-speed manual. The other three trim levels get a 2.0-litre, DOHC, inline four-cylinder making 142 hp and 137 lb/ft of torque with the five-speed manual or an optional four-speed automatic. Soul is a front-driver, all-wheel-drive not being offered.

Fuel economy on the 1.6-litre is 7.7/6.3L/100 km (37/45 mpg) city/highway. For the 2.0-litre manual it is 8.6/6.5L/100 km (33/43 mpg) city/highway and for the automatic, 8.5/6.6L/100 km (33/43 mpg) city/highway.

Suspension is MacStruts at the front and a twist beam axle at the rear. On some models, a sports tuned suspension is available. Braking is discs front and drums rear on the base with all others getting four-wheel discs with standard ABS, electronic stability control and traction control. All models come with six airbags and an anti-theft immobilizer.

Only the 2.0-litre version was available at Kia’s Kelowna press launch and most with the automatic. These cars were so new, that after we finished driving them, they were taken to area dealers and put right on the sales floor.

It’s great fun to drive and more than one person in another car gave us the thumbs up, which augers well for Kia.

Heading down from Kelowna to Osoyoos, the seeming hundreds of wineries had people in the fields pruning the vines. With glorious sunshine and plus 6 Celsius temperatures, the bucolic setting made for an enjoyable ride.

Once up to speed, the Soul ambles along with less external wind noise and buffeting than you’d expect from something with the aerodynamic qualities of a brick.

On wine country back roads with their ups and downs, body roll was expected but did not make itself noticed. There was some tire noise but this was on rural blacktop that is mostly course aggregate to disperse snow and water. The steering wheel is meaty with measured “feel”. Steering reaction is good with no slack dead on centre. But the best fun was inside.

Firstly, the passenger area is like Doctor Who’s Tardis with generous front and rear seating with more than enough legroom for those in the second row and that’s with the front seats all the way back. Cargo volume with the rear seats upright is 546 litres (19.3 cu ft) and 1,511 litres (53.4 cu ft) with them folded.

There are no less than four ways to order the interior. On the base model called the 2u, there is basic black. Move up to the 2.0-litre and the black cloth seats come with inserts with the “Soul” logo and black trim. The Soul logo phosphoresces in the dark. Next up are hounds-tooth inserts (called the Retro trim model) with beige and black trim. At the top is the Burner with red used liberally on the seats, dash and doors.

There is a large centre stack festooned with tabs and switches for the audio and heating/cooling controls. Illuminated in amber like an Audi or BMW, Soul makes connecting to MP3 players, satellite radio, Bluetooth, direct USB sound plug-ins and power points an integral part of the design philosophy of giving (if you’ll pardon the pun) soul to the Soul.

You gotta love the rotary switch on the dash to the lower right of the steering wheel. The amber-illuminated speakers in the door can be made to either pulse to the beat of the music or set to glow with the “mood” of the tune. Yeah, it’s a gimmick, but it also adds gobs of character to the Soul.

What’s so clever about this car is that it’s still a hatchback but I doubt buyers will see Soul as such. It is more about making a fresh, new statement, not just for Kia, but the owner as well.

The 2010 Soul brings new meaning to Kia’s corporate slogan; the Power to Surprise.

Kia sees the square sided 2010 Soul as getting consumers to start thinking outside the box about their image of the Korean carmaker. Common automotive practice in the 1920s, the box remains the most efficient way to combine versatility and utility.

AT A GLANCE KIA SOUL 2010

DRIVE METHOD:front-engine, front-wheel-drive.

ENGINE: 1.6-litre DOHC inline four-cylinder (122 hp, 115 lb/ft); 2.0-litre DOHC inline four-cylinder (142 hp, 137 lb/ft)

FUEL ECONOMY: 1.6-litre, 7.7/6.3L/100 km (37/45 mpg) city/highway; 2.0-litre manual, 8.6/6.5L/100 km (33/43 mpg) city/highway; 2.0-litre automatic, 8.5/6.6L/100 km (33/43 mpg) city/highway.

PRICE: 1.6-litre,

$14,495-$16,495; 2.0-litre, $17,995-$22,195.

www.kia.ca

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