Pros: Hip styling; IIHS Top Safety Pick; great fuel economy; excellent audio and communication technology; 10-year/100,000-mile warranty

Cons: Weak base engine; noisy at highway speeds; rubbery manual transmission; no AWD option

What more needs to be said about a car that has hip-hop hamsters as its pitchmen and a youth following that rivals the most popular Twitter account? Not much, according the Kia sales chart. But for those still in the dark about the Soul, we'll do our best to enlighten you.

Kia's 2012 Soul straddles the line between a compact SUV and sporty hatchback. With its radically styled exterior, sporty wheels and vivid color choices, the Soul could easily go up against such popular cars as the Scion xB, the Toyota Matrix and the Nissan Cube. But the Soul's boxy body and slightly elevated ground clearance also put it in a league with compact SUVs such as the Nissan Juke and Suzuki SX4, minus the AWD option. With three trims from which to choose, Soul, Soul+ (Plus) and Soul! (Exclaim), buyers can build a Soul to suit tastes from the simple to the sophisticated.

The Soul's $14,000 starting price should land it squarely in the "dull but affordable" category. But Kia's impressive list of standard and available equipment is anything but bargain basement. The Soul counts power windows and locks, a four-speaker stereo with USB audio input, a tilt-telescoping steering wheel and air conditioning among its standard amenities, with an Infinity sound system, UVO infotainment, Bluetooth, leather seating and on-board navigation offered as trim-specific options.

However you choose to classify the Soul, there is no arguing that it is a highly attractive, highly youth-oriented five-passenger vehicle with a reputation for value, fuel economy and the best standard powertrain warranty in the business (10 years/100,000 miles).

For 2012, the Soul sharpens an already cutting-edge exterior design with LED daytime running lights (Exclaim), a new front fascia and new wheel designs. Under the hood, a new gasoline direct injection engine and new six-speed automatic transmissions help improve the Soul's fuel economy by 10 percent.

Comfort & Utility

For such an inexpensive little wagon, the 2012 Kia Soul makes the most of what it has. The interior plastics on the dash and doors are rather hard to the touch, but their handsome shapes are pleasing to the eye, as are the clever fabric choices adorning the seats. The Plus has black cloth covered with the Soul logo. The Soul Exclaim offers a choice of black with black-and-white houndstooth print, tan and black leather or cocoa cloth trim. One objection to the Exclaim's interior is its light tan-colored dash pad, which casts a noticeable reflection onto the windshield.

In addition to the dual glove compartment and individual iPod bins, the Soul includes a dedicated iPod/USB port allowing full control of the device via steering-wheel-mounted audio controls. Models equipped with the Infinity sound system include lighted speaker trim rings.

The Soul can comfortably accommodate four average-size adults, with headroom more generous than rear-seat legroom. Don't look for much in the way of cargo space, at least with the rear seat up. There is some additional storage space in a small compartment located beneath the rear cargo shelf. When not carrying additional passengers, the Soul's rear seats can be folded flush, expanding cargo space from 19.3 cubic feet to a generous 53.4 cubic feet.

Technology

Kia aims to be a technology leader, and the Soul's impressive list of available equipment reaffirms the company's commitment. Standard on the Exclaim and available on the Plus is the UVO system designed for Kia by Microsoft. Similar to Ford's SYNC, UVO allows voice activation and control of a Bluetooth-enabled cell phone, as well as streaming music or apps from a smartphone and control of a music storage device such as an iPod or a Zune. UVO-equipped Souls also include a 4.3-inch LCD screen and a backup camera. Exclaim trim includes a 350-watt Infinity audio system (optional on the Plus) with a dash-mounted subwoofer and lighted speakers.

Exclusive to the Exclaim is the Premium Package, which includes navigation, heated front seats, leather seat trim, automatic climate control and push-button start with Smart Key keyless entry.

Performance & Fuel Economy

The Soul offers two engine choices. The base model employs a 1.6-liter GDI 4-cylinder producing 138 horsepower and 123 lb-ft of torque. While fuel economy figures of 25 mpg city and 30 mpg highway are exceptionally good, we found this engine lacking in passing power, especially with four people on board. We prefer the 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine in the Plus and Exclaim models that increases power to 164 hp and torque to 148 lb-ft. Fuel economy for the larger engine is rated at 23/28 mpg, almost identical to the less powerful 1.6-liter. Both engines can be mated to a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic; both choices produce identical city/highway fuel economy.

Later in the model year, Kia will offer an ECO Package for the Soul with ISG (Ignition Stop-Go). The ISG system turns off the engine when the vehicle is not in motion, such as at a stoplight or in stop-and-go traffic. Combined with low-rolling-resistance tires, the ISG-equipped engines increase fuel economy on the 1.6-liter to 26/31 mpg, while the 2.0-liter moves up to 24/29 mpg.

Safety

Standard safety equipment for the 2012 Kia Soul includes front side-impact airbags, side curtain airbags, electronic traction and stability control and Hill Start Assist. A backup camera is available on UVO and navigation-equipped models.

The Soul did very well in the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's offset, roof, rear and side-impact crash tests, earning it a Top Safety Pick award for 2012.

Driving Impressions

Just because a car looks racy on the outside doesn't mean it's going to perform to that standard. That's the case with the Kia Soul. Even with the larger 2.0-liter engine, acceleration and passing power are modest, with the engine making lots of noise as it struggles to get up to speed. The six-speed manual feels rubbery and vague, leaving us to recommend the all-new six-speed automatic.

Things improve mightily when it comes to ride and handling, where the Soul exceeded our expectations. The ride is smooth and well controlled, although we did notice a bit more bounce and bobbing than in other vehicles of similar size. There's a lot of interior noise as well, especially on models with the larger wheel and tire packages. However, the Soul's steering response is quick, with no noticeable play or overassist, and the brakes feel strong even after repeated downhill use. For the most part, we found the Soul a bit sportier than the Nissan Cube or the Scion xB, but it's no match for the Nissan Juke.

Other Cars to Consider

Scion xB - The xB offers better resale value than the Soul, but it doesn't have as many cool features, nor does it offer the same great warranty or stylish interior.

Nissan Cube - Visually, the Cube is a love-it-or-leave-it prospect, and although it does offer many of the same high-tech features as the Soul, its ride and handling are not as sporty.

Suzuki SX4 - The SX4 offers the availability of four-wheel drive, and it has a similar low price point even when fully loaded. But the Soul holds it value better; the Soul also scored higher in the IIHS roof strength test.

AutoTrader Recommends

Given the improved performance of the 2.0-liter engine, we'd say go for the Plus model with the six-speed automatic. You can add in the cool UVO and Infinity sound systems and still wind up with a very reasonable monthly payment.

In November 2012, Kia and Hyundai adjusted the fuel economy ratings on some 2011-2013 models. This article has been modified to reflect the accurate EPA ratings.

author photo

Joe Tralongo started in the industry writing competitive comparison books for a number of manufacturers, before moving on in 2000 to become a freelance automotive journalist. He's well regarded for his keen eye for detail, as well as his ability to communicate complex mechanical terminology into user-friendly explanations.

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