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2012 Kia Soul – First Drive

Kia has launched one of the catchiest ad campaigns in the annals of television. A trio of ‘hamsters have populated TV in a way rarely seen in an automotive pitch. Thankfully, the car, Kia’s stylish Soul, resonates on the street almost as well as dancing hamsters do on the small screen.

Introduced at the Miami Auto Show in the fall of 2008 and to showrooms the following spring, the Kia Soul is rare because it went on sale with most of the concept car’s styling cues intact. To be sure, the production Soul didn’t enjoy the aggressive wheel/tire package present on the concept, but overall proportions – and stylistic attitude – made it seamlessly into the dealership. The Soul is that most unlikely of successes, an out-of-the-box box that’s also a hit.


Improved Performance and Efficiency

At its launch, the Soul was praised for its design and dismissed for its platform. Too much, it seemed, of the old Korean school of automotive development, with a crude powertrain and indistinct handling cloaked by an innovative design and sold with an eye-catchingly low price. As Kia puts it, for 2012 the Soul builds on its “already solid foundation” with a mid-cycle refresh. As you might surmise, emphasis is on performance and efficiency. Both have been improved, and the results would, well, make a hamster dance.

Under the Soul’s hood resides one of two available engines. The base Soul, with a price of under $14K, features a 1.6 liter DOHC four with direct injection. Boasting 138 horsepower and 123 lb-ft of torque, the horsepower and torque figures are very competitive and, if connected to the 6-speed manual, probably responsive. When connected to the 6-speed auto, however, prepare to be patient. This isn’t a bad drivetrain option, but you’d best not be in a hurry as the 1.6 liter engine certainly isn’t.

Things are much better with the available 2.0 liter engine, standard in both the midlevel Soul+ and pricier Soul!. With 164 horsepower (a 16% bump over its 2.0 liter predecessor) and 148 lb-ft of torque from its all-alloy block, the bigger engine is much more responsive when connected to the auto box, and still credibly efficient, getting – according to the EPA – 25 in the city cycle and 30 on the highway.

With either engine we were entertained by the Soul’s platform. It isn’t, state-of-the-art, but going in we found its point-and-shoot capabilities, along with a compliant ride, much better than expected. That tossable nature is helped in no small way by a relatively high hip point for the driver, along with the Soul’s generous glass area.


Lots of Options

Beyond the powertrains, the 2012 Soul benefits from tweaking of its exterior including new projector headlamps, redesign hood, and reworked front and rear fascias. And the exterior mods are draped in more colors than you can shake a stick shift at, including new-for-2012 Moss, red-hot Molten and Alien green.

Inside, the Kia Soul offers high tech with improved layout and eye appeal. Beyond the appearance are the expected amenities; air-conditioning, power windows and door locks, telescoping steering column and split-folding rear seats. And all this on a car costing less than $14,000. Of course, should you be inclined to pull the option trigger you can benefit from additional features in the Soul+, including cruise control, hands-free Bluetooth, a covered upper storage bin and an available Audio Upgrade package Soul! adds all of the above, along with carpeted floor mats, and sand/black interior trim with houndstooth inserts. An Infinity audio system is standard.

With its 2.0-liter DOHC four cylinder, automatic transmission and both Audio Upgrade and sunroof, our 2012 Kia Soul+ had a window sticker of $19,845 with destination. And while brushing $20K has been a cautionary tale in a Korean showroom, the Soul’s design, improved content and more dynamic capabilities should keep you happy long after the payments run out. In point of fact, the content and assembly quality should keep you happy even after the 10 year / 100,000 mile powertrain warranty runs out.

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.


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