Korean carmaker Kia, like its sibling Hyundai, is a company that’s on the move in the automotive world and whether some want to accept it or not it’s now a company making world-class products that are selling in huge numbers around the world.
After several years of making-do with dated product, yes there’s nothing more dated than the Rio but it still sells, the company has so far this year launched the all-new Cerato and now, if you will excuse the pun, its got Soul – at least as a brand name!
The product revolution for Kia doesn’t stop there, with the sporty, two-door Koup to come later in the year and heavily reworked versions of the Sportage and Sorento SUVs also in the pipeline.
A little over two years ago Kia went out and lured Peter Schreyer, the man who gave us the Audi TT and a whole range of related Volkswagen and Audi products, into its fold as Chief Design Officer.
Mr Schreyer is often given the somewhat overworked appellation of ‘design guru’, but the fact is he’s very good at his job and he understands brand identity.
Already the latest Kias feature the ‘Schreyer Line’ grille, a small step in giving the company’s products a unified look, and while he wasn’t involved in the original motor show concept of the Soul, from his office in Russelheim, Germany, he’s certainly exerted strong influence over its final form.
Soul has already been launched in Western Europe, the US, and the Korean home market before, yesterday, hitting the streets of Australia and in those other markets it is already selling very strongly.
So much so that Kia Motors Australia will have just 400 Souls to sell as its initial offering, although the company executives told CarAdvice at the Sydney-based launch that number could be increased to match demand.
One of the reasons for keeping the numbers small to start with, apparently, is the almost infinite customisation that’s possible with Soul.
After some quick number crunching the Kia people came up with a figure of more than 10,000 combinations of Soul, using the various engine, colour and accessory options that are available.
They certainly see this as a justification for their advertising slogan; “No two Souls are the same” and cite the customisation options of cars such as the Mini Cooper and the Fiat 500 as examples of a trend they say is important to their target buyers.
Those buyers? Well according to Kia Marketing Manager Steve Watt they are Generation Y coupled with ‘individualists’ of almost any age.
In line with this the company is making heavy use of the web and alternative media to promote the Soul and has launched a website where potential buyers can “assemble” their car, and cost it, before heading to a dealership to finalise the deal.
With pricing that starts at $20,990 the base Soul is squarely in the territory of small cars such as the Toyota Corolla and the Mazda3 but its 1.6-litre, four-cylinder, petrol engine, the latest version of Kia’s Gamma range, which produces an impressive 91kW and 156Nm, would seem more allied to the Light Car Segment.
The optional, at a somewhat hefty $3500 premium, diesel engine is the latest version of Kia’s 1.6-litre and it produces an even more impressive 94kW and a substantial 260Nm from just 1900rpm. The automatic transmission version only comes with a diesel particulate filter and all the engines are Euro4 compliant.
This engine is designated U2 and is a development of the diesel already found in the sibling Hyundai i30, while the petrol engine is expected to show up in the Hyundai i20 when it is released later this year.
Under the official ADR81/02 combined consumption test, the Soul diesel can achieve up to 5.2 litres/ per 100kms (manual transmission) and 5.9L/100kms (automatic).
This gives the diesel Soul a potential combined cycle range of up to 923kms from a single tank of diesel. Its CO2 emissions are just 137g/km with the standard five-speed manual gearbox and 155g/km with the optional four-speed automatic.
With the petrol engine emissions are an effective 154g/km and ADR81/02 combined economy is 6.5L/100kms for the manual, giving it a potential combined cycle range of up to 738kms from a single tank of 91RON unleaded petrol.
Because of its shape, almost a mini SUV in looks coupled with a hatchback configuration, Kia says the Soul defies classification, but accepts that it will be cast against small car competitors.
However, product manager Nick Reid suggested to us that it should also be seen against much more expensive offerings, particularly the Mini Cooper and the Fiat 500, because of its customisation, and against larger SUV offerings, such as the Nissan Dualis, because of its flexible use of space.
The fact is the Soul is a bit of everything, and on that it could either succeed or fail, although we are inclined to think it has strong appeal for its target market.
Soul comes in three models Soul, Soul2 (that’s Squared) and Soul3 (yes, that’s Cubed) and it offers varying combinations of the petrol and diesel engines already mentioned coupled to either a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission, although we’d expect the latter to be substituted for a six-speed, currently finalising development, in the not too distant future.
For the starting money you get a Soul with the 1.6-litre petrol engine, five-speed manual transmission, six airbags, 15-inch steel wheels and air-conditioning and the automatic adds $2000 to the price.
If your prepared to be Squared then Soul2 will get you stability control, 16-inch alloys and roof rails as standard equipment, for a starting price of $23,990.
Electronic Stability Program (ESP) is standard on Soul2 and Soul3, but is not available on the base Soul, while cruise control will be included on all diesel models from August production.
Get Cubed and Soul3 includes 18-inch alloys and automatic transmission as standard, but actually deletes roof rails, although they can be added as a option – go figure – for a starting price of $27,390. A space-saver spare wheel is standard across the range.
Mr Reid says that while the Soul3 is automatic only, in line with the customisation concept it can be ordered from the factory with the five-speed manual, and you will get a $2000 reduction on the price.
Although the pricing puts the Kia Soul in the heart of Australian small cars it is not quite that clear as far as market segments go.
Overseas it has similar competitors such as Toyota’s Scion and the Nissan Cube, but here the closest competitor is probably the Suzuki SX4, which is short in wheelbase but 50mm longer overall.
Inside the soul is heavily slanted towards its Gen Y market with strong influence on the likes of audio systems, an eight-speaker system with a sub-woofer is an option, along with illuminated speakers that can be adjusted to pulse with your favourite music!
Design and layout of the dash is consistent with that recently seen on the Cerato and the Soul also features Kia’s new ‘corporate” steering wheel, all of which can be customised with colours and features.
Plastics on the inside are a little hard, but the look and feel is generally good, with nice textures and good fit and finish. Upholstery continues the customising theme with colours and options that have to been seen.
Add to that a range of 11 exterior paints, coupled with body garnishes, graphics and colours, interior trims and appointments, sports pedals and door scuff plates, and a reversing camera.
The Soul is based on an all-new front-wheel-drive platform; expect to see it underpinning future models, with strut front and torsion beam rear suspension. The wheelbase is 2550mm, overall length 4105mm, height 1610mm and width 1785mm.
There's plenty of room inside for four, and five at a squeeze, with luggage space that's more tall than deep, but does in some models include a useful 'wet' storage tray under the boot floor.
Our drive in the Kia Soul almost had us thinking of ingenuous puns such as a “bunch of lost souls” when it all went a little awry part way through due to an unexpected road closure – the result of a fatal accident – that meant we had to make our own way to the midway point of the planned route.
That also meant in CarAdvice’s case that we didn’t get to drive the petrol engine/manual transmission combination, instead doing two stints in diesel/autos with different trim levels.
Overall impressions are that the diesel is a sweet performer, the transmission would do better with more cogs in the box but is adequate for the job given the 260Nm of torque that is on hand.
We spent much of our time driving on freeways, in heavy traffic and in incredibly heavy rain (a complete novelty for Melbourne based motoring journalists) so a definitive appraisal of ride and handling will wait until we get our hands on a car for a week in the near future.
What we can say is that the ride is smooth, even on the 18-inch alloy wheels and tyres that the cars we drove sported. The cabin noise is well controlled, although given the power of the audio system it would be possible to drown out the tyre noises from a B-Double we suspect.
Turn in, we did experience a few nice corners, is crisp and accurate and the power from the diesel can be fed in nice and early to haul you out of a corner.
The diesel engine is strong and responsive and the automatic manages to get the gears right most of the time, given that it’s probably short at least one cog.
In the end this is a car that will polarise buyers, but we suspect that the target market won’t be looking too closely at what’s under the bonnet but more at just how much power the audio system has and where does the iPod connector go, yes in true Kia/Hyundai fashion the Soul is tuned in the Apple’s demon music machine.
We suspect that Kia will have quite a lot of Soul in its future.