March 2009. That was when I first saw a Kia Soul in the flesh. It was one of those personal moments in my life as a car enthusiast, because this was the first model from the South Korean manufacturer that shouted “want me”.

Kia's distinctive Soul Shaker

There’s an inherent rightness about the look of the Soul that reminds me of being a carpet scrabbling pre-school boy. Endless pairs of age 5 trousers were worn out at the knees as I pushed all manner of badly scaled replicas from the die-cast stables of Corgi, Matchbox and Majorette along roads which emerged from the swirling patterns on the flooring. You can imagine this as one of those rug racers – bold, chunky looks, purposeful stance and that angular, recessed window line fitting ones fingertips and outstretched thumb perfectly.

But enough of childhood memories, for this is a full-size Soul awaiting being driven in the conventional sense. And over two years on, it remains one of my favourite shapes on the contemporary motoring landscape.

There’s a military-cum-Tonka-tough look about the exterior, with confident body creases that suggest strength. This ruggedness is further accentuated in this new for 2011 Chocolate Shake colour, a metallic brown for those who prefer their hues in no-nonsense terms. Brown is definitely coming back in as a car-park favourite of late, but thankfully not in a retro ’70s sense of looking like vehicles are painted with Cadbury’s finest.

Side-on, the Soul's relatively short length is more apparent

In fact, the Soul itself is an anti-retro design. It fits in with the current vogue of being a fashionable small car (see it side on and its 4105mm shortness is especially apparent) but goes the opposite way to the Fiat and MINI interpretations of being shaped by their corporate histories. That said, Kia doesn’t have a back catalogue of iconic designs to reinterpret, nor yet the brand allure to charge premium prices for the privilege of ownership.

Lots of styling details within the headlights yet still look attractive and not too fussy

It’s audacious in its enormous detailing. The graphics of the headlamps separate the sidelights off with a Tron-style silvered lozenge in the black surround, with scalloped out slithers for the indicators beneath. Side repeaters are within their own plinth on the wings and the window line beyond it has an ever decreasing aperture before abruptly flicking up towards the flat roof. The rear three quarters is my favourite angle: those straight lines all end at one of the sheerest, vertical tails in contemporary car styling. Below the tailgate glass the metalwork stands proud with chamfered edges, punctuated only by the badge, release handle and, on this Shaker version, the housing for the rear view camera. The opening itself is flanked by two gargantuan rear light lenses, with a simple tri-colour, clear lens housing. Bold wheel arches set off the look, here filled with 18” five-spoke alloys finished in silver. One neat little styling feature illustrating Kia’s attention to detail – the ribbing on the roof panel is matched by a similar feature on top of the large rear view mirrors. Splendid.

For Soul-spotters, you’ll have noticed that the 2011 Shaker model now has full body coloured front bumpers whilst all models get loop-style pull out external door handles. Inside there are also minor modifications to the dials and steering wheel controls.

Bold rear lamps and the protuding boot below the tailgate glass

The Soul’s definitely a Marmite car. It generated a lot of conversation in the work car park, as much for its interior trim as its exterior. In Shaker specification, the Soul is treated to a two-tone, predominantly cream, dashboard and door card mouldings, complimented by similarly hued seats, the upper portions of which are adorned with a houndstooth pattern.

The Soul line-up is made up of entry level 1 and 2 trim levels, whilst the upper echelons of the range comprise of a group known as the Soul Originals. Included is the Shaker, alongside Tempest, Echo, Searcher and Burner, all with very different takes on trim, colours and detailing to attract different types of customers.

Shaker models are further identified by the chrome strip on the rear bumper

The car park discussion suggested that the calm, beige interior of the Shaker, as opposed to the riotous red of the Burner, was the one aimed at young at hearters in the autumn of their lives. If true, this merely consolidates my reputation as a young fogey. However, I liked it a lot and told everyone, so there.

Mechanically, UK-market Souls feature a limited range of options – both 1.6 petrol and common rail turbo diesel engines are available, mated to either a 5-speed manual or 4-speed automatic box, although not every version is available with each of the four powertrain combinations. The Shaker model I sampled had the petrol/manual set-up, which proved a well-matched arrangement.

Prices for the Soul range from £12,130 for the petrol-engined ‘1’ 1.6 up to £18,035 for the Searcher 1.6 CRDi automatic.

Search Inside Your Soul

For all the Soul is a compact car it does possess that much-sought Tardis-like interior, being roomy and airy inside, aided by those beige plastic accents.  The tall cabin provides a lot of space within a small footprint and while it doesn’t follow the vogue of having a glazed roof to let in light, it does feature an electric tilt and slide sunroof.

The two-tone dash in beige and grey. Not to everyone's taste

The plastic mouldings of the cabin furnishings may well catch those new to Kia by surprise – in a good way. The large beige moulding has a pimpled finish and feels slightly rubbery to the touch with a little ‘give’ in it to allow for some squeezability. The contrasting grey elements around the vents and on the stereo and ventilation controls feel solid and tactile. It’s on par with the better rivals in the class and doesn’t remotely feel cheap. Whereas the styling and colour combination wasn’t to everyone’s taste who I showed it to, all were in agreement that it felt a good place in which to sit.

That central panel on the dash houses the bulk of the switchgear, accented in a metallic finish with a red LCD display for the stereo functions. All the knobs and buttons work precisely and feel good to the touch, everything backlit with a red glow with the lights on, with a tooth-like zig-zagging feature around the stereo buttons.

Stowage space is impressive too – unlidded cubbies along the centre console include cup holders and a small well in which to sit your MP3 player while it’s plugged in. All the doors have bins within them that will hold smaller drinks bottles too. The large glovebox is a welcome feature too, having two levels within it and comfortably hiding away a lot of cabin clutter. Taut nets on the front seat backs help keep the rear quarters free from detritus.

The Soul's inviting front seats

The front seats are well shaped, with generous side bolsters to hold you in place, the material also being pleasant to touch. They’re comfortable over longer journeys too with a wide range of adjustment via the ratchet levers at the side. The controls on the dash fall easily to hand and the dials shine attractively through a triple binnacle which is clearly visible through the adjustable, leather-clad, chunky three-spoke wheel. The wheel itself has a centre boss in the same pattern and colour as the main dash moulding, reminding me (at least) of those 1970s Mercedes wheel trims where the centres were painted the same as the car. My only gripe from the driver’s seat? It’s more what’s not there – an armrest between the front seats. Okay, maybe not a deal breaker but I find the lack of a centre rest a strange omission.

And the spacious rear quarters

Climbing into the back through the wide doors is easy enough, so families intending to use a Soul for transporting their offspring will have no problem getting little ones strapped in to their seats. ISOFIX mounts are on the outer two seats and all three positions have height adjustable head restraints and three-point belts. On a safety vibe, the Soul achieved the high standard of five stars in the Euro NCAP crash testing programme, with an arsenal of airbags to keep occupants protected.

For adults, the rear seats are very spacious for two, with impressive space for heads and legs, and would sit three at a push. Sitting behind the driver’s seat where I’d have it positioned for my 6ft frame, my knees were nowhere near brushing the seat back in front of me. Despite the narrowing window line and darkened glass it didn’t feel remotely claustrophobic either, merely safe and protected.

Access to the Soul's boot is unobtrusive - although seats up the loadspace feels a little small

Opening the vertical tailgate produces something of a mild disappointment in terms of boot space as it’s much smaller than the chunky exterior suggests it will be. 340l of space can be extended to 671l with the split rear seat back tumbled to allow for a near flat load bay, but the sill is high and the distance between the floor and the parcel shelf is quite shallow. The shelf itself smacks of cost-cutting – there’s no connection to the tailgate to raise it out of the way when the boot’s open and when you do tip it up manually, not only does it regularly come off its mounting grooves but also reveals a shiny black plastic underside. The softer material on top is reminiscent of the spray-on fur favoured by the manufacturers of Sylvanian Families. Under the boot floor is a compartmentalised series of pockets in useful sizes. A flying visit to the supermarket for staples like milk and bread allowed the groceries to be packaged under the floor in such a way that the softer goods were not squashed out of shape by heavy bottles scooting about the luggage bay.

In Shaker specification, the Soul is very well equipped – the metallic paint was the only option fitted to the test car. Headlines from the brochure’s standard features list includes tinted windscreen shade band, rear privacy glass, electric windows, mirrors and sunroof, air conditioning (which worked very effectively), RDS radio/CD/MP3 player with iPod cable, Bluetooth connectivity and a reversing camera that displayed its findings on the left side of the rear view mirror – perfect location for it too.

Screen for reversing camera appears in the rear view mirror - as if by magic

Heart and Soul of the Kia

The Soul’s 1.6-litre four-cylinder petrol engine is a smooth, refined and free revving motor, although unsurprisingly, not one especially sporting in nature. In fact, the brief seems to have been relaxed comfort, with revs rarely climbing above 3000rpm, let alone venturing near the 6500rpm red line. Whilst it’s smooth and performance figures on paper between the petrol and diesel are theoretically similar (the CRDi models can achieve a higher top speed of 113mph but are a shade slower to 60mph at 10.9 seconds), the petrol lacks that mid-range surge that the turbo on the oil-burning version provides. It can overtake calmly when it needs to but with little fire in its belly as it goes about its business. 

The Soul's 1.6-litre petrol fuelled powerplant

The 5-speed manual gearbox is a treat to use and suits the petrol engine perfectly in terms of the gearing employed. A relatively short throw between the ratios and very slick and satisfyingly damped motion between the gears makes cog swapping a pleasure.

Somewhat unusually for a car in 2011 which will be bought by families seeking good value and low running costs, there are no change up/down lights on the dash to help the driver maximise fuel economy, nor is there a stop/start function to cut the engine when motionless. Such features would improve the claimed combined fuel consumption average of 43.5mpg – the diesel reportedly achieves a much more impressive 54.3mpg on the same combined cycle.

High rise with a small footprint

In urban settings, the ride quality is comfortable, if not class leading. Ruts and bumps are soaked up well, but while the harsh edge is definitely taken off of them, it doesn’t iron them out completely. On motorways and dual carriageways the Soul feels planted and makes excellent, unruffled progress along the billiard table smooth asphalt, showing little movement during gusty crosswinds. It feels a good place in which to travel. So much so that when you do venture onto the back roads for a bit of a blast it proves a little disappointing as the Soul is found to be lacking.

Around 40-50mph, all is fine in terms of ride, composure and steering. Inputs at the wheel are positive with a decent amount of feedback being transmitted up the steering column too. But edging that speedometer needle evermore clockwise unsettles the composure. Ride quality begins to jiggle, that combination of MacPherson struts up front and a torsion bar rear end moving further out of their comfort zones. The knock on effect is that the front end starts to feel light and steering feel is lost as a consequence.

It never feels a handful, it just lacks that complete engagement that many drivers have become accustomed to over the past decade, which detracts from the well-roundedness of the package. When pushed hard the steering will push into understeer but is easily kept under control by appropriate application of brake and throttle. One wouldn’t buy a Soul expecting it to be a sporting car but so engaging is its appeal you want it to perform better on those winding B-roads.


Distinctive, conversation starting styling

Buy a Soul and you’ll be driving around in something that will get you noticed first and foremost. It’s a distinctive looking car and one which will encourage people to question you to ask what it is. When they discover it’s a Kia, the uninitiated will then be quizzical to see if it’s ‘any good’ and you’ll be able to assure them it really is.

Sure, every car has a few drawbacks but the Soul’s are not sufficient enough to detract from the overall charm of the experience. A car at a good value price, such as this and carrying a 7 year/100,000 mile manufacturer warranty will always take some beating. The fact it’s well made, well equipped and looks so distinctive are bonus features that help make it a convincing and compelling package.

Would I buy one? Yes. Although I might have to consider a Burner version though to rejuvenate my apparently aging image.

Would I appear 10 years younger with the Soul Burner?

Quick Stats

Model Tested: Kia Soul Shaker 1.6

Top Speed: 110mph

0-60: 10.6sec

Average fuel consumption: 43.5mpg

CO2 emissions: 153g/km

Engine size: 4/1591cc fuel injection petrol

Power: 124bhp

Torque: 115lb/ft

Price: £14,320 (March 2011)

All photographs © Keith WR Jones 2011 apart from final photograph of Soul Burner © Kia Motors