It looks different, feels different and could hardly differ more from any other car that’s ever worn a Kia badge.
But the stand-out appearance that guarantees second glances for the new Soul is also designed to mark a seismic shift of direction for a South Korean company eager to demonstrate that it is fast moving up the ladder in manufacturing quality as well as enjoying enviable growth across major global markets.
Due to be shown to UK dealers at the end of this month, the distinctive family hatchback is the first of 10 new products aimed at changing the perception of the brand over the next three years by blending innovative technology with styling that departs from the norm.
It’s a radical step for a manufacturer categorised as a largely cheap and cheerful showroom proposition only a few years back – but our first drive suggests more good news is on the way for the brand that has a 50,000 target to hit in 2010.
High riding, Soul is a boxy model that somehow defies logic by looking good. While it doesn’t have Mini-style chic, compared to its Skoda Roomster rival it has a distinctive modernity.
Its design does manage to exude coolness – an attribute crucial to Kia’s ambitions for wider appeal among younger, family motorists.
Kia Motors UK plans to capitalise on this with a top-spec version offering a huge variety of feature and equipment packages for bespoke transport.
Customers can choose from packs that include a rear spoiler, rear view camera, an upgraded sound system with adaptive speaker lights, rear parking sensors, electric folding door mirrors and an electric tilt-slide sunroof.
Beneath the top grade will be a petrol-only entry version, the 2, but a petrol or diesel 3 is expected to be the most popular model among sales of 3,000 cars this year.
Pricing and final specification details will be ann-ounced closer to the on-sale date, but all versions are likely to have central locking, electic lift windows, front, side and curtain airbags and an audio system with MP3 capability.
A comprehensive equipment list will back up a lifestyle theme that features a ‘floating’ centre stack for the audio system, heating and ventilation controls and a lidded storage area that, like the glove box, uses bright internal colours.
“We have a bewildering choice of options for this car but our idea is to balance complexity with simplicity. And even though we think annual sales could easily reach 5,000, we want this to be a car that commands good margin retention.
The market is ready for a model like this and it couldn’t have come at a better time,” said marketing director Simon Hetherington.
Behind the wheel
With its generous ground clearance, the Soul could be a sporty 4x4, but it’s not.
That said, the zingy front-drive models displayed confident roadholding over poor surfaces and tidy handling characteristics, though ride quality was a little firm at times.
Power comes from familiar 1.6-litre Kia petrol and turbodiesel engines linked with a smooth-shifting manual gearbox and while both offer lively performance, the heavy-oil unit proved superior in long-distance use.
It might make slightly more noise on idle but, on the motorway, it has a much more refined demeanour.
Thanks to tall bodywork, this ‘urban activity’ car has class-leading legroom and generous headroom.
Huge space makes it a particularly practical compact model. Standard boot space is tiny, but can be expanded to 700 litres with the rear seat folded.
Its easy access and great visibility from high seating give the Soul MPV qualities.