Friday, December 17, 2010

Test Drive: 2011 Kia Soul, "the Hamster"

image courtesy Kia Motors America, Inc. 
About two months ago, my old Land Rover was sideswiped by someone. This is a story in itself, of which I'll spare the details. Just remember, if you hit someone's parked car, don't be a jerkoff. Leave your information. It's a lot easier than having the cops bang on your door later that night because the neighbors got your tag number, idiot.

The damage to the Rover was relatively superficial, but I wanted to get it fixed, so I filed a claim with the idiot's insurance company, Progressive. Now, I've heard horror stories about Progressive's willingness to pay out on claims, but I can't say a single bad thing about the way they handled mine. Without even waiting for me to ask, the rep offered to handle arrangements for my rental car while my Rover was being repaired. Horrific images of a subcompact, Hyundai Accent/Kia Rio/Chevy Aveo rental car immediately filled my mind, so I asked the rep, "Would it be possible for me to get a car that's equivalent in size to my Rover?"

I expected the worst, but surprisingly was assured that I would in fact get an SUV from Enterprise. My appointment to get the Rover fixed wasn't for a month, so I forgot about the whole thing until the day I dropped my truck off at the shop. Enterprise isn't kidding when they say "We'll pick you up" - an employee was waiting for me when I pulled into the shop at 8:00am. Nice.

"Sir, exactly how old are you?" the young-faced Enterprise rep asked me as I reached into my pocket to produce identification. Barely old enough to rent a car, I realized that the nice, V8 Explorer sitting there waiting for me was probably not a risk that Enterprise was willing to take... and I can't even pretend that they're wrong about that suspicion. I don't *abuse* rentals, but I do "test them" rather intensely. 

Half an hour later at the rental office, I was presented with the keys to a 2011 Kia Soul. "Haven't you seen that commercial with the hamsters?" a woman behind the counter remarked. The Soul definitely wasn't an SUV like I was promised, but I was interested in seeing what the new "box car" concept is all about, so I took the opportunity to give it a full test.

Kia introduced the Soul in 2010. It's a compact hatchback, set to compete with models like the Scion xB, xD, Nissan Cube, and Suzuki SX4. (which reminds me... Suzuki? They're not gone yet?)

My rental Soul, a "+" model, was black with a black interior, equipped with alloy wheels, Sirius satellite radio, steering wheel audio controls, an automatic transmission and 2.0 liter, four cylinder engine. Overall, I'd say it was equipped with typical options. Sticker price was about $17,500. The odometer showed about 7,000 miles when I drove off the lot. I put about a thousand miles on the Soul, so I can say that I got to know it pretty well.

The center stack is nice looking and intuitively designed, but the Bluetooth feature is simply maddening.
Image courtesy Kia Motors America, Inc.

The interior of the Soul isn't bad, but it's not great, either. The center stack is very well-designed, with easy to use climate controls and a stereo system that seems like it came out of a much more expensive car. This is not surprising, considering that Kia's target audience for this vehicle is the younger generation. It even has Bluetooth capability, which I tried out with my iPhone. The pairing process was easy, but I never was able to successfully complete a voice dial. No matter how clearly or loudly I screamed the name of a contact, the Soul would continue to say "Pardon?" until I gave up. Also, the quality of calls was poor. Perhaps it was just a defect with the particular unit I tested, or maybe the guys at Enterprise rigged up a camera so they can watch the videos of pissed-off drivers during the corporate Christmas party.  Either way, Kia needs to fix this or remove the feature.

Another complaint I had with the interior was the comfort of the seats. I can't understand why carmakers feel the need to put cheap seats in cars. Yeah, I understand, it's a cheap car.... BUT can't you spend an extra $50 on the seat to make it comfortable to sit in? The seats are typical econobox, Asian-car seats- very stiff, and smaller than their American or German counterparts. I won't be unfair by comparing them to Volvo or Range Rover items, but they fell short even when compared to Honda Civic, Hyundai Elantra, and even (*cough*) Chevy Aveo seats that I've sat in recently. They were comfortable enough on short trips, but when I was stuck in the car for 40 or 45 minutes in traffic, I started to cramp up and shift around quite a bit. I wouldn't be happy in one of these seats on a two hour trip.

On a more positive note, the Soul naturally has a great amount of cargo room, being a hatchback. The seats fold almost completely flat, which is great. And the box shape means that the rear door opening is massive, so you can fit big furniture and other junk in the back pretty easily.

During my preliminary research on this car, I ran across a lot of comments on the build quality of the interior. Lots of people said it felt "cheap" and that the materials on the door cards scratched easily. Maybe Kia revised these materials for 2011. Maybe the other people were just being too picky. Either way, the car I drove didn't seem to have obscenely cheap interior materials. The only thing that seemed chintzy to me was the piece of plastic on the dashboard that buzzed whenever I got above 5,000rpm.

The rear seat folds nearly flat and the door opening is large. I can't remember if the passenger front seat folds down.
Image courtesy Kia Motors America, Inc.

The Soul is a good city car. It has fairly good visibility and its small size makes it easy to maneuver in tight spots.  The suspension is pretty well-tuned. You will feel big bumps, but that's inevitable in a compact car. Kia struck a fairly good balance between ride quality and handling ability: there isn't much body lean in corners, and the steering is sharp and precise. It's actually fairly fun to drive around town. Unfortunately, the small size means that the Hamster is not such a great ride on the highway. It tends to get distracted by the wear lines from truck tires like most small cars do, and there's a pretty good amount of wind noise. Then, there's the drivetrain.

Kia basically carried over their typical compact car drivetrain for the Soul. This is not a good thing. My car was equipped with the largest engine available, the 2.0 liter, 140 horsepower four cylinder... and it took its sweet time to get up to speed. It's not so much the engine's fault... the transmission is an ancient, 4-speed design that shifts slow as molasses. In fourth gear, the engine is spinning over 3,000rpm on the highway at 70-75mph. This makes for lots of extra noise and harshness on the freeway that is unacceptable in this day and age. 80mph is really unpleasant in this car, and that's a shame considering that most highway traffic moves near or above that speed these days.

As usual, the manual override on the transmission is a joke- the transmission upshifts once it approaches redline, and it even downshifts when it feels necessary. This feature is Kia's attempt to fool you, just like when you tried to give your little cousin the control to the Nintendo64 that wasn't  really plugged in and convince him he was playing.

Perhaps the biggest drawback to the old-school engineering Kia has employed with the drivetrain is the fuel economy. When I first drove the Soul, I expected great gas mileage.  The EPA rated the automatic for 24mpg city and 30 highway, which is good but not great for the size. I was unable to meet these numbers, despite the fact that I regularly exceed EPA numbers in other cars that I drive regularly. Even when I drove like a grandma, used the cruise on the Outerbelt, and kept the "ECO" light on the dashboard lit up as much as possible, I could barely get 24mpg. My theory is that the high RPM's on the highway are the cause of this inefficiency.

With the manual transmission, the driving experience (and the fuel economy) might be better. The engine itself isn't weak, although it does sound like a milkshake blender at full throttle. But I can't comment on if the manual truly helps, because I haven't driven one.

Overall, if you're looking for an economy hatchback that has a little bit of extra attitude, the Soul might be worth a look. It's nothing groundbreaking, and the old-school automatic transmission really kills the car if you aren't going to get the manual transmission.

I also feel it's worth mentioning that Kia's reliability track record isn't the greatest. Yeah, they have a 10 year, 100,000 mile powertrain warranty, but that only covers the powertrain. If the wheel bearings go out at 40k, you're paying for it. Alternator? Out of pocket. Then, once the car rolls past 100k, it's all yours...  For some people, this isn't a big deal- they trade in their cars when they have 80k. But for people like me, who have cars with over 200,000 miles in their driveway, longevity is important.

Let me say this: If someone gave me $18,000 to buy an "economy car with personality," I'd probably go to a Volkswagen dealership and get a Golf... for the same price.

Score on a scale of 1 to 10, compared to price competitors..... 6.5

What's Cool
- Nice stereo system
- Exterior is unique- in my opinion, it's a decent looking car
- Cargo room

What Sucks
- Automatic transmission performance
- Fuel economy
- Seat comfort
- Bluetooth system

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