It's a compact car that could arguably be called a wagon, but the 2012 Kia Soul's styling, attitude, and options lists position it as something far, far different--not to mention the music-loving hamsters who appears in its TV ads.
The compact "small box" hatchback is roomy, inexpensive, and relatively frugal on gasoline. Its funky sheetmetal is wrapped around a tall cabin that positions the driver high enough to feel like he or she is piloting a small-ish crossover. There's superb headroom, though front-seat occupants may find the wide console trims a bit too much room off their ability to sit with a wide stance.
In the rear, the tall doors make entry and exit much easier than for compact sedans, especially those with fashionably drooping rooflines. The rear bench seat will hold a pair of adults or three kids--and with the rear seat folded forward, there's a substantial 53 cubic feet of cargo space. The load floor is low, and the only drawback to the Soul style is the thick rear roof pillars, which drastically limit rear-quarter vision.
The based engine is a 1.6-liter four whose power has risen to 135 horsepower this year. It's not a particularly speedy set of wheels, but with either the six-speed manual gearbox that comes standard or the optional automatic transmission, it's rated at 27 mpg city, 35 mpg highway, giving a combined 30 mpg. If you fit the optional Eco package, consisting of one of the first start-stop systems sold in the U.S. (only offered with the automatic), those numbers rise incrementally, to 29 mpg city, 36 mpg highway--or 32 mpg combined.
The more powerful engine is a 164-hp 2.0-liter four, which can be fitted either with the six-speed manual or a six-speed automatic transmission. Either variant is rated at 26 mpg city, 34 mpg highway, for a combined 29-mpg rating. Add the start-stop system, and ratings rise to 27 city, 35 highway, for a combined 30 mpg. The larger engine gives the Soul a bit more pep in urban-combat driving, and a slightly more relaxed feel for highway cruising.
The 2012 Kia Soul has been named a Top Safety Pick by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), and it comes with six airbags standard, along with the usual array of electronic safety systems, including stability control and antilock brakes. Laudably on a car this inexpensive, a rear-view camera is now an option. The NHTSA, however, gives the 2012 Soul four stars out of five overall, with four-star ratings for frontal crash and rollover results, but five stars in side-crash testing.
Befitting its young and digital target audience, a USB port is standard on the Kia Soul. So are power windows, locks, and mirrors, and satellite radio. Optional fittings include HD radio, a navigation system, and Kia's voice-activated control system, known as UVO, which lets drivers run certain features of the navigation, audio, and mobile phone systems via voice recognition and steering-wheel controls.
Against the other boxy hatchbacks--including the aging Scion xB, the Nissan Cube, and others--the Kia Soul stands out as the most practical and versatile of the bunch. We think its optional Eco start-stop system sets it apart as well.
For more details, see the full review of the 2012 Kia Soul on our sister site, TheCarConnection.