Friday, May 29, 2009

Kia Motors' Cheap Chic

Thanks to German design chief Peter Schreyer, the Korean carmaker is making a splash at home and plans to do the same in the U.S.

Seoul - When Shin So Hyun shopped for a compact car in April in Seoul, it didn't take her long to go for an $11,200 Forte from Kia Motors. "Of the cars in my budget, the Forte has the best design," says Shin, an insurance company planning manager in her late 20s. Few drivers would ever say that in the U.S., where Kia is generally seen as the opposite of style. But thanks to its new German design chief, Kia is making a splash at home and has hopes of doing the same in the U.S.

While Korean car sales plunged 15.2% in this year's first quarter, Kia's rose 6.7%. That has boosted its domestic market share to 31% from 24.6% the previous year, mostly at the expense of General Motors (GM) and Renault. Kia is also a star on the Seoul bourse, with its share price more than doubling so far this year, vs. a 27% gain for the benchmark Korea Composite Stock Price Index. "There's no question Kia's new design is improving its brand image," says Suh Sung Moon, auto analyst at brokerage Korea Investment & Securities in Seoul.

Kia will find out whether cheap chic has broader appeal as it rolls out its newest models in North America and Europe over the next couple of years. The first, the Soul, a boxy crossover vehicle that looks like Nissan's Cube and Toyota's Scion xB, just went on sale in the U.S. in April for $14,000 to $18,600.

The U.S. marketplace may be ready for Kia, with buyers turning to lower-priced vehicles. Kia's share stands at 3.1%, up from 2.4% a year ago. Style could give it a further selling point. Analysts say the company could poach from Korea's other carmakers and America's Big Three. Daniel Gorrell, president of Auto Stratagem, a research and consulting company in Tustin, Calif., thinks even Honda and Toyota could be vulnerable.

But Kia has to prove its vehicles are as well-built as they are good-looking. "They need to get people past the cheap Korean car image," says Gorrell.

At the heart of Kia's makeover is chief designer Peter Schreyer, whom the company hired away from Volkswagen 2 1/2 years ago. Schreyer, 55, who tends to dress all in black at official functions, made his name during his eight years as design chief at Audi. A repeat award winner in Germany, he was the one who shaped the TT roadster and the 1997 Audi A6 sedan, cars that raised the brand's status.

In Korea, Schreyer's latest product, the Sorento, is creating buzz. Even before the redesigned SUV hit showrooms in May, more than 5,000 drivers had put in orders. The base model will cost a bit more than $20,000 in Korea, about 5% more than the previous model. The new Sorento, which will be the first vehicle to be built in Kia's plant in West Point, Ga., is scheduled to go on sale in the U.S. early next year.

Schreyer has assigned designers at the automaker's three studios--in Los Angeles, Frankfurt, and Namyang, south of Seoul--to compete with one another to complete the rest of the lineup by 2011. When they're done, Kia's cars will still be low-end, but they won't necessarily look like it.

Business Week

Thursday, May 28, 2009

2009 Kia Spectra road test

The 2009 Kia Spectra is a front-drive, compact car that deserves a closer look.

The Kia Spectra and Spectra5 are basically unchanged for 2009 and they use the 2001-2006 Hyundai Elantra platform. The Spectra is a four-door sedan and the Spectra5 is a four door hatchback. There is only one engine available; it's a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine rated at 138 horsepower. Buyers can choose either a five-speed manual transmission or a 4-speed automatic. The automatic gets better fuel economy ratings at 24 miles per gallon in the city and 32 miles per gallon on the highway. All Spectra models use regular gasoline.

Acceleration performance is just adequate and in this rare case we recommend the automatic transmission for its smooth shifting and increased fuel economy. The five-speed manual transmission has a "rubbery" feeling shift lever and shift action, so it feels sloppy. Air conditioning is no longer standard; it's an option as is ABS, but a tachometer is standard.

Remote start (usually a Cadillac option for New Jersey mobsters) is available as well. We liked the gauges and the switchgear, but the cabin contains a lot of plastic, which shouts "Cheap" at the driver all the time.

Kia Spectra ride quality is very comfortable, but there is a downside -- the Spectra acts like a "bucking bronco" when the road surface is uneven. The sport-tuned suspension of the Spectra5 and the SX model tends to be harsh and choppy rather than controlled. Sticker prices range from $14,000 up to $18,000. The Kia is not as refined as its Honda, Nissan and Mazda competition, but its long warranty and improved build quality make it worthy of your short list. On our scale of one to five, four tires and the spare the 2009 Kia Spectra rates a four.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Kia's Soul is 'superbad'

Which, in the James Brown sense, is good!

Hey, any car that offers me the chance to work a song from the King of Soul into a blog title has to be cool! Now Kia's four-seat Soul (great name for a Korean car) struck me as cool based on its looks.

This car's hip factor further became apparent when my wife and I took it to a concert at Symphony Hall in Boston, and you could notice people (especially young people) giving the car a look. And, being Boston, when a fellow Massaholic on the road started veering into my lane, a hit on the horn button produced a friendly "old-fashion" toot rather than a more conventional blast. Also contributing to the Soul's ambiance was "mood" lighting in the cabin—a ring of LEDs around the front-door mounted bass speakers that can be set to pulse with the music, or periodically, or constantly on/off.

The Soul's strong youth appeal prompted me to bring in a panel of youthful judges to offer their unvarnished insight—and the visiting twin grandsons were quick to offer their judgment.

"It's cool because it looks like a shoe," was the first impression. "I like the pattern on the seats," was the comment highlighting the cabin, where a herringbone-like fabric set off the upper seat backs. (Now when was the last time you saw a herringbone on a car since one of the godawful vinyl roofs of some pre-Iacocca Chrysler products?) My wife and I both thought the pattern was "snappy," as well. The pulsating speaker lights were well received, but, "why aren't they in the back seat for the kids? Why should only the grownups (up front) have them?"

There you have it, wisdom from a pair of six-year olds.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

2010 Kia Soul first take

Too often, the only virtues cheap cars bring to the market are low price and decent fuel economy, and that latter feature is only a byproduct of a small, inexpensive engine. But Kia's Soul manages to add tech, usable space, and a little bit of fun to the usual features. We realize that the Scion xB did all of this first, but it doesn't necessarily do it better.

We spent a little time driving the Kia Soul, in its Sport trim, at a recent driving event, and had our tech sensibilities thoroughly pleased. The top-of-the-line Sport trim Soul goes for $17,900, while the base model is only $13,300, but both come standard with iPod integration. Better yet, you only have to step up to the $14,950 Plus trim to get standard Bluetooth hands-free system, also a feature on the Sport model.

Lacking an iPod during our drive, we plugged an MP3-laden USB drive into the car's USB port, and navigated through the folders on the car's head unit. The red radio display proved large enough so that it was easy to find music we wanted to hear. And the sound quality was surprisingly good, as the Sport trim Soul comes standard with a 315-watt audio system that complements the usual doors speakers with a center fill and sub.

The fun came in the form of sound-activated lighting in the door speakers. As the bass beats played, red accent lighting pulsed. A dial lets you increase the light's intensity, or switch it to a Mood setting, where it pulses to its own beat. It's a gimmicky feature, but we like it.

Missing from the Soul's tech roster is a navigation system, not terribly surprising for a car in its price range, but a feature we would, nonetheless, like.

As you can probably guess, the Kia Soul is no powerhouse. Everything but the base trim gets a 2-liter four cylinder engine producing 140 horsepower, adequate to get the car around, but don't expect a lot of speed. That engine is made efficient through Kia's continuously variable valve timing, giving it an economy figure of 24 mpg city and 30 mpg highway. This is not bad for a car that can squeeze in five people plus cargo.

This Sport trim model also uses a front stabilizer bar and a more tightly tuned suspension than lower trims, giving it surprisingly good handling. We drove the Soul on the track, and found it was the engine, not the handling, that held it back. Kia gives you the choice of a five-speed manual or a primitive, but serviceable, four-speed automatic transmission at no extra cost in all but the base trim.

by Wayne Cunningham

Friday, May 22, 2009

Borrego is good SUV, bad timing

Will Kia Borrego weather the current economy?

In my recent review of the Volvo XC60, I expounded on consumers and the economy closing the door on big, V-8 body-on-frame SUVs.

Timing is everything with vehicle launches. When the business case was presented for the Borrego, midsize SUVs with three-row seating were hot. Unfortunately for Kia, it had the Borrego already in production when the mid-to-large SUV segment entered its downturn.

The 2009 Kia Borrego is a good vehicle for circa 2006-2007. In 2009 the sweet SUV segment music has stopped, and the Borrego is looking hard to find a parking spot.

The 2009 Borrego is not uncompetitive in terms of pricing or quality; it's just that there are too many choices and not enough qualified buyers.

The Borrego is Kia's first-ever midsize, body-on-frame, seven-passenger V-6 and V-8 SUV, and as such it is the automaker's top SUV offering.

The Borrego's base engine is an all-aluminum 3.8-liter V-6 with 276 horsepower. My test vehicle came with the big 4.6-liter V-8, shared with the Genesis coupe and sedan, packing 337 horsepower. Those are some serious ponies and include 323 pound-feet of torque. A plus is that both V-6 and V-8 models run on regular unleaded. Both engines also are available in either two-wheel drive or four-wheel drive like my test vehicle.

Kia brings a slick-shifting six-speed automatic transmission to the party. While buyers may yearn for more, the Environmental Protection Agency-rated fuel economy of the V-8 slides in at 15 city and 22 highway – not too bad for a midsize, AWD, V-8, seven-passenger SUV.

Towing of up to 7,500 pounds with the V-8 is possible if you can get away for the weekend to take the boat out.

Kia spent a few bucks developing an interior worthy of spending time in. The layout is contemporary, and the build quality of the test vehicle had only a few minor panel gaps and inexpensive looking bits. The seats were above average in comfort, and the quality of leather was good.

The interior of a Borrego sports 156.8 cubic-feet of interior volume. With all seats folded flat there is 97.6 cubic feet of cargo space.

A nice feature for second-row passengers is a sliding second row that increases second-row foot room and eases ingress/egress to the third row.

Borrego can be equipped with a slew of standard convenience features, including air conditioning; power door locks, windows and mirrors; keyless entry; cruise control; and an AM/FM/CD/MP3 six-speaker audio system. Complementing the audio system, Borrego comes standard with USB and auxiliary input jacks and is the first Kia vehicle to offer Sirius satellite radio.

The EX trim level includes an eight-way power-adjustable driver's seat, four-way power-adjustable front passenger's seat, floor mats, dual-zone automatic climate control, Homelink with compass, steering-wheel-mounted audio controls, trip computer and a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob. There is even a rear seat entertainment package that includes an 8-inch wide-screen television.

The Borrego four-wheelers feature a second generation full-time torque-on-demand system, which uses electronic sensors to monitor road conditions and distribute power to the appropriate wheels.

Kia indicates that the Borrego is built on a front double-wishbone and rear multilink suspension matched with coil-over springs. The front suspension integrates shock absorbers and a stabilizer bar, while the rear incorporates a damper and stabilizer bar. Borrego is built on a hydro-formed frame structure that the company says increases durability and rigidity.

I spent several extended stretches behind the wheel and I can say that you'll be hard pressed to tell the difference in ride quality between the Borrego and some of the established competition.

Safety was also a prime consideration with this vehicle and the Borrego's standard equipment includes front advanced airbags, front-seat-mounted side airbags, full-length side-curtain airbags for all three rows and driver's knee airbag (V-8 models only), four-wheel disc brakes with an antilock brake system that includes an electronic stability control and traction control system, electronic brake distribution, brake assist system and a tire pressure monitoring system.

A standard back-up warning system provides an audible warning using ultrasonic sensors to detect and help prevent hitting hard-to-see objects. Borrego also includes premium features like hill start assist control, which helps prevent the vehicle from rolling backward when trying to pull away from an uphill gradient, as well as downhill brake control, which helps keep the vehicle moving straight and steady down steep grades.

The Borrego is trying to the crash the midsize SUV party that consists of the Toyota 4Runner, Nissan Pathfinder, Honda Pilot, Ford Explorer, Chevrolet's Traverse, Trailblazer, Jeep Grand Cherokee, GMC Acadia and Saturn Outlook.

Pricing starts at $26,250, but as the upgrades get ladled on the price rises appreciably. My tester was pretty well optioned and the final tally edged just north of $33,000.

So the verdict is good SUV, bad timing. The Borrego was launched in 2008 as a 2009 model. Will the Borrego make it to a second generation? Time (and buyers) will tell.

Chicago Sun-Times

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Kia fast-tracks design changes

When Kia launched the new Soul in South Korea last fall, negative comments about some interior features filtered back to the company. Kia quickly mobilized its designers and engineers to fix the issues, not waiting for a yearly model change to make the remedies.

"Things move much quicker here than they do at Ford," says Michael Sprague, vice president of marketing for Kia Motors of America. He came to Kia about a year ago after a stint at Ford.

As an example of quick movement, Mr. Sprague says the Soul concept made its world debut at the Detroit Auto Show in 2006 and went on sale in South Korea in 2008. It's now on sale in the United States as a 2010 model.

The principal complaints of South Korean customers who purchased the Soul focused on the front side doors and the center console between the front seats. Hard plastics in the doors were unacceptable to early South Korean buyers.

The same complaints were voiced by American automotive journalists earlier this year after they tested part of a small fleet of South Korean spec cars brought to California for evaluation. In addition, customers and journalists complained that the center console made it difficult to lift and release the parking brake.

"We will do running changes in the doors starting in June," Mr. Sprague says.

The hard plastic in the door liners below the windows will be replaced with a cloth insert that is softer to the touch. It took only four months to make the change in the front doors from when the problem was first noted by South Korean customers. Kia will use the same kind of cloth inserts in the doors of the new Forte, scheduled to go into production in April and on sale in the United States in June.

Kia will also use a "soft paint" on the grab bars of the Soul's front doors to provide a softer, more lubricious touch. "The soft paint is used by high-end manufacturers a lot," Mr. Sprague says.

Kia collaborates with the same suppliers to effect the changes, he says. The console supplier rushed a redesign of its component through in 30 days so it was ready for production for the U.S. launch of the Soul.

This kind of continuous improvement is part of the Kia drive to respond quickly to customer reaction. When the 2009 Borrego premiered last year, the market asked for an upscale version of the SUV. Kia was able to develop a special limited version into production two months after Job 1. It featured new technology such as a push button start switch. Some early buyers also requested a backup camera, and Kia developed one for a running change starting in September.

The Borrego's ride quality also displeased some customers. Kia engineers designed modifications for four dampeners to smooth ride quality. The running change will go into production in June. Also, the carpeting in the 2009 Sedona drew customer complaints that it soiled too easily. Kia immediately substituted a darker color that was less prone to soiling.

The Soul got off to a fast start in its first month on sale in the United States and has produced more feedback to Kia about customer reactions to the model.

The company is considering even more improvements. "We're keeping the Soul as fresh as possible," a Kia spokesman says. Other interior enhancements will soon be incorporated into the funky new box-shaped Soul.

Mr. Sprague says Kia is determined to remain flexible and nimble when it comes to responding to customer feedback on its products. The quick changes to the Soul are part of the drive to respond to customer concerns quickly and effectively.

When the coup version of the Forte goes on sale early next year, it will also benefit from the same type of changes that Kia incorporated in the Forte sedan, the spokesman says.

Responding quickly to customer comments is costly, but it may be profitable in the long run to keep its buyers satisfied. That may be why Kia is one of the few brands that's faring well in the imploding automotive marketplace. The South Korean brand continues to pick up market share as other brands suffer shrinking sales and fortunes.

By Herb Shuldiner
Washington Times

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

2009 Kia Sportage Receives Top Ranking in AutoPacific 2009 Vehicle Satisfaction Awards

Sportage is Highest Ranked in Compact Crossover SUV Category

# Sportage commended for offering consumers value and satisfaction
# Extensive list of standard safety and convenience features recognized

IRVINE, Calif., May 19, 2009 -- Kia Motors America, Inc. (KMA) today announced the 2009 Kia Sportage compact SUV topped the compact crossover SUV category in the AutoPacific 2009 Vehicle Satisfaction Awards (VSA). The AutoPacific VSA is an industry benchmark for objectively measuring how satisfied an owner is with their new car or light truck, and reflects the opinions of consumers nationwide. Sportage was recognized above other vehicles in the segment for offering superior value and satisfaction.

"Sportage, a staple in the Kia Motors lineup since the brand's inception, offers a high level of value and amenities to those looking for a low-cost option in the SUV segment, and buyers recognize that," said Michael Sprague, vice president of marketing, KMA. "We take special pride in this recognition as it is a direct reflection of consumer satisfaction and further proof that our commitment to offering vehicles with a superior blend of value, safety and convenience features is resonating with new car buyers."

Sportage, noted for its passenger and cargo space as well as its off-road capabilities and impressive fuel economy, meets the needs of consumers looking for the total package at a significant value. Sportage offers an extensive list of standard safety and convenience features, including six airbags with full-length side curtain airbags, SIRIUS Satellite Radio with three months complimentary service and USB and auxiliary input jacks, while the 2.0-liter engine delivers impressive fuel economy at 20 mpg (city) and 25 mpg (highway).

The AutoPacific VSA establishes numerical satisfaction ratings for the majority of cars and light trucks in the North American market. Owner satisfaction is measured across 48 categories relating to specific areas of a vehicle's operation, comfort, safety and overall purchase or lease experience. The 2009 ratings reflect input from more than 25,000 buyers and lessees of new vehicles acquired September through December 2008.

About Kia Motors America

Kia Motors America (KMA) is the marketing and distribution arm of Kia Motors Corporation based in Seoul, South Korea. KMA offers a complete line of vehicles through more than 625 dealers throughout the United States. For 2008, KMA recorded its 14th consecutive year of increased U.S. market share. Kia Motors subscribes to a philosophy of building high value, high quality, safe and dynamic vehicles. Kia Motors prides itself on producing vehicles that are exciting and enabling and evoke the Kia tagline "The Power to Surprise."

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Kia: It's a real Soul machine

Hot new crossover turns heads, delivers fuel efficiency, comfort

It's sleek, stylish, and the kind of car that you'd expect a first-time driver to be cruising down the roadway.

But when it comes to the 2010 Kia Soul -- the new crossover vehicle that combines the style of modern automotive engineering with the reliability of Kia's legendary warranty -- the model destroys the mold of the typical buyer.

According to Kia Country General Sales Manager Dan Espino, the first buyer of the Kia Soul was a lady in her 60's who drove down from the foothills and hadn't purchased a new car in over 15-years.

While age specific additions like Bluetooth connectivity and an iPod ready stereo are at the ready, the roomy interior and the fuel-efficiency -- topping 30 miles per gallon -- help make the Soul appeal to just about everybody.

And when it comes to how the Kia Soul stacks up to the other competitors in its class -- the Scion xB and the Nissan Cube -- the Soul can hold its own in a dogfight with other compact crossovers that are starting to appeal to more fuel and cost-efficient drivers.

According to a Popular Mechanics test earlier this year, the magazine voted the Soul the best of the three competing models with an average combined mileage of 31.2 miles per gallon -- noting that it was the "canyon carver" of the group that claimed the grin-inducing persona that the testers enjoyed.

"This car has done very well for us and it's only been here for a short time," Espino said. "We've had several people say that they were going to look at other models like the Scion and that usually means that we've lost them.

"But we've had two of them come back and purchase the Soul, and that says a lot about what this car has to offer and the impact that it's making on buyers."

For those looking to get outdoors the Soul has a ton of practical features like a hidden tray in the cargo floor, a dual-level glovebox, cruise control, and ample center console storage.

Added features that only make the experience of driving that much more pleasurable include pulsating speaker lights, Sirius satellite radio, and a sunroof.

"This car has something for everybody, and it's something that you really have to look at to believe," Espino said. "Once you get behind the wheel of one you aren't going to want to let go."

By Jason Campbell
Manteca Bulletin

Monday, May 18, 2009

Kia's new soul-stirring model sure to excite

Bam! Kia has turned it up a notch. The Korean automaker brought automotive scribes here to test drive its new Soul. The five-door run about has the potential to change Kia's public persona from a manufacturer of small affordable but bland looking vehicles to the producer of funky fun to drive cars that are values for the money.

The Soul is an econo-box. It is small, square and relatively fuel-efficient. But Kia's designers angled the roof, the hood and the character lines from front to back so the vehicle looks like it's moving when standing still. That's a pretty nifty feat for a vehicle in this price category.

The Soul is an urban car aimed at youthful drivers. But Kia is realistic. Executives understand that style and value attract older drivers, too. The Soul comes in four trim levels: Soul, Soul+, Soul! and Soul Sport.

Prices begin at $13,300 for the base Soul, while the Soul+ starts at $14,950 and tops out at $17,100 when all options are included. The Soul! Begins at $16,950 and tops out at $17,900. The Soul sport, starts at $16,950 and ends at $18,600. Even when you add the $695 freight charge, any version of a fully equipped Soul will cost less than $20,000.That's not much for a car that will turn heads.

Oomph is provided by a 1.6-liter engine that makes 122 horsepower. There is also a 2.0-liter engine that makes 142 horsepower. Either engine can be mated to a four-speed automatic or a five-speed manual transmission. Kia didn't bring Souls equipped with the smaller engine but I got a chance to drive the automatic and the manual.

But first let's talk about the interior. Kia has done an extraordinary job of livening up the Soul's interior with fabric and color. In this price range, we're talking about plenty of fairly hard plastic but in the Soul it has been softened with texture lines and different hues.

Further interior enhancements were provided by two-tone interiors as well as herringbone-emblazoned seats.

Then there was the equipment. With a youthful target, it's about sound. The Soul offered USB and auxiliary jacks. And I was particularly impressed that the Soul was equipped with satellite radio and Bluetooth that turns compatible cell phones into handless car phones. Heck, one option is speakers that will light up in sync with the music. There was also a 315-watt premium audio system with subwoofer.

Leaving downtown's Brickell Island, we drove through Miami Beach. With the Soul's high seating position I never felt like I was oversized by anything on the road. Sight lines were good, so was handling. And the ride wasn't bad. However, we did notice some road noise. We couldn't tell whether it was the car or its tires.

We came back and went to Coral Cables for lunch. From there, we headed to Key Largo. It was during this run that I found my only complaint with the Soul: the car is a little slow.

The Soul is so snazzy looking that I think buyers will expect it to be a lot quicker than it is. In other words, the Soul could use a little more horsepower. But don't get it twisted; the car doesn't have to be a brute. But 20 more ponies should make it quick and just about perfect.

I hope to get a Soul this summer for a week-long road test to gauge reaction to it as well as its reaction to roads that have been ravaged by a particularly cold winter. Still, the Soul is a watershed for Kia. It's got the right price and it's got good looks.

Frank S. Washington

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Boxy Soul is ready to roll

Americans already have heartily embraced the extreme boxiness of Toyota's Scion xB, and now two similar vehicles have joined the xB in the marketplace -- the 2010 Kia Soul and Nissan Cube.

The Soul arrived first, going on sale in March, but the Cube is right on its heels.

While the two are quite different in their styling, the concept is the same: a small box on wheels, with lots of interior space, that doesn't leave a big footprint (like one of those SUVs that people love to hate these days).

For this report, we tested the Soul, which one of my colleagues took one look at and declared it to be a "clown car." He even started humming a circus song.

The Soul does have a clownish look about it, but that's a huge part of its charm.

Kia's ads call it "A new way to roll," and the automaker says the Soul "playfully stands out in a sea of sameness."

Even with the xB and Cube around, there's still nothing that looks quite like the Soul.

For one thing, the roofline is sloped down from front to rear, while the belt line rises to meet it. That gives it almost trapezoidal side windows.

The rounded nose with its large headlights adds to the car's comical look, created by Kia's Southern California design team. The vehicle is "aimed toward the young and young-at-heart," Kia says.

As with the xB, this car will appeal to a young crowd, for sure, but also will be embraced by lots of us who are much older. Kia's not as afraid of that as Toyota was with the xB, which was intended for young audiences only. Toyota created the Scion models to bring young buyers into the brand, then seemed somewhat shocked that older folks were buying the xB and loving it.

A redesign of the xB two years ago made it larger and less boxy, however, so now it's really in a different category from the Soul and Cube. Many fans of the original xB don't care much for the new one, and these consumers just might be the best prospects for the Soul and Cube.

The xB now seems to be competing more with the larger and more expensive Honda Element, while the Soul and Cube are in a class that includes such entries as the Suzuki SX4, Scion xD (and similar Toyota Yaris five-door), and maybe even the redesigned Honda Fit and the new Mini Cooper Clubman. Other competitors could include the Dodge Caliber and Jeep Compass.

Prices begin at $13,300 (plus $695 freight) for the Soul base model with a 122-horsepower, 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine and five-speed manual gearbox. No automatic transmission is offered with the base engine, though.

The other three Soul trim levels -- Plus, Exclaim and Sport -- come with a 142-horsepower, 2.0-liter four cylinder and a choice of the five-speed manual or a four-speed automatic.

Prices range as high as $18,900 for the Sport version with all available options.

Our tester was the Exclaim model with automatic transmission ($17,900 plus freight). It came in a funky color Kia calls "Alien green." It looks like it just rolled in from Roswell, N.M., after departing from the Mother Ship.

Other available exterior colors include three shades of white (are there really different shades of white?) called Dune, Clear and Ghost; Denim blue; "flame-emulating" Ignition; "coffee-inspired" Java; "red-hot" Molten; and three metallic tones, Shadow, Titanium and Bright Silver.

Standard features on the base model include a chrome grille, auto-off headlights, solar glass, black door handles and side mirrors, air conditioning, tilt steering column, power door locks, power windows with driver's side auto-down, external temperature display and digital clock in the radio, dual-level glove box, rear-window defroster, cargo area light, body-color front and rear fascias with black inserts, black side molding, rear wiper/washer, variable intermittent front wipers and 15-inch steel wheels.

Moving up to the Plus model brings cruise control with steering-wheel-mounted controls, Bluetooth phone connection, dual 12-volt power outlets, tweeter speakers, dual visor vanity mirrors, dual map lights, keyless remote entry, privacy glass, body-color door handles and (power) side mirrors and 16-inch alloy wheels. Options include fog lights and a power sunroof.

With our Exclaim model came the sunroof and fog lights, along with quite nice 18-inch alloy wheels that helped exaggerate the clownish look.

The Sport version adds side sills, a rear spoiler, and unique front and rear fascias.

Inside, this car won me over from the start. The large, high doors allow for easy entry and exit, something I enjoyed immensely after a week of trying to fold myself into and out of the Saturn Sky roadster.

Once inside, this car that seems so small on the outside is quite cavernous. The front bucket seats were as comfortable as I've found in a car that sells for under $40,000, and the interior layout was designed with practicality and usefulness in mind.

Where with the Sky I never found a place to put my cell phone, the Soul had lots of cubbies and cup holders that were perfect for my assortment of traveling electronic companions, including my PDA phone, iPod Touch, classic 80-gigabyte iPod, backup phone and the ever-present pocket-size Sony digital camcorder (you never know when you might need that at a moment's notice).

The phone and iPods fit nicely in a compartment just below the top of the dash. It has a door that swings up when opened and can be closed to hide the gadgets from view while the vehicle is parked.

The little camcorder fit nicely in one of the cup holders, but when I needed both of those (with a passenger on board), the camera went into a nice, square tray just in front of the shifter.

My iPod Touch was plugged into the auxiliary jack on the front of the audio system so I could hear my tunes through the car's speakers. There was also a USB port there that allowed me to control and to play the classic iPod through the audio system. But the audio system was not compatible with the Touch, which means it won't be with the iPhone, either.

Sirius satellite radio and a CD player were part of the audio system, which in my car had six speakers. My only complaint was that I couldn't crank the volume as high as I like to have it sometimes.

The dash is stylishly sloped, and the analog gauges are large and easy to read.

Rear passengers have easy access through the large rear doors, and there is plenty of head- and legroom. Three can sit back there quite comfortably, which is unusual for a car this small.

Access to the cargo area is through a rear hatch that rises in one piece. There is enough room for a couple of suitcases or sports gear even with the rear seatbacks in place, but the cargo space can be expanded to 53 cubic feet by lowering the 60/40 split seatbacks.

While I haven't driven the 122-horsepower base model, I found the 142-horsepower engine to be more than adequate for most of my driving, while riding alone or with a front-seat passenger. Occasionally, the Soul struggled to get up to freeway speed on uphill on-ramps, but it wasn't a real problem.

The automatic transmission shifts quite smoothly, but could use an extra gear to help with fuel economy. Even so, our tester was EPA rated at 24 miles per gallon city/30 highway, not bad for a car with this much carrying capacity. The smaller engine has mileage ratings of 26 city/31 highway.

Standard safety features include anti-lock brakes, active front headrests, front seat-mounted side air bags, roof-mounted side-curtain air bags for both rows, electronic stability and traction control, electronic brake-force distribution with brake assist and a tire-pressure monitoring system.

G. Chambers Williams III

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Kia Soul! -- Yes! A car just brimming with punctuation!

Gotta hand it to those marketing folks. Kia, the big Korean auto maker that is quickly gobbling up the market niche that used to be exclusive to the Japanese, has come up with a new wrinkle: put an exclamation point after the car's name -- it's the Kia Soul! -- and see what happens.

What happens is that people like me, who deal in puncutation on a more or less regular basis, take note of it. We scratch our proverbial chins and realize that Kia has caught our attention. And that is a laudable goal, given the dozens of cars that cry for attention nearly every day.

The Kia Soul (enough, awready, with the bang -- that's newsroom slang for an exclamation point) -- is a quirky, pretty well-designed sub-compact along the lines of the Toyota Matrix/Pontiac Vibe, Honda Fit, Chevy HHR, Suzuki SX4 and Scion (xD or xB).

It's a highly competitive market for these cars in the roughly $13,000 to $18,000 range, depending on the options and trim lines. The Kia Soul, a five-door hatchback, starts off with the base Soul (with a 1.6-liter, 122-horsepower four-banger), then moves up through three other versions (all with a two-liter, 142-horse four-banger) -- Soul + (yes, more punctuation, this time a plus sign); Soul! (aka Soul Exclaim) and Soul Sport. All but the base model come with standard electronic stability control.

We had the Exclaim, dressed in a sort of cream-colored paint with cloth seats, and here we have to tell you about the interior -- the tops of the otherwise black seats have a houndstooth check pattern. You'd think it be off putting, jarring, but it's not. It actually works with the otherwise plain interior.

There are all the usual mod cons sprinkled around the place -- redundant sound controls on the steering wheel, all electric windows (you'd think they would do all-power-down instead of just the driver's window; it can't cost that much more), sliding sunroof. But the piece de resistance is what Kia calls the "advanced lighting speaker."

Switch to "mood" and you get different shades of light in the front door speakers. Switch to "music" and the light kind of pulses high to low to high to low, depending on the type of music. It's not clear, what, exactly, the point of all this is, but it's diverting. The problem would be if it's so distracting that you pay more attention to the burbling light than you do to the road.

Speaking of which, when the Kia Soul is on the road it has that perky small car ride and feel -- it bounces! (see, we can use punctuation, too) over the bumps and it's not Lexus-quiet inside. But it does get up to speed and it does move down the highway at the same speed as those Lexi, even if it sounds as if the Soul is laboring a bit, or at least starting to breathe hard.

The seats are pretty comfortable and there really is room for five people, even if the ones in back will get to know each other well if they're on a long journey.

The main thing about this car, however, is that it's different from the rest of the pack and that is not a bad thing. The gimmicks -- the glowing speakers, the spunky name -- are just that. Gimmicks. But the rest of the car seems to work. It gets good gas mileage (in the 24 to 30 mpg) range, it's not expensive to buy. Awright!


2009 Kia Soul!, five-door front-wheel-drive hatchback.

Price: test model, $18,595. (base price $17,900)

Powertrain: two-liter inline four-cylinder 142-horsepower engine; four-speed automatic transmission

Curb weight: 2,560 pounds.

Seating capacity: five.

Fuel consumption : 24 mpg, city; 30 mpg, highway.

Fuel tank capacity: 12.7 gallons.

Length: 161.6 inches; width: 70.3 inches; height: 63.4 inches; wheelbase: 100.4 inches.

Warranty: bumper to bumper: five years/60,000 miles; power train: ten years/100,000 miles.

Dependability: Kia ranks 27th (below industry average) out of 37 brands on the J.D. Power and Associates 2009 Vehicle Dependability Study.

Safety: for vehicle safety ratings, visit the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Michael Taylor

Monday, May 11, 2009

Kia puts its spirit into all-new Soul

Kia Motors' new five-passenger vehicle offers another choice to car shoppers looking for fuel economy, lots of space and a unique personality.

The 2010 Soul was designed by Kia Motors' Southern California-based design team and is the latest in the company's lineup. It's actually the first of a line of next-generation vehicles that Kia plans to launch during the next two years.

"Soul offers the perfect combination of style, value and personalized options," said Michael Sprague, vice president of marketing for Kia Motors America. "It defies categorization, and has a long list of features and available accessories that really speaks to today's consumer."

Most automakers know that emotion has a lot to do with a customer's choice when buying a new or even a used vehicle - and it is styling that generates that emotional attraction. Soul doesn't offer the latest and greatest technical breakthroughs; it offers styling that sets it apart from its competitors.

Its low, wide stance, combined with an angled window line, rounded nose and large flared headlamps, gives Soul a trendy, youthful appearance.

Soul rides on a new platform that isn't shared with any other Kia or Hyundai vehicles. Constructed with more than 70 percent high-tensile-strength steel to enhance structural strength without adding a lot of weight, the new Kia body was engineered for high torsional stiffness - an attribute necessary for refined ride quality and handling.

Soul is available in four models: the base Soul, Soul+, Soul! and Soul sport. Most of the differences among the models are visual, such as the color of the door handles, different wheel sizes or unique front and rear fascias.

Soul's exterior styling allows a surprisingly spacious interior. Passengers will find comfort in the roomy cabin that offers passenger volume of 102.3 cubic feet, about the same as a Honda Element.

The dashboard has a three-dial instrument cluster and LCD illumination. The center-stack design allows easy access to the AM/FM/CD/MP3 audio system outfitted with Sirius Satellite Radio. Standard USB and auxiliary input jacks are in the center console with full iPod and MP3 controllability from the audio head unit or steering wheel controls.

For the Soul! and Soul sport, a standard audio upgrade package has center speaker, subwoofer, 315-watt external amplifier and speaker lights that pulse to the beat of the music or simply add mood lighting. Soul features a fully independent, subframe mounted front suspension system with MacPherson struts, coil springs, gas shock absorbers and stabilizer bar. The rear suspension is subframe mounted, using a transverse torsion-beam axle with trailing arms, coil springs and gas shock absorbers for a good ride and minimum cargo-space intrusion.

For those looking for driving fun, the Soul sport offers a sport-tuned suspension, metal pedals, unique and bold red-black interior trim with sporty red-trimmed cloth seats and metal-finish interior accents.

The base 1.6-liter, four-cylinder engine is mated to a five-speed manual transmission, producing 122 horsepower and 115 lb.-ft. of torque. For better performance, a 2.0-liter four-cylinder, 142-horsepower engine is available with either the five-speed manual or a four-speed automatic transmission. It's shared with several Hyundai vehicles.

s Fuel economy for the 1.6-liter manual is 26/31 mpg city/highway, while the 2.0-liter delivers 24/30 mpg with either the automatic or manual transmission.

Soul offers the same level of standard safety equipment as all other Kia vehicles, including front-seat active headrests, advanced air bags, front seat-mounted and full-length side-curtain air bags. Anti-lock brakes, stability control, traction control, electronic brake distribution, brake assist and tire-pressure monitoring are standard equipment.

Kia is steadily improving its reputation for building high-quality vehicles at very competitive prices, thanks to its close relationship with its owner, Hyundai.

Soul pricing begins at $13,300 for the base trim, while Soul+ starts at $14,950 and tops out at $17,100. Upgrading to the Soul! runs the price up to $16,950 or $17,900 fully loaded, and the Soul sport starts at $16,950 and tops out at $18,600. The new Soul is proof that style, room and comfort can be had at a reasonable price.

By Dave Van Sickle MOTOR MATTERS
The Washington Times

Thursday, May 7, 2009

2010 Kia Soul !: The kooky box that's almost perfect

It's quite hard these days for any automaker to elicit long, head-cocked stares at a boxy compact. Honda started the kooky look with the 2003 Element, an SUV-like square with suicide doors and an interior floor that could literally be hosed down. A year later, Toyota brought over one of its Japanese-market subcompacts and labeled it the Scion xB, a supposedly youth-oriented toaster with gobs of headroom. Not to be outdone, Ford stretched the idea into a seven-passenger crossover last year, replete with a glass-topped white-painted roof, huge wheels, and enough ruler-straight lines to make a geometry teacher proud.

While the Flex is still gushing from its 2008 debut, the Element and xB have become so mainstream they hardly get second glances any more. But the 2010 Nissan Cube and Kia Soul are adding more punch to the Asian storage bin category, and while we can't vouch yet for the Cube, the Soul! (the exclamation is a trim level) was different enough to have Bostonians pointing and shouting at it.

Standing on the Kia's door sills as I snapped photos through the sunroof of the glowing red interior – and the dozens of bright LEDs in the door speakers – I heard a kid yell "gay car!" Think about that, Mr. Boston College student. If the Soul were gay, wouldn't stop lambasting Kia for denying domestic partner benefits to its gay employees? (Kia's PR head confirmed the company offers them, but is adamant that they're only for California). That's a tough call, but stepping further into this delusional, hormonal undergrad psyche reveals this: Girls are very curious about cars with big feet, and the Soul's attractive 18-inchers couldn't be more obvious.

For people who've graduated and actually have jobs, a car's sexual orientation isn't on their shopping lists. What's relevant about those big wheels and 225-width Hankook tires are their crisp, stable, no-slop handling. Combined with precise steering and minimal dead on-center feel, the Soul drives as refreshing as it looks. Granted, the body style isn't out to win a beauty contest, what with cartoonish headlights and side glass that angles downward toward the D-pillar. But it's not a copycat look, either, and the five-spoke rims give a no-nonsense attitude pushed to the edges on all corners.

The suspension never punishes, nor does chassis shake ever get in the picture. Ride comfort is surprisingly smooth, but the trade-off is a fair amount of body lean. The top-level "sport" offers a firmer setup that seems more in character with the aggressive body, but after driving the Honda Fit Sport, I don't think I could stomach a bone-jarring commute every day. The 10 percent of the time you're on twisty roads in the Boston area just isn't worth the headache.

The engine, however, could stand a tune-up from Honda. On paper, the 2.0 liter, 142 horsepower four-cylinder sounds sufficient for 2,820 pounds. At moderate speeds, it is, in addition to being quiet and vibration-free. But the engine gets coarse past 3,000 r.p.m., and it really isn't eager to go past that. When pushed, the four-speed automatic reveals wide ratio gaps that sap the torque out of the engine. The peaky power curves aren't the problem, and more output isn't needed. What the Soul deserves are faster revs and an overhaul on the gears – perhaps another one is all that's needed. A manual mode would also be a welcome effort.

The two-tone dashboard was tastefully matched to our car's Dune off-white paint, probably less so if had been colored Alien lime green or Molten bright red. The funky weave pattern on the headrests and the top of the front seats, not so much. Panel gaps are tight, and textured surfaces on the doors, steering wheel, and dash have a quality feel worthy of more expensive cars.

Ergonomics are first rate, too. The instrument panel is angled high for easy reach of the well-spaced buttons and knobs, and everything is labeled and positioned right where you'd expect. No door lock switches on the center console like on pricey Jaguars and BMWs, or digital displays crammed with too many readouts. There's nothing to figure out, and that alone deserves major kudos.

Unfortunately, the back seat isn't as inviting. The rear doors include large cupholders like up front, but there are no air louvers or power outlets.

The 315-watt, 8-speaker audio system comes with iPod, USB, and auxiliary inputs, plus the aforementioned front speaker lights that flash in sync with the beats. They're distracting while driving – even in the slow-phase "mood" setting – but fun to amuse passengers and passersby. Sound quality gets distorted at higher volumes, but this no-name system has a decent amount of chest-thumping bass. Blast Dr. Dre in the Kia and you'll get more respect than if you cranked "Still D.R.E." in an Escalade, which had a weak Bose unit.

Fuel economy was just so-so in our tester, which just had 1,200 miles. Like the Toyota Yaris I recently drove, there's no trip computer, but after 227 miles of mostly city driving, the Soul returned an estimated 21 to 22 miles per gallon. While not far below the EPA 24/30 rating, it's an unimpressive number for a car this size, especially since an all-wheel-drive Suzuki SX4 I drove in the snow returned nearly the same numbers.

But in value terms, the Kia is well-positioned among the competition. At $17,900 ($18,595 with destination), this Soul – with Bluetooth, Sirius radio, tilt wheel, power moon roof, and fog lamps – is a better buy than the bare-bones $17,515 Yaris S and about $1,500 less than a comparative Scion xB. There's a few rough edges on this box, but Kia has delivered a remarkably fresh design, something that couldn't be said about the Korean company's offerings even a year ago.

Clifford Atiyeh

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

2010 Kia Soul Recognized by Texas Auto Writers Association as 'Best Value'

Urban Passenger Vehicle Highly Regarded in 2009 Spring Challenge Writer's Choice Awards

# All-new Kia honored by Texas-based automotive media association
# Soul named to annual awards list chosen specifically by journalists

IRVINE, Calif., May 4, 2009 – Kia Motors America, Inc. (KMA) today announced the 2010 Kia Soul urban passenger vehicle has been named "Best Value" in the Writer's Choice Awards for the 2009 Texas Auto Writers Association (TAWA) Spring Challenge. One of only seven vehicles honored in this year's list, Soul was ultimately chosen for its smart combination of attractive pricing, long list of accessories and standard safety features.

"Soul is just one of many all-new vehicles Kia will be launching throughout the next year with a heavy focus on design and value," said Michael Sprague, vice president of marketing, KMA. "We recognize the high-level of competition during these events and are pleased that members of TAWA appreciate Soul's value, standard features and available accessories."

Also a recipient of the "Grooviest Interior" award from Ward's AutoWorld, Soul is available in four trims, Soul, Soul+, Soul! (exclaim) and Soul sport. Pricing for the versatile five door begins at $13,300 for the base trim, while Soul+ starts at $14,950 and tops out at $17,100 when all options are included. Moving up to the Soul! offers a price beginning at $16,950 and peaks at $17,900 with all available options included and the Soul sport, designed for those with active lifestyles, starts at $16,950 and tops out at $18,600 with all available options included.

Soul stands out from the crowd with modern, unique styling aimed toward the young and young-at-heart and offers a unique combination of style, value and personalization options. An available Audio Upgrade Package includes speaker lights that can pulse to the beat of the music or add mood lighting to the interior cabin, enhancing the overall personal lounge feeling. The Soul+ offers funky black cloth seats with "glowing" Soul logo inserts while the Soul! trim comes with a distinctive sand-black interior with houndstooth-patterned inserts, and the Soul sport presents a bold red-black interior trim with red-trimmed cloth seats and metal-finish interior accents.

The TAWA Spring Challenge is held the last Monday of every April at the Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, Texas. Members of the Texas-based media association have the opportunity to test drive sports cars, sedans, crossovers, roadsters, coupes, and vans in a controlled environment and evaluate each vehicle against others entered in the competition.

Kia Motors Product Line

Kia Motors America offers a dynamic and diverse product line of 12 vehicles to meet the needs of all lifestyles. The vehicle line features the functional Rondo CUV and award-winning Sedona minivan along with a wide variety of popular passenger cars, including the refined Amanti full-size sedan, purposeful Optima midsize sedan, versatile and compact Spectra and Spectra5, and sporty yet fuel-efficient Rio and Rio5 subcompacts. The vehicle line also features the affordably luxurious Borrego, rugged Sorento and value-packed Sportage SUVs. The 2010 Soul further complements the lineup as it arrives in dealerships, as will the 2010 Forte sedan and Forte Koup.

About Kia Motors America

Kia Motors America (KMA) is the marketing and distribution arm of Kia Motors Corporation based in Seoul, South Korea. KMA offers a complete line of vehicles through more than 625 dealers throughout the United States. For 2008, KMA recorded its 14th consecutive year of increased U.S. market share. Kia Motors subscribes to a philosophy of building high value, high quality, safe and dynamic vehicles. Kia Motors prides itself on producing vehicles that are exciting and enabling and evoke the Kia tagline "The Power to Surprise."

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Kia Borrego -- a truck-based SUV that's a bit out of date

Maybe the Kia Borrego is just the car for its eponymous California desert town -- Borrego Springs, in a remote northeast section of San Diego County.

"Borrego Springs is a village within a park completely surrounded and protected by the amazing 600,000 acre Anza-Borrego Desert State Park," the town's Chamber of Commerce and Visitor's Bureau says on its Web site. "Here in San Diego's only desert community, the nearest stoplight is fifty miles away. We have no big box or chain stores. The slower, uncomplicated pace, the scenic beauty and the human scale of the place combine to produce a rustic, authentic desert experience, a special place, in all seasons."

Just the place to have a slightly antiquated, boxy, upright, solid SUV whose time may have gone by. Not that we went to Borrego Springs to try out the Borrego. But we traveled vicariously, through the wonders of the Web.

The point about comparing the desert town to this biggish SUV is that, while Borrego Springs may seem out of whack in time it does so in a charming and inoffensive way -- we like having a town out there in the middle of almost nowhere, west of the Salton Sea and east of the moon. It's comforting. It's safe.

But do we like having an SUV whose time may be past? The big Kia, based, as it is, on a truck platform, has many of the ills associated with riding in a truck -- there is that wallowing feel you sometimes get on rough roads; it's high off the ground (the running boards help); and it has that rough, almost mannish manner about it that says it is no namby-pamby station wagon.

All well and good, except, well.... things have advanced in the auto world and the one thing that is fairly obvious is that crossover utility vehicles offer about the same amenities and hauling capacities as the Borrego, but your backside does not get beat up during that 15-mile trip to that shopping mall across the county.

The point is that for roughly the same money (our test model started life at about $30,000 and stickered at more than $36,000, when optioned up) you could get one of the terrific General Motors clan of crossovers, typifed by the GMC Acadia or Buick Enclave.

Those two, while getting roughly the same fuel mileage (the Kia and the GM variants all hover in the 16/22 mpg area) are vastly better riding and just feel and look classier.

The Borrego has two power trains available -- a 3.8-liter, 276-horse V6, and a 4.6-liter 337-horsepower V8 -- and also comes in two-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive. We had the V6 AWD version and it had plenty of power for the normal urban and suburban crawl. Interestingly, the fuel mileage on the V6 is only one mpg better than the V8, which would make me (a power-hungry chap) err on the side of the bigger motor.

The Borrego, on the plus side (if this is a plus) has the same muscular feel to its looks as Acura's MDX or Nissan's Armada -- it's that big, bruising, hulking mien -- and it makes you feel invincible up there on the freeway, cruising past all the small fry to port or starboard.

There is one little weird detail that I couldn't figure out: in the instrument panel, the water temperature gauge looked like every standard gauge, with one exception. The "H" was on the left and the "C" was no the right. Huh? Normally, you watch the needle going from left to right, starting with Cold on the left. In the Kia, it was backwards. A quirk by a designer? something for the U.K. market? Who knows?

So... is this an attractive buy in the SUV pantheon? Depends on how you like your trucks. If you like trucks that say they are trucks and not some wimpy wagon, then go ahead. But if you'd like a smoother ride, with the same cargo space and modern amenities, I'd go for something newer.


2009 Kia Borrego, five-door all-wheel-drive SUV.

Price: test model, $36,295. (base price $29,995)

Powertrain: 3.8-liter V6 276-horsepower engine; five-speed automatic transmission

Curb weight: 4,460 pounds.

Seating capacity: seven.

Fuel consumption : 16 mpg, city; 21 mpg, highway.

Fuel tank capacity: 20.6 gallons.

Length: 192.1 inches; width: 75.4 inches; height: 71.3 inches; wheelbase: 114 inches.

Warranty: bumper to bumper: five years/60,000 miles; power train: ten years/100,000 miles.

Dependability: Kia ranks 27th (below industry average) out of 37 brands on the J.D. Power and Associates 2009 Vehicle Dependability Study.

Safety: for vehicle safety ratings, visit the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Source: Kia Motors; U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Monday, May 4, 2009

Kia rolls with Soul

It's nice to see a manufacturer that's doing something right in this slumping economy. And with the launch of its 2010 Soul, Kia is definitely doing something right.

This oddly shaped vehicle may not look like much at a glance, but I encourage you to look again. When you do, you'll see a nicely equipped vehicle with air conditioning, a total cargo volume (with rear seats down) of 53.4 cubic-feet, seating for five and standard safety that includes six airbags.

Oh, and did I mention that you can get all this for less than $14,000?

Kia's tagline for the Soul is: "A new way to roll." The manufacturer has set out to create a cool vehicle that gives you everything you need and plenty that you want. The idea is to make consumers think differently about the Kia brand as well as provide a cost-effective ride that doesn't mean "cheap."

The manufacturer has made no secret that the Scion xB is in its sights. Nor has Kia hidden the fact that it thinks the Soul will beat the pants off the new Nissan cube.

As far as the xB is concerned, my brief time behind the wheel of the Soul leads me to conclude that the Soul has far surpassed that previous trendsetter. Scion made a mistake with the second-generation xB, not only by creating a second-gen vehicle in the first place but also by making it bigger and more expensive. The Soul has a base price that is a full $2,000 less than the xB, and it is 7 inches shorter. For an "urban" vehicle, every dollar and every inch counts. Not to mention the fact that the quality of the Soul exceeds that of the xB, and the Soul is an overall tighter package with better handling.

I haven't yet had any seat time in the cube, so I can't make any direct comparisons in terms of quality or handling. But, on paper, cube offers only one engine choice, a base 1.8-liter, four-cylinder engine that delivers 122 horsepower, and it has a starting price that's just $5 less than the Soul. Visually, I like the warped "wraparound" window of the cube, but overall I like the interior creativity of the Soul better.

One of the things I really liked about the Soul is the different levels with unique trims for each. The base Soul is pretty minimal with three exterior color options (black, white and silver) and one interior color scheme (black). It is the only model that comes equipped with the 1.6-liter, four-cylinder engine that delivers 122 horsepower. Plus at this level there is one transmission (the five-speed manual), and the only option is floor mats ($95). In addition to the aforementioned standard features, the entry-level Soul also includes a four-speaker audio system with AM/FM/MP3/SAT, USB and auxiliary jacks, 15-inch wheels, electronic stability control and tire pressure monitoring system. Base price for the Soul is $13,995.

Upgrading to the + model keeps it close to $15,000 with the five-speed manual transmission and the up-level 2.0-liter, four-cylinder engine that delivers 142 horsepower. This level adds standard features like three additional paint colors (green, red and titanium), 16-inch wheels, a six-speaker audio system and Bluetooth hands-free connectivity. Options at this level include the audio upgrade with subwoofer and speaker lights ($400), floor mats ($95) and power sunroof with fog lights ($800). The interior color scheme at the + level is black with a twist. The seating surfaces have textured inserts with the word "Soul" repeating throughout. This might sound kind of busy and distracting, but it covers such a small selection of the seats that it actually looks nice. Plus, the "Soul" glows in the dark. At this level you'll pay $15,645 for the manual transmission and $16,595 for the automatic.

The next level is !, and it does away with the white, silver and red colors and adds Dune and Java (my favorite) to the green, titanium and black. The ! also takes the options from the + level and makes them standard. So you'll add $2,000 to the price tag, and you get 18-inch wheels and $1,200 in options. Plus, yet again, the interior scheme changes. The basic seating surface is black, but the headrests and top of the seats have a black-and-sand colored houndstooth print that's both kitschy and stylish. There are no options available at this level. For the ! with the manual transmission, you'll pay $17,645, and for the automatic you'll pay $18,595.

The final level of the Soul is the Sport. It has the same pricing as the ! model, but it has a few differences in equipment and colors. The sunroof becomes a $700 option, but the Sport adds unique front and rear fascias, unique side sills and a rear spoiler. Dune and Java are dropped from the color lineup, and silver, red and white reappear. The interior scheme is also different with black-and-red sport cloth.

There were no base models for us to test during the press preview, so we were only able to look at models with the 2.0-liter engine. While 142 horsepower doesn't seem like very much in the modern world of 400-horsepower V-8s, I have to say that the Soul was well powered for an entry-level four-cylinder vehicle. It wasn't underpowered at all, and I think a Chicagoan in need of those frequent quick starts and highway merges wouldn't be disappointed. Plus the mileage ratings for a vehicle of this size will be hard to beat. For this engine you're looking at city/highway Environmental Protection Agency estimates of 24/30 mpg. The 1.6-liter engine sees slightly better mileage estimates of 26/31 mpg.

My driving partner and I had the opportunity to drive a manual transmission Sport model and an automatic transmission + model. While I liked the manual transmission, this is one instance where I will tell you to pay the extra $1,000 for the automatic -- even if you are adept at driving a stick. The automatic transmission was so much better and incredibly well geared for those quick accelerations, that I couldn't do better myself with the manual. And, let's face it, in Chicago the automatic is typically the preference anyway with all that stop-and-go traffic.

I noticed that the suspension in the Sport model was a little stiffer than the +, but it was a minimal difference. Ride and handling was pretty steady in both vehicles, and I liked the stiff, responsive steering. Additionally, interior quietness was incredibly good for a vehicle in this price category. Overall fit and finish was also well above what you'd expect for a vehicle in this price range.

Another key selling point of this vehicle for me was the driving position. The manual height adjustable seat and tilt steering column really helped me get the driver's seat exactly where I wanted it. An added bonus: The seats were comfortable in all positions for long stretches of time.

The interior of the Soul is simple yet attractive. I liked the red gauge lighting, and the controls on the center stack were intuitive and easy to reach. The thing that really struck me about the interior, though, was the genuine quality. In addition to being attractive, nothing felt cheap or flimsy. Even the storage compartment at the top of the stack was solid.

I really got a kick out of the optional audio package with the speaker lights. Even though I didn't get the full effect since we only drove in daylight, I could get the general idea with the vehicle parked in shade. The red speaker lights can be set to the rhythm of the music (my favorite), to a steady blink-blink-blink beat or simply to on.

Other standard features of note include the dual glove box that is large enough to hold a laptop computer, power door locks, power windows with driver's side auto down, rear window defroster and standard steering wheel audio controls and cruise control beginning at the + level.

As this was just a preview of the Soul, my time behind the wheel was brief. But my first impression of this hip urban vehicle is favorable. I liked the oddball looks and unique interior treatments depending on the trim level. I liked the ride and handling, and I really liked the four-speed automatic transmission. The Soul has a nice size and even better fuel economy, both of which are becoming increasingly important in today's society.

So with its new "halo" vehicle, Kia presents what it calls: "The right vehicle at the right time." I think it's spot on.

Chicago Sun-Times