First Drive

2012 Kia Soul – the second coming

Kia has given the 2012 Soul a refresh inside, outside and under the skin

2012 Kia Soul
AT A GLANCE
PRICE
$1,659 base. $23,595 as tested.

SALISH, WA – Meanwhile, Kia has given the 2012 Soul a facelift inside and out, innovative new technology, new transmissions and a pair of new engines offering more power and improved fuel economy. It’s full speed ahead for the Soul.

The 2012 Soul gets a variety of exterior enhancements. Up front, the hood, fascia and lights are new. The other end is similarly updated with a new fascia and taillights. At both ends the folks in the design department gave it a wider, lower look. The mirrors and all wheels – 15-in, 16-in and18-in – are also new.

The 2012 Soul is available in a wide variety of models and trim levels spanning the $15,595 - $25,395 range with two different engines, two transmissions and front or all-wheel-drive.

INTERIOR

On the inside, the main visual changes are the instrument cluster, centre stack and console. Patterns, colours and lighting have also been updated and two-stage heated front seats are now standard across all trim levels.

The Soul continues to offer exceptionally easy entry and exit and excellent visibility, thanks to the tall roof and four big square doors. You sit tall and regardless of location have plenty of headroom.

There is room for three abreast in the rear seat, but they would be cramped. Two fit very comfortably.

A big, wide tailgate opens upwards to reveal a spacious cargo area that can be further augmented by folding one or both rear seat backs. The tall roofline means you can accommodate very large objects back there. There is a cargo tray beneath the cargo floor where you can hide small objects from public view.

The biggest changes to the Soul for 2012 come from the R&D department. They include the availability of a voice-activated navigation system or the UVO infotainment system developed by Microsoft and exclusive to Kia. In either case you get an 18-cm color screen and rear-view camera. Audio fans can now opt for a new premium Infinity 350-watt system with standalone sub-woofer.

MECHANICALS

As before, the Soul comes with a choice of 1.6 and 2.0-litre aluminum four-cylinder engines and two transmissions. But for 2012, all four are all-new.

The old 1.6-littre "Gamma" engine has been heavily modified and now incorporates high-pressure direct injection and variable valve timing on both the intake and exhaust valves. The resultant output is 138-hp compared to 124-hp from the outgoing unit and 123 lb-ft of torque compared to 115.

The new 2.0-litre engine under the hood for 2012 is the "nu" corporate unit also appearing in the new Hyundai Elantra. It puts 22 more horses in the corral, bringing the total to 164 and 11 additional lb-ft of torque, now 148.

The five-speed manual gearbox used in the outgoing model has been replaced by a six-speed unit and the old four-speed automatic by one with six-speeds.

Both engines can be paired with either transmission. Not only has performance been boosted, so has fuel economy. The 1.6-litre by 0.3 litres/100 km in the city and 0.7 on the highway and the 2.0-litre engine by 0.7 in both city and highway.

Available in limited quantities on the base model with automatic transmission, while Kia judges consumer acceptance and interest, is Idle Stop and Go (ISG). Packaged under the ECO label and priced at $1,000 the option includes satellite radio, cruise control, 16-in alloy wheels, low rolling-resistance tires and keyless ignition.

ISG shuts the engine off when the vehicle comes to a rest – say at a stop light – and restart instantly when your foot is lifted from the brake pedal. The first such system available in a non-hybrid, non-luxury car on this continent, it incorporates numerous sensors and modifications to a variety of mechanicals ranging from piston rings to an alternator management system. Both the battery and starter have been beefed up as well, the latter tested for 350,000 starts.

The testing procedures (computerized drive route) used by Natural Resources Canada for its ratings, do not include enough simulated stops to allow ISG and similar systems to show their worth. Kia is coy about the mileage gains but internal testing shows you can expect 5% - 7% range if the drive includes a several long traffic lights.

Using Transport Canada data Kia figures that if every passenger vehicle in Canada reduced idle time by two minutes a day we’d save 305,000 million litres of fuel a year – and pump considerably less nastiness into the environment.

A further gain of about 7% can be had on this model by depressing the ECO button to on the dash to the left of the steering wheel. This softens throttle response and alters shift patterns with an eye to saving fuel.

ON THE ROAD

The first thing you notice about the new Soul is the additional grunt available when accelerating from rest, especially with the 2.0-litre engine. The added poke also shows when climbing grades or pulling out to pass.

The new six-speed automatic adds a level of refinement to the new performance, spreading the power delivery across the additional gears. In other words, when pulling away form rest, first gear is lower for more torque multiplication and when climbing hills or passing the transmission can select from three or four ratios instead of two when downshifting. Sixth gear is a higher fuel-saving ratio for more relaxed highway cruising and lower fuel consumption.

The base 1.6 engine, as before, is no barn burner, but if fuel economy is high on your list, opt for the automatic with ISG and you’ll get the same highway mileage as the manual and better city fuel economy. The ISG system is transparent. The engine idles so smoothly you only notice it shut down when the tachometer plunges to zero. The restart is instant, accompanied by the slight sound of a starter motor.

Subtle changes to various suspension components have resulted in a more compliant ride. The tall Soul still leans plenty in the corners and understeer sets in early but the overall package is more refined.

Ride quality does suffer somewhat on versions equipped with the 45-series, 18-inch tires. The minimal sidewall leaves little room for compression and absorption over sudden surface changes like tar strips and pothole edges.

SAFETY

The 2012 Soul gets not only the now-mandatory ABS and electronic stability control, but electronic brake force distribution, electronic traction control and brake assist. The latest iteration of the company’s stability control system, called VSM (Vehicle Stability Management) incorporates electronic steering assist to counter under and over-steer tendencies on low grip surfaces.

CONCLUSIONS

When the Soul first appeared it caught the market unprepared. Nobody expected anything with so much individuality and style to come from Kia. But that was only the first result of the company having lured noted designer Peter Schreyer away from Audi. A steady stream of innovative new looks has followed under his supervision. Now we get a second coming of the Soul and life is good.

Sprung on an unsuspecting public a little more than two years ago, the funky little Kia was a hit from the outset, outselling its Nissan Cube and Scion xB competitors combined in Canada. And Honda has ceased producing the square-box Element.

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