First Drive: Kia Soul

If music be the food of love, Northern Soul is something of an acquired taste. I’ve been known to take a nibble or two but would rather opt for something else off the menu as I find it a little hard to stomach and difficult to digest.

Mood lighting in the Kia Soul's speakers adjusts to the beat and style of music
Mood lighting in the Kia Soul's speakers adjusts to the beat and style of music

How much of that genre was in the minds of the people at Kia when they decided to introduce us to their latest offering, the Soul, in the bustling north of England city of Leeds, I’m not sure.

Certainly, music is a factor in this funky five-door compact SUV crossover. As you’d expect, it’s got an excellent sound system but if you opt for any of the three upper-grade versions, you’ll also get mood lighting built into the front speakers which you can adjust according to the beat and style of what’s being played.

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It’s just one of the bright ideas built into this second generation of the urban cruiser which burst onto the scene six years ago and changed some of the established rules with its irreverent character. It signalled Kia’s determination to do things differently while maintaining the brand’s reputation for practicality and value for money, backed up by their impressive and unique seven-year warranty. The formula worked. It became a best-seller in the vast markets of the United States and China and, in its last full year of production in 2012, almost 165,000 of the original version were sold in spite of the arrival of newer competitors.

Although it retains the overall profile, the new car is bigger outside and roomier inside, with less of the boxy appearance of its predecessor. Its appeal is the elevated driving position and although it comes only in front wheel drive, it looks like a mini-SUV with the perceived safety advantages of a 4x4, without the accompanying higher running costs.

There’s still a choice of 1.6-litre direct-injection petrol and turbodiesel engines and, while the petrol is slightly more powerful, I preferred the oil burner for being more flexible and less hard work through the gears. The test car was the mid-range Connect Plus – two other extrovert models, the Soul Mixx and Soul Maxx will arrive in the autumn, with an all-electric version by the end of the year.

The £490 Acid Green metallic paint job took some getting used to but you get a lot of kit for less than £18,000 with superb build quality and a high level of standard equipment, including cruise control, DAB radio with MP3 compatibility and Bluetooth with voice recognition and music streaming. On the safety front, there are all the standard features such as front, side and curtain airbags along with hill-start assist, tyre pressure monitoring and rear view camera for reversing. It is wider, longer and lower with more space inside for passengers and luggage.

The American design team has put a lot of effort into the interior which is more refined than before. There are more soft-touch facings around the dash and wee touches, such as the leather-covered steering wheel and gearknob, add to the premium feel.

On the road, it is also much improved on the old firm, and at times harsh, ride of the previous model. I headed out of the city into the Yorkshire Dales and the diesel unit dealt well with everything that came its way around Ilkley Moor and surrounding towns of author and vet James Herriot country. Its handling was secure round the corners and the precise and smooth gearbox, combined with the variable assistance steering, returned a pleasant experience in the spring sunshine.

Even at full speed on a windy motorway, it felt surefooted and I was happy to have the cruise control to remain on the right side of a 40mph average speed camera section.
Clearly a lot of work has also been done on soundproofing. The car seemed quieter both in road and wind noise than I remember from the previous model. That meant I could enjoy my music without any distractions and I even managed to play around with the mood lighting to link up with the beat. Just none of that Northern Soul stuff, OK?


Car Kia Soul Connect Plus 1.6 CRDi

Price £17,500 (£17,990 as tested)

Engine 1.6-litre, turbodiesel, 4 cyl, 126 bhp, 192lb ft

Performance Top speed 112 mph. 0-60 mph 10.8 secs

Economy 56mpg combined

CO2 emissions 132 g/km