Kia Soul is cheap but neat

Bottom Line: The Kia Soul is a spunky,

Bottom Line: The Kia Soul is a spunky, practical box, sometimes hard on the bones (Credit: Handout photo/handout photo)

It's tough to argue with success. And Kia's in the first nine months of this year has been impressive: A 5 percent increase in sales in a market that's down 27 percent suggests the times are right for Kia - and maybe the moon, tides and stars - but most certainly its cars.

One of them is the new Soul, a vehicle so cute, so reasonably priced, so practical and so thoughtfully designed that you (almost) have to love it.

But, while its heart is youthful, it has the soul of a cheap car. The firm suspension that delivers good handling also delivers a rough ride. And engine and tire noise levels are high.

There's also some vulnerability to crosswinds attributable to its shape and a little more lean in hard cornering than is desirable, attributable to its high center of gravity.

In dealerships since March, Souls are offered with two four-cylinder engines, one delivering 122 hp. and Environmental Protection Agency estimated at 26 miles per gallon in city driving and 31 on the highway, and the other, which I sampled, displacing 2.0-liters, rated at 142 hp. and getting 2 mpg less in local driving and 1 mpg less in the city. The larger engine delivers peppy acceleration locally and seems the better choice.

Souls begin at $13,995 with freight with a five-speed stick shift, air-conditioning, anti-lock brakes, stability control and a stereo with CD, MP3 and satellite radio capability plus auxiliary and USB input jacks.

Models with automatic transmission start at $16,595 with freight. Note that if you're considering the five-speed stick instead, other reviewers have panned it for vague and balky shifting.

The Soul competes against boxes like the new Nissan Cube, Scion xB and Dodge Caliber.

The test Soul's five-passenger interior was an attractive two-tone black and beige with decent quality materials. The seating position is high and the seats comfortable and supportive, even after hours behind the wheel.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety names the Soul a "top safety pick." The federal government rates it five stars out of five for frontal protection and for side protection for front seaters but four stars for side protection for rear passengers.

Kia's quality has been inconsistent, as measured by Consumer Reports, but three Kias - the Rondo wagon, Optima sedan and Sportage sport utility vehicle - are "recommended." Kia has been a below-average performer in the various surveys by researchers J.D. Power and Associates measuring vehicle quality and dealers' ability to satisfy customers - not as good as its sister division, Hyundai.

But, like Hyundai, Kia warranties powertrains for 10 years or 100,000 miles and the rest of the vehicles for five years/60,000.

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