Pope Francis waves from his Kia Soul after his arrival...

Pope Francis waves from his Kia Soul after his arrival in Seoul, South Korea, on Thursday, Aug. 14, 2014. Credit: AP

Pope Francis is about to help elevate the profile of the Kia Motors Corp. Soul beyond that of a ride for hip-hop hamsters.

The pope slipped into the back of the small compact car and rolled down a window to wave at the welcoming party, including President Park Geun-hye, at the start of his five-day visit to South Korea, according to televised footage Thursday. The 77-year- old is scheduled to preside over a beatification ceremony for Korean martyrs that is expected to attract hundreds of thousands of people to the city center on Saturday, Aug. 16, according to organizers.

The pontiff’s choice is a victory for Kia at a time when increases in the country's currency, the  won, are eroding South Korean exporters’ earnings. The selection also underscores the pope’s preference for small cars, a departure from past popemobiles, such as the custom-built, bulletproof Mercedes-Benz Pope John Paul II started using after an attempt on his life.

“This will help Kia by bringing far-reaching exposure through the mass media,” Kim Jin-kook, chief executive of auto researcher Marketing Insight, said by phone. “That exposure will be related to the pope, who has a very positive image among the public, which in return will trigger a halo effect for Kia.”

Among small cars, the Soul beat Kia’s own Picanto and General Motors’ Korean-made Spark.

Kia said in an email that it is honored by the pope’s use of the car, declining to comment on whether modifications were made to the vehicle.

The spiritual leader of 1.2 billion Catholics often makes official visits in a 20-year-old Fiat, including on a trip to the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa. He used a Fiat hatchback during his visit to Brazil in July 2013.

His predecessors have preferred roomier rides amid security concerns.

Pope Benedict XVI often rode in a bombproof Mercedes and used Volkswagen AG Audi’s A8 during his visit to Germany. Pope John Paul II began using the  bulletproof Mercedes after an assassination attempt in 1981.

For Seoul-based Kia, the nation’s second-largest carmaker after Hyundai Motor Co., the Soul was its fourth-most popular vehicle overseas last year, according to company data. In South Korea, the main demographic for the Soul are “extroverted women in their 30s,” according to Marketing Insight.

The second-generation Soul was introduced last year at the New York Auto Show. The original model was first unveiled in 2008 and became a hit in the United States, helped by U.S.-based David&Goliath’s commercials featuring dancing hamsters.

Past advertisements in the series, which have won awards including the industry’s Effie awards and Nielsen’s Automotive Ad of the Year, included the hamsters dancing to LMFAO’s Party Rock Anthem and working out to the tune of Lady Gaga’s “Applause.”

“Kia is hoping for a global impact as the Soul is one of the carmaker’s bestselling models in the U.S. and recently has also gained market share in Europe,” Lee Sang-hyun, an analyst at NH Investment & Securities Co., said of the pope’s use of the Soul. “It’s definitely good news for the company and may lead to a further boost in sales.”

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