(Pocket-lint) - The Kia Soul sits in the increasingly popular crossover segment of the market, taking something that's essentially a hatchback and giving it characteristics closer to that of an SUV.
It's the follow-up to the 2008 original, now based on the Kia C'eed chassis, but gets a far more distinctive shape. Available in a number of different trim levels, the second-from-top Mixx is the focus of this particular review, a name derived from its mix of contrasting body and roof colours.
The Kia Soul is a car aimed squarely at those who want something a little different and distinctive, and is priced aggressively - as it typical of Kia - to make it a temptation for those looking for something fun, or a second urban run-around.
Square in looks, if not in nature
The Soul adopts a trend that's becoming increasingly common by embracing a squarer design. The flattish roof meets a squared rear and we can't help thinking there's a utilitarian chic to it.
It's evocative of cars like the Mercedes G Wagon and that's aided by its SUV looks. At this Mixx level, riding on 18-inch wheels and with plenty of added body kit, it's brasher than the latest Citroen C3 Picasso, which adopts similar styling, or the Mini Countryman which also adopts a "bigger is better" mantra.
We're sure it will divide opinion, but as soon as we got up close we felt affectionately for the Soul Mixx in a way we didn't feel about the Soul Start and other lower-tier Connect and Connect Plus trim models.
We're happy to admit that with a car that looks fun comes the risk that it will be seen as a toy. Those two things go hand-in-hand and we like that about the Kia. This Soul has funk thanks to its contrasting brilliant red body work and black roof - or choose a red roof with white body, or white roof with powder blue body paint if you prefer.
Practicality in abundance
The higher ride height of the Kia Soul Mixx has distinct advantages, aside from giving it Tonka truck looks. It has a dominating position on the roads and you'll find yourself seeing eye-to-eye with those sitting behind the wheel of larger cars, like the Range Rover Sport. That means great forward visibility, something that lots of people are looking for, especially in urban motoring, where looking past the traffic directly in front is useful.
There's no pretence at being an off-road vehicle either - and we like that honesty. Why pay for hill descent modes or four-wheel drive that you'll never use? The Kia Soul is strictly a front-wheel drive car, and there's no hint of a horizon level or terrain control button anywhere.
The higher ride height also means you needn't slink down nor climb up into the car to get seated, which will appeal to those who may find common hatches problematic or simply uncomfortable. There's a sensible sized back seat too, so whether conveying your friends to a house party, or kids to school, the Kia Soul offers comfort all round.
The interior layout favours passenger space over boot space and that's a potential the downside of the Soul: the boot only offers 354 litres, which is strictly hatchback capacity. That might limit the wider appeal for those with families - although it will give you space to fold your Bugaboo into the boot, you might struggle to stow all your gear for a two-week camping holiday.
Slip into the driver's seat of the Kia Soul Mixx and you're met with a spacious interior. Despite a wide use of plastics there are considered details that add quality. It's not going to rival your Audi Q3 or BMW X model for absolute quality, but things like the leather finish to the steering wheel and gear stick make for premium touch-points.
We like the speakers that sit atop the round air vents at either end of the dashboard. They add detail that's distinctive and are paired with a central speaker in the dash, door speakers on all four doors and, in the instance of this Infinity sound system (standard from Connect Plus and above), there's a subwoofer in the boot.
There's even a coloured lighting system that rings around the front door speakers, letting you have colour flashes matching the beat of the music, or just changing the mood lighting. It's a subtle touch, something you'll only really notice when driving at night, but again it's a detail that makes the Soul Mixx stand out.
The sound system, however, doesn't quite have the richness you might want. It doesn't sound poor, far from it in fact, but we wanted just a little more depth overall, and no amount of equalisation tinkering seemed to be able to deliver the richness you'll find on other premium systems.
The Soul Mixx we tested had a black roof-lining and blackened rear window. Such dark colours might make some cars feel a little confined, but the high roof in the Soul Mixx avoids that problem, making for a pleasant place to sit regardless of which seat you're in.
The seats at the Mixx level have a cloth finish - you'll have to step up to the Maxx for leather - but we found them comfortable. You don't get the powered adjustments or movable headrests like you do on other models, but we had no problem finding a comfortable driving position. They are also heated, which is a feature hard to find on a car at this price.
In the mix
On the road there's one small downside to the Kia Soul's design: the sizable D-pillar. We found it was possible for a cyclist to exist in this space entirely invisible. That's a consideration in slow-moving urban traffic, but on the open road, the sizable wing mirrors mean you'll avoid the worst of it.
When it comes to reversing into those tight spaces you'll appreciate the rear resverse camera, which brings visibility you'll otherwise find lacking, but we wish there were parking sensors, especially giving the relative chunkiness of the Mixx's corners. Parking sensors are available in the Maxx, but that means more money and no two-colour finish.
The ride is setup to be firm enough to avoid too much rolling around, but the Soul will also handle urban speed bumps without too much discomfort for passengers. It's comfortable out on the roads and although it's not as exciting as some of the premium SUVs, it's comfortable and you always feel in control. The steering has a good feel to it, with three different levels available to change the weight - although we suspect many will stick to the comfort setting and never feel the need to move from that.
However, there are only two engine options available: a 1.6 petrol or 1.6 diesel (with an electric Soul due in the near future). For the sake of economy, we'd choose the diesel that we had on our test model, as the power output of both engines is similar. This was paired with a 6-speed gearbox which gives better performance over the automatic box that's offered.
We'd love to have seen more engine options, including something with a little more poke, like a 2-litre turbodiesel, to make the Soul Mixx a little less van-like. It's not that we found the performance dissatisfying in the suburban driving we mostly do, but as soon as we started the engine we found that the throb of the diesel reminded us of sitting behind the wheel of a white van. That might be something to do with sound dampening, and that starting the engine took a few more turns than we'd expect before it fired into life.
We averaged about 37mpg from this little diesel in mixed urban driving, so the economy isn't standout. Although hitting the motorways would see that rise a little, we found we were working the engine a little hard to get it more spritely. Kia states the Soul can deliver up to 56.5mpg with some more careful driving.
However, if keeping engine choices limited means the more attractive price points we see here, then it's a compromise we expect many will be happy to accommodate, especially with that tempting 7-year, 100,000 mile warranty, too.
Packed full of tech
One of the characteristics of Kia, and Korean sister company Hyundai, is that cars come with plenty of options as standard. Try to spec out your German SUV with these options and you'll send the price into orbit. The Soul Mixx comes closely aligned to the tech package of the lower Soul Connect Plus, and if the Mixx styling is too much then we'd definitely recommend that lower model as it'll save you a couple of grand in the process.
That said, all new Soul models come with DAB radio, selectable power steering modes, a tyre pressure monitoring system, keyless entry, air con, steering wheel controls, USB and AUX inputs for the entertainment system.
By the time you get to the Soul Mixx on review here - complete with have satnav, heated mirrors, heated seats, reversing camera, Bluetooth, cruise control, a chilled glove box, and that uprated 8-speaker sound system with mood lighting - the £18,150 entry price is bumped to £19,750. But considering all on offer that doesn't just sound like something of a bargain, it absolutely is one.
The tech is handled via an 8-inch touchscreen monitor to the centre, providing plenty of information for both media and navigation (there's no screen in the Start and a smaller 4.3-inch one in the Connect).
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The satnav system is easy enough to use, although we didn't find it as smart, or accurate, as the TomTom system we usually opt for. There's also no transfer of navigation instructions into the driver's instrument cluster, so every time you want to see where you're going, you need to take a glance at that central display.
Using the central console is generally intuitive, although we found the DAB radio would report that it had no reception each time we started the car. It was fine, we just had to select the station again, which we suspect is a problem limited to our test model. There's also no CD player offered, but that's hardly a surprise as plenty of other multimedia options, including a Bluetooth connection for phone pairing, are available.
The Kia Soul Mixx is a car that turns heads. Its styling - complete with beefed-up body kit and accentuated with the contrasting colour bodywork - might not be to all tastes, but we love it. It's individual, using those squared shoulders to muscle in on competition that is traditionally conservative in design and, on reflection, rather more expensive than it needs to be.
The crossover segment throws down the gauntlet to SUVs that have been extremely popular, but in many ways are ill-equipped or under utilised. How many wonderful off-road performers find themselves doing little more than mounting the occasional kerb?
However, the Kia Soul's lack of engine choices and slightly smaller boot might see some prospective customers looking further afield. But for the suburban dweller, the urban fox, or school run parent, there's plenty on offer. Add that the Mixx is aggressively priced and given recent austere times, we're not surprised to see more Kia cars on the UK roads.
Some might not be able to get over brand preconceptions, but to discount the Soul Mixx on that alone might just see you miss out. The new Soul doesn't pretend to be something it's not and is a crossover well worth considering, especially if you're looking for distinctive style and a bit of fun.