Risk-adverse by nature, car companies don't often make radical moves, and although the 2010 Kia Soul looks unique, it follows the Scion xB by five years in body style. In fact, the success of the xB spawned two imitators, the Soul and the Nissan Cube. These cars all share a boxy four-door style, generally eschewing sports car lines in favor of easily accessible seats with an upright seating posture. With its rakish roofline, the Soul suggests sportiness, but that won't be the experience behind the wheel.
Lacking real driving excitement, the Kia Soul makes up for it with some impressive electronics, all standard with the Exclaim trim level. It works impressively well with cell phones, and offers a good interface for iPods. To clear up any doubt about the Soul's intended demographic, red lights in the door speakers pulse to music. The one missing ingredient is GPS navigation.
Lights and sound
Kia has been upping its tech game substantially in recent years, so we weren't surprised to find an iPod port at the base of the stack in the Soul, similar to those we've seen previously in various Hyundai models, such as the Genesis Coupe. A business card-size monochrome screen dominates the top of the stack, surrounded by standard radio buttons and a slot for a single CD player. That screen shows the iPod's menu, with lists of artists, albums, and genres. It's not the best interface, as we often weren't sure whether to push a button or turn a dial to browse through music.
The iPod port is comprised of an auxiliary input, suitable for any audio source, and a USB port, which can also read MP3 tracks from a thumb drive. The CD player can read MP3s too, and the car comes with satellite radio, rounding out the audio sources.
Although gimmicky, we were entranced by the pulsing red lights in the speakers. Unfortunately, only the front seats are treated to this display, as the rear door speakers only produce sound. Taking it further, Kia includes a control knob for the light show, letting the driver choose from music or pulse modes, along with controlling the intensity. And, most important, it can be turned off.
Beyond the light show, Kia equips the Soul Exclaim with an impressive audio system, with six side speakers accentuated by a subwoofer and center channel. At first, the audio sounded tinny, but some distinct snaps from drums made us realize that the system is biased toward treble. Adjusting the three-band equalizer to emphasize mids and bass, the audio became more balanced, and we enjoyed the clarity of the instrumental reproduction. Tracks with heavy bass didn't deliver the thump we would have liked, though, rather only a general hum from the interior panels.
The cabin tech that surprised us most in the Soul was the Bluetooth phone system. After pairing up an iPhone, a simple process with the voice command, we started looking around to see if it had any real phone book functionality. Usually, a phone system in a car in this price range will merely receive calls or let the driver voice dial by number. But the Soul actually downloaded our phone's contact list and let us dial by name. It was very accurate, even asking if we wanted mobile, work, or home when we asked for a name with multiple numbers in the phone book. With an iPhone, we found one little glitch: we had to say last name first when asking it to dial a contact.