Kia's series of cringeworthy, borderline creepy hamster-themed ads for its Soul crossover may have colored my initial impression of the car. Then again, since I'm well on my way to middle age, I probably fall outside the target market for those spots (although I imagine I would have been less than impressed at 20, too).
But there's a lot more to like about the Kia Soul than the company's dancing hamsters might lead you to believe. I found myself admiring what is, in essence, a very handy little box on wheels. Unlike the Scion xB and Nissan Cube – both of which over-do the quirky styling – the Soul manages to pull off a unique sporty van look without coming off as cold and robotic (I'm looking at you, Cube).
From its friendly, non-imposing front clip, the car's lines slope down toward the tail at somewhat of a rakish angle. From the side, if you squish your eyes shut just enough to make things blurry, it almost takes the shape of one of those 1920s phaetons that made so many appearances in black-and-white gangster movies. It's cartoonish – not in a bad way, but in a manner that seems calculated to draw in younger buyers.
Inside, the Millennial juices keep flowing. Color-shifting disco lights highlight simple, symmetrical interior's edges. The controls are well-placed and easy to use. Kia seems to understand that human beings prefer tactile knobs to display menu-activating electronic buttons. Getting the tunes going was easy – a nice touch for the dancing hamsters – but the disco lights in the cupholders had a tendency to reveal whatever grit and grime was there.
One of the best interior features was, unfortunately, the most expensive one: the panoramic sunroof. As with most cars nowadays, it's impossible to pick the options you want à la carte, so you can only get the sunroof along with electronic cruise control (which should probably be included in the base options), the premium audio system and the disco lights. But the roof itself is brilliant and adds openness and depth to an interior that's already cavernous by small car standards. It's too bad that the sunroof makes the car ineligible for roof rack mounts, but that's probably because putting weight on the sheet glass might break it.
Parked next to my compact-for-the-era 1987 Subaru wagon, the Soul looked short, but it packages space well. The back seat is accommodating and the cargo space is actually large enough to be useable. The rear seatbacks don't fold completely flat, which is a real shame. However, the space offered by the folded seats is generous.
The Soul's secret weapon is its peppiness. I wasn't expecting much from its 4-cylinder engine, but the "!" trim level I drove boasted 164 horsepower and 151 pound feet of torque. Whether that's powerful when compared with other sporty cars is immaterial. It felt powerful, or at least responsive enough to be pretty fun to drive. The handling was decent, too. Much better than I had expected from a utility box. Kia would do well to kick the whole formula up a notch and offer the 6-speed manual transmission that's only available in the 130-horsepower base model in the more powerful ! model, too. I doubt that will happen but we can dream, can't we?
Although the Soul ! isn't as inexpensive as I would have liked, it offered a lot of useable space and fun driving characteristics for the money.
By the numbers: 2015 Kia Soul
MSRP: $26,715 (as tested, includes $800 destination charge)
Power and drive wheels: 2-liter, 164-horsepower 4-cylinder; front-wheel drive
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
EPA fuel economy: 23/31 city/highway mpg
Safety: IIHS Top Safety Pick; 5-star government crash test rating
In showrooms: Now