Sometimes it's interesting to compare who buys a particular vehicle in different countries.
Take, for example, the square-shaped hatchback from Korea, the Kia Soul. In USA, this car is popular with young people - thanks to marketing that features all sorts of characters, including rapping hamsters, and rap-based television campaigns such as the Soul Shuffle Slam. Other campaigns feature young Korean golf star Michelle Wie smashing clay birds with her drives as staid old shotgun-wielding men stand by, muttering.
But in New Zealand? No such luck.
The hard fact is that the Soul simply isn't that popular here, with Kia owners instead opting for the more conventional lines of such product as the Rio hatch and the Cerato hatch and sedan.
And those customers who do choose the Soul are almost invariably our more senior citizens, who have been attracted to the vehicle by its sheer ease of use, particularly the high hip-points of its seats which make it very easy to climb in and out of.
It possibly explains why Kia New Zealand has reduced the Soul selection available here to just one model - a 1.6-litre petrol version with automatic transmission.
That's a far cry from 2010 when Soul was first introduced here. Kia NZ went all-out presenting the vehicle and funky and cheeky, not only offering it with new-age turbodiesel power, but also as a Soul Plus that was quite highly specified, and as a Soul Burner that carried about as many gadgets and gizmoes as your average fairground - including stereo speakers that pulsed red with the music beat.
But now the sole Soul on offer in New Zealand is standard fare, a $30,490 hatch without all those cheeky bells and whistles. Of course, it still has that polarising bodyshell design, but underneath that the Soul is a standard hatchback, through and through.
But that's no criticism. This Kia is a nice vehicle to drive, it is very well built, and thanks to a mid-life facelift it carries a number of improvements.
Maybe the most significant is that the standard transmission has been upgraded to a new six- speed automatic which replaces the previous four-speeder. This auto can also be used manually, tiptronic-style, by moving the shifter over to the right.
It works well, and the six-speeder combines well with the Kia's 1.6-litre Gamma engine which now has continuously variable valve timing. That's added four kilowatts of power - the peak output is now 95 kW, while the top torque is 157 Newton metres. This is sufficient to give the Soul reasonable performance.
Soul is also an outstandingly safe car.
Prior to the 2012 facelift, it already boasted a five-star ANCAP crash rating, and now its electronic stability control has been enhanced to include vehicle stability management, which is a steering assist system that controls what wheels brake the most in slippery or wet conditions.
Soul also has the very good hillstart assist control, which applies brakes for two seconds when the driver is starting off on a hill, so roll-back doesn't occur.
Standard specification is excellent, and includes air conditioning, reverse warning sensors, rear privacy glass, heated exterior rear-view mirrors, remote locking, and automatic lights. It all adds up to a vehicle that is very comfortable, particularly when this comfort is inside a vehicle that offers an impressive amount of space, particularly headroom.
The interior has been redesigned as part of the facelift. Dash area has been redrawn for better usability, and the six- speaker audio system now has Bluetooth. Remote controls for the audio are on the steering wheel, which can now adjusted for rake as well as tilt.
Not a lot has been done to the exterior. Soul now has a more pronounced tiger-nose grille which is finished in chrome, the lights are now four-bulb projector style for improved beam distribution. The hatch also has LED daytime running lights front and rear, as well as front and rear fog lights.
But overall, the Soul's distinctive box-shaped look remains - which means it will remain a hatch that will polarise opinion.
Perhaps not as polarising as another Soul-based vehicle that has just been made public, however. A Kia Track'ster concept was recently unveiled at the Chicago Auto Show that has been widened and stretched, and which is said to be a hint to what the next generation Soul might look like.
If that's the case, Soul will continue to roll along as one of the most distinctive cars on the market.
POWER PLANT: 1591cc DOHC CVVT four cylinder petrol engine, 95 kW at 6300 rpm, 157 Nm at 4850 rpm.
RUNNING GEAR: Front-wheel drive. Six-speed automatic transmission with Sportshift sequential manual operation. McPherson strut front suspension, coupled torsion beam axle at the rear.
HOW BIG: Length 4120mm, width 1785mm, height 1610mm, wheelbase 2550mm.
HOW MUCH: $30,490 WHAT'S GOOD: Plenty of interior room, very easy to get in and out of, nice build quality.
WHAT'S NOT: Petrol performance not as good the diesel we used to get, polarising looks.
OUR VERDICT: Soul will never be a big seller - its unconventional looks will always prevent that. But there remains plenty to appreciate about this car.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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