I have to admit, before I slid behind the wheel of the Kia Koup, I wasn't expecting much. Ho-hum, I figured, another budget runabout with a stroppy drivetrain, lousy road manners and sub-standard NVH.
Wrong on all counts. The drivetrain may be lively, but it's not stroppy or even rambunctious. Road manners? As good as anything else in this segment of the market, and better than some. NVH (noise, vibration, harshness) suppression? Again, no complaints. In fact, aside from the body style, which I'll get to shortly, there wasn't much to complain about.
Introduced at last year's New York Auto Show and built in South Korea, the Koup is available in two trim levels: EX and SX.
It shares its platform with the Forte sedan and can be had with two engine choices: a 2.0-litre or 2.4-litre four-cylinder. The former develops some 156 horsepower, while the latter gets 173. This is the latest iteration of the World Engine utilized by Hyundai, Mitsubishi and Chrysler. I've encountered it in other guises and it seems to fit this particular application better than, say, the Dodge Avenger or Caliber.
I've been in both versions of the Koup, but spent most of my time with the SX/2.4-litre version this time around.
My tester also came with a five-speed automatic transmission with Kia/Hyundai's Steptronic manual shift mode, but a six-speed manual is available for about $1,000 less. I've actually driven both the automatic and manual versions, and this is one of those times when I can't honestly recommend one over the other.
I tend to favour a stick shift with this type of vehicle, but the Steptronic works well, and I suspect the majority of buyers will probably opt for it. For what it's worth, the manual is equally useable, and returns slightly better fuel economy on the highway than the autobox. Plus, it does cost less. Around town, these two are virtually the same when it comes to fuel consumption.
Suspension is handled by MacPherson struts up front and a torsion beam arrangement in back, with a front roll bar. Brakes are four-wheel discs with ABS, and the SX comes with tighter suspension than the EX - it makes a difference. Steering is tighter and handling a step up.
That said, the Koup SX isn't going to set the road or racetracks on fire, but it handles bumps and corners with a nice sense of balance and aplomb. No jarring thumps or crashes, in other words. A pleasant surprise.
Ditto with equipment level. For its $21,495 base price, the SX has leather interior, heated front seats, heated outside mirrors, power sunroof, rally-style aluminum pedals, climate control, fog lights, tilt/telescoping steering and Sirius satellite radio with a complimentary three-month subscription.
As usual, content is one of Kia's strongest points, and the Koup is no exception. You definitely get your money's worth here.
This is probably as good a time as any to get my major beefs out of the way, and they're actually kind of trivial. Anyway, the Koup looks like a Chevy Cobalt.
Coincidentally, I attended the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada TestFest in Niagara earlier this month and Kia had a pair of Koups on hand in the under-$21,000 Small Car category. When I first laid eyes on them, I honestly thought they were Cobalt two-doors that GM had brought along for comparison purposes. I happen to think the Cobalt is a nice-looking car, so if the Koup looks the same, that's not necessarily a bad thing, depending upon your point of view, of course.
And the 17-inch alloy wheels that come standard with the SX are horrible. The automotive industry seems to be in the throes of some kind of ugly wheel competition, and these are among the worst.
Last but not least, although it may sound petty, I think the name is silly. I know it's getting harder for car makers to come up with meaningful and memorable nomenclature for their models, but I keep thinking about the ill-fated Hyundai Scoupe of a few years back. Kia: you don't want to be associated with that little beauty in any way, shape or form.
Still, I do like the way the Koup handles itself. Much of the time, econo-box manufacturers cut corners when it comes to things like gearshift linkage, suspension bushings, brake response, assembly quality and interior layout. That doesn't seem to be the case here, and if you compare this car with what was coming out of Korea as recently as 10 years ago, it's like day and night.
Indeed, the Koup kind of reminded me of the last generation of Honda Civic when it came to actually driving it. Smooth, responsive, with no rough edges and a nice kind of driver-friendliness about it. Clearly, Kia has been paying attention to this market.
2010 KIA KOUP SX
Type: Two-door compact coupe
Base Price: $21,495; as tested, $22,695
Engine: 2.4-litre, four-cylinder
Horsepower/Torque: 173 hp/168 lb-ft
Transmission: Five-speed automatic
Fuel Economy (litres/100 km): 9.0 city/6.3 highway; regular gas
Alternatives: Honda Civic Si, Chevrolet Cobalt SS, Ford Focus SES, Mazda3 Sport, Nissan Altima Coupe 2.5 S, Toyota Corolla XRS