Kia's unique Soul has a look decidedly more cool than clown car but that's what came to mind when I found myself in a surreal high-speed Shriner's Parade – you know, the guys who wear red fezzes and drive funny little cars to raise funds for worthy causes – as part of an impromptu convoy of three Soul-mates belting along an otherwise car-less stretch of Highway 401.
That I should have been joined, briefly but companionably, by other like-minded Souls shouldn't have come as a surprise though as Kia has sold quite of few of these highly stylized micro-van urban transportation capsules since they were introduced early in 2009. Last year, it moved 11,651 out of showrooms, an 18.2 per cent increase over 2010 and an order of magnitude more than combined sales of Scion's sort-of-similar xB and Nissan's Cube.
Those two rivals, while sharing the Soul's urban-trendy-boxy styling concept, look dorky and cartoonish while the Kia looks, well, kind of neat. And it has, thanks to its utility, a mechanical package that works, plenty of features and reasonable pricing.
The mid-cycle freshening for 2012 has taken a typical course outside with a new-ish-look front end contrived from refashioned front and rear fascias that make it look wider, restyled headlights and taillights, plus new mirrors and wheels.
But considerably more effort has gone into other areas that needed addressing to raise the Soul's level of sophistication and maintain its success. These include reducing noise, vibration and harshness and improving ride and upgrading the interior with tilt-and-telescope adjustment to the steering wheel and some other odds and ends. And, more importantly, adding a pair of new engines and transmissions that improve performance and efficiency.
The Soul comes in no less than seven trim variations starting with a base 1.6 that offers plenty of good stuff including power windows, locks, heated seats, Bluetooth, a reasonable audio system and a full court press of safety stuff for $16,595. From there, you can climb the pricing ladder up to the fully laden $26,245 4U Luxury edition.
My test Soul was the mid-range, $23,495 4U Retro, which came with a 2.0-litre engine and automatic and a black and light beige "clan-Kia" tartan interior that apparently says "retro" to some company marketing types, although why isn't clear to me. In its bland beige, pardon me Vanilla Shake, paintwork, it looked like a stylish cardboard container something from a trendy downtown boutique might come packaged in.
And in fact it is packed with good things. On the equipment list for this version are automatic transmission, cruise control, driver's-seat armrest, premium audio system, reversing camera, sunroof, sport suspension, 18-inch alloy wheels, remote keyless entry, roof rails, A/C, leather-wrapped wheel and shift knob and large "mood" speakers that pulse LED light in time with your favorite tunes.
The Soul's interior is funky and functional with well-shaped heated seats that are nice on a cold morning, a heating and ventilation system that works fine and controls that are well located and operate with a quality touch. Three can be crammed in the rear seat if necessary and there's 1,512 litres of cargo space available with the rear seatback folded, accessed through a decent-sized and -shaped hatch.
It's purely subjective, of course, but after a little Soul-searching, I'd say this upgraded version is a little quieter inside and a more refined overall.
A new-generation version of Kia's 1.6-litre four now boasts Direct Gasoline Injection and 138 hp (an improvement of 16 hp. The new 2.0-litre variant (that doesn't get direct injection) now makes 164 hp (up by 22) and 148 lb-ft of torque (increased by 11 lb-ft).
New six-speed manual and automatic transmissions – replacing a five-speed manual and four-speed automatic – also improve outright performance, drivability and fuel efficiency.
Powered by the new 1.6-litre engine with manual gearbox, the Soul is now rated at 7.4 litres/100 km city and 5.6 highway (compared with 7.7 city/6.3 highway) and with the Active Eco System this will drop to 7.0 city/5.4 highway.
The 2.0-litre and manual transmission combination is rated at 7.9 city/5.8 highway and our six-speed automatic-equipped test Soul's ratings are 7.9 city/highway. I averaged 9.7 litres/100 km during my week with the car and didn't come near the highway numbers.
The motor is noticeable when you're asking it to make power, which it does willingly and in some abundance; that power is used to good effect by the six-speed automatic to deliver around-town liveliness and quick-enough-to-be-safe acceleration for passing.
In driving terms, the electric power steering feel isn't bad and the P235/45R18 tires aided by the stiffened-up-a-bit sports suspension make this 1,260-kilogram vehicle reasonably responsive and agile. Around town the ride isn't particularly pleasant but on the highway stability and ride are both fine.
Despite what might be deemed a don't-take-me-seriously look, the Soul turns out to be a competent and sensible vehicle, with two additional and unusual attributes – charm and character.
Kia Soul 2.0L 4U Retro
Type: Compact van
Base price: $23,495; as tested, $25,245
Engine: 2.0-litre, DOHC, inline-four
Horsepower/torque: 164 hp/148 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 7.9 city/5.9 highway; regular gas
Alternatives: Chevrolet HHR, Volkswagen Golf Wagon, Mazda5, Hyundai Elantra Touring, Nissan Cube, Scion xB