Someone asked a question about the name Soul, which apparently is a pun on Seoul, and the man from Kia HQ came over a mite testy. "You English always ask about that." Apparently, we English had also enquired about pro_cee'd. Well, hey, it's our language you're butchering. And as to whether this car actually has Soul, well, we'll be the judge of that, thanks.
I've certainly been intrigued to find out. The Soul first emerged as a concept car at the Detroit motor show three years back, and there have been several peek-a-boo appearances since - you might have seen them at the London show last summer. The final product is a remarkably faithful facsimile of the first show-car intention.
The intrigue comes from trying to decipher that intention. The Soul isn't an SUV - there's no 4WD version, nor will there be, so it's even further from off-roader-land than a Nissan Qashqai, its nearest notional equivalent. But it does have a sense of that hunky SUV look about it, and you sit a handspan taller than in a vanilla hatch, to the advantage of your sightlines. And although its MPV-esque height is kind to back-seat head- and legroom, no one will think it's a mini-MPV. It doesn't have acrobatic seats, and it doesn't look like an Easter egg.
But to have expended more words in saying what it isn't rather than what it is implies it's a character-vacuum. Unfair. It looked good on show stands, and it really does have a strong visual personality out on the road, especially given it's only fractionally longer than a Clio. Top marks to the designers for wrangling the concept through the forces of corporate watering-down. The proportions have survived: high bonnet, big arches, vertical glasshouse - and unusually the roof's highest point is at the top of the windscreen. The details are also nicely concepty: three-dimensional jewelled lamp clusters front and rear, and even the retention of 18-inch wheels, at least as an option.
Inside, the jazzy materials of a concept car have been cheapened almost to oblivion. The fascia and doors are all straightforward hard plastic. But they're nicely shaped, and the options list gives another clue to kind of people Kia is aiming at. You can have an audio system with full iPod link-up, a colossal amplifier, sub-woofers and door speakers with embedded LEDs that pulsate in sync with the bass. Some limited-edition versions will come with a red dashboard, and many more with the inside of the glovebox sprayed red. Woo-hoo.
In the same direction, there'll be a choice of giant stickers for the outside, including stripes,a houndstooth check design for the bonnet and tailgate, and what they're calling a ‘dragon tattoo'. Honestly, a car has to have quite a bit of design integrity to put up with this kind of indignity.
Anyway, Kia also agrees that there'll be plenty of sales to older people. People old enough and wise enough to spot this is a very sensible car: roomy, easy to get in and out of, good vision, blunt corners to help in parking, good value. Such virtues have quietly sold thousands of Ford Fusions to people beyond the ephemeral grasp of fashion or style. The Soul does that job with far more élan.
It comes with a simple choice of engines: 1.6 petrol, 1.6 diesel. When it goes on sale in March, you'll be able to kick off with the petrol on 15s and hubcaps for about £11,000, and the diesel will be about £700-800 more. The trim levels and accessories are likely to be pretty flexible, with lots of options choice. The one we drove would probably amount to £16k give or take. It had aircon, ESP, 18s, top-end stereo, cheerier cloth trim, and a reversing camera with its screen cleverly built into the rear-view mirror.
The petrol engine manages 124bhp, the diesel 128, but the petrol in particular feels underwhelming. The diesel, with extra torque, is at least averagely whelming. But given this is a small car, the whole performance/CO2 thing is a bit off the pace. They both take 11 seconds to get to 62mph, and even the diesel kicks out 137g/km. A 1.6 diesel Focus accelerates faster on less power, and does 119g/km.
And both engines are a bit noisy. The diesel drones away, but at least it has a nice even delivery of torque, thanks to a variable geometry turbo. The petrol gets pretty frantic if you rev it hard, which you must to collect the best performance. Still, on the motorway, the engine noise is the least of your worries, because the wind racket is pretty relentless. It gives that fancy stereo a proper work-out to raise its voice above the din.
The steering is surprisingly sharp and well-weighted. The engineers have conquered body roll by fitting stiff anti-roll bars and springs. This is betrayed by a pretty hard ride. The diesel has stiffer springs anyway because it's 100kg heavier, and on the 18s it's pretty punishing. This degree of cornering sharpness is way out of tune with the mediocre performance - maybe I'm getting old, but a softer chassis would have been fine. The petrol on 18s is a mite more comfy, and our mutual friend Tom Ford also had a go in one with standard 16s and said it was usefully more civilised. Smaller rims slightly water down the concept-car style, mind.
Yup, it's style that will sell this thing. And the discovery, once you get to the showroom, that you don't have to cut off your kids' legs or snap your bike/surfboard in half to fit them in. Style with space in a small car is a rare trick to pull off. There's enough substance to the Soul to take it beyond short-lived-novelty territory. And over time doubtless we'll get used to the name, which, after all is nowhere near as stupid as Qashqai.