Soul is a word that defies definition. Philosophers have struggled to
come up with one for millennia. Is it material? Is it spiritual? Is it
a bit of both? It’s hard to say.

Korean carmaker Kia’s new offering has zoomed into the auto world’s consciousness with a similar definition-defying dilemma: Is it a car? Is it a SUV? A hatchback wagon, perhaps? It’s hard to say. Small wonder, then, that it’s called the Soul.

The first thing that grabs you is its looks. In a sea of lookalikes, it’s refreshing to see a car with such distinctive, head-turning personality swish past on our roads. It’s funky, cheeky even mischievous in its manner. And it’s hard to categorise as a car or a SUV. In many ways, I think Kia has hit upon the perfect urban crossover formula.

You can’t argue that it’s not cuboid, reminiscent of Japanese carmakers’ love affair with cubism in the early years of this decade, which brought us box-shaped cars like the Nissan Cube and the Daihatsu Materia that became all the rage with young people – especially those of Asian origin. In fact, the Cube and the Materia were restrictive in their appeal in connecting mostly with the younger smart set.

The Soul breaks out of box and that kind of typecasting. Its appeal is undoubtedly wider. With its smart looks (you can’t miss the wraparound A-pillar) and all the features that it has going for it, it’s a car that would appeal to a wide range of customer type and make them ask a lot of why nots: Why not drive it to the office? Why not have it as a second car – its great for runabouts in town and roomy and zippy enough for long family drives? Why not use it as a fleet car – it’s funky and versatile, after all?

The car comes in a range of three models, though all of these have the same basic shape and contour lines. The basic model has a decent-sized 1.6 litre petrol engine and is priced from $29,990. It comes in a choice of manual and automatic versions. Soul Plus, the next one up is priced from $33,990 and has a 1.6 litre diesel power plant. At the top of the line is the Soul Burner also with a 1.6 litre diesel engine with process starting at $39,990.

I test-drove this premium model for Indian Weekender courtesy of the Greenlane based Winger Kia over the last weekend. The best ergonomic feature I thought was the ease of entry and egress – it’s neither too low nor too high, quite unlike getting into lower-slung sedans or taller SUVs.

The good ergonomics continued inside: thanks to its squarish-cubish personality, it’s got oodles of space both in the passenger areas and in the hatch. The headroom is great and the controls and instrument panels are conveniently located and user friendly.

Though Kia is Korea’s oldest carmaker, the country’s leading industrial conglomerate, Hyundai, acquired it some years ago. Ever since, the marque has worked hard to make its mark on the global auto market on its own steam, distinct from Hyundai’s offerings. It always goes the extra mile to load its models with so many extras as standard equipment. That’s why Kia cars are such good value for money.

And I say this from experience. Last year I took a punt and bought Kia’s tiny Picanto after it surprised me with the range of goodies it came with for a price of some $18,000-odd. It has electronic stability programming, ABS, front and side air bags, wing mirror indicators, parking sensors and an excellent audio system with an ipod input to boot – all that as standard, which you will agree is a terrific deal.

If the Picanto has all that, surely the Soul has more? Sure it does: as well as electronic stability programming, ABS, front and side curtain airbags and an amazing music system with MP3 and ipod input (the version I drove had a 318 watt eight speaker system – including one oversize central speaker – and mood lighting controls), the Soul has some other extras as standard fitment.

One of these is the cool reverse warning camera. A part of the central rear view mirror turns into an LCD screen when you reverse, giving you a clear picture while backing out. Flick into drive and the LCD disappears – the mirror is full once again. But I believe this feature is exclusive to the top model. The others have the usual beeping reverse warning system. Audio controls and a mute button are also located on the steering wheel.  

The 1.6 litre diesel power plant (that Kia says delivers up to 94kW @ 4000rpm) is as quiet as any modern diesel sounds on the inside of cars. It whines more than it purrs and when you accelerate the high-pitched but soft whine sounds a little like the distant rev of an aircraft engine. Though the feel may not be as gossamer-like as in some of the other more experienced diesel makes like Peugeot, it is smooth enough. I was pleased with its peppiness at starts and the speed with which it responded on sudden inclines. 

Negatives? The ride seemed a little tauter than what I’d expected it to be but I’d put that to the low profile tyres on the 18-inch alloys of the Soul Burner I drove.

The music mood selector control, too, is at a rather invisible place on the dash completely obscured by the steering wheel’s arm – so you have to swing to your left to be able to see it to adjust. Fortunately it’s not a control you use often. But then again, you can ask your companion to play DJ because it’s clearly visible from the passenger seat.

And coming as it does with all the bells and whistles as standard, why has Kia left out cruise control?

But all in all, I thought it’s a car for the times: easy on fuel (under 6 litres per 100km) with low emission levels (like most modern diesels that are actually cleaner than many petrol engines), not too big and not too small either, big on safety features –and most of all, a definite head-turner.

It’s driving nirvana for the soul.

To know more or test drive the Soul, call the friendly Greenlane Winger Kia team and speak to Mitchell Crosby or James MacKinlay on (09) 5221066.