Going Soul searching with Kia's turbocharged wild child
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Pugs are some of the most faithful dogs in the world.
They are also objectively hideous. That much is practically proven scientific fact.
It's the bulbous eyes, folded skin, and smooshed nose — all of which look like they were extracted from a dog three times the size before being crudely crammed onto a tiny button of a face.
Yet, it's impossible not to like a pug. Those eyes allow it to convey desperation to the highest degree when you're eating a meal, and their minor dimensions make cuddles on the couch a formality, rather than a chore.
The Kia Soul compact crossover is a pug.
First impressions are that this isn't an attractive car. It's big, chunky, and looks like a fridge dipped in strawberry jam. But, the more time you spend with it; searching for it in shopping centre parking lots or noting the confused reactions of the public as you navigate through town, the more likable that same styling becomes.
Be it the big, proud wheel arches or the black trim pieces or the pair of eyes on either side of the grill, each visual feature is penned with so much depth and emphasis that after a while the Soul starts to look like a big puffy cartoon character.
And this isn't just your basic Kia Soul; it's the $37,990 Turbo.
This naturally means some sort of turbocharger is tacked to the engine. In this case, the Soul Turbo comes with the same set-up as the pro-cee'd GT hot hatch -- the 1.6-litre T-GDI engine with a twin-scroll turbocharger.
What that gets you is 150kW (38kW more than the 2.0-litre Limited and Redtrack models), 265Nm of torque from 1500rpm to 4500rpm, and a car that is much quicker than you could ever expect from the moment you first pound the throttle. The speedo needle hits 100km/h in less than eight seconds, placing the Soul Turbo in hot hatch performance territory.
It's also better on your wallet and the trees, with claimed economy and emissions figures of 6.9L/100km and 156g/km -- 1.1 litres and 32 grams better than the mid-range 2.0-litre equivalent.
And it gets better when we reach the gearbox. Instead of a conventional CVT the Soul Turbo comes with a silky smooth 7-speed dual-clutch transmission. At low speeds it can occasionally be fooled into stuttering, but when you're giving it hell (particularly in Sport mode), it's faultless.
This is the first Kia in New Zealand to come with this gearbox, and we should hope it's not the last.
All of this is great, but it raises one awkward flaw; the platform can't quite handle the power.
While the transmission has been upgraded, other elements haven't. The suspension still has a coupled torsion beam set-up in the rear, and tyres and brakes remain static, too.
Then you get to the interior. On the surface, it's pleasant. The materials, switches and buttons feel excellent and sturdy to the touch. It's clearly been designed to appease the youth market; outlines of headphones appear in the door cards and a DJ's turntable is on the dashboard. And, because the whole car is effectively a box on wheels, the storage, headroom, and legroom is plentiful.
But the seating position and driver's seat aren't fit for eager driving. On a winding country road -- the primary setting for any zesty turbocharged hatchback -- prepare for your body to flop from side to side, as the seats offer minimum lateral support (the 5in infotainment screen is also slightly underwhelming, given that many rivals at this price have 7in screens).
All this means that the Turbo doesn't feel at home when pressured. At speed it understeers and lacks predictability. Add in the turbo lag, and youhave a car with an engine that you can't extract the most out of without taking risks.
It's a tough one, because Kia doesn't market this car as a hot hatch -- or indeed a hot crossover. And perhaps it's too much to ask of a car that's only $2000 more than the mid-range Limited model. But, that leaves us in an awkward lurch; where we have to embrace Kia's Soul Turbo as a crazy, colourful, and lovable pug, in the knowledge that with some tweaks it could've been a greyhound.
KIA SOUL 1.6 TURBO
PROS: Funky looks, build quality, engine and transmission are a great combo
CONS: Drive lacks refinement, brittle ride