Sunday, February 2, 2014

Car Review -- 2013 Kia Soul

Yesterday, I took a day trip to NYC to see the New York Philharmonic play Benjamin Britten's "Young Person's Guide to the Orchestras".  It was fantastic!

I have always wrestled with how best to get to and from the city without breaking the bank, and I've explored just about every possible option.  I think I found the winner yesterday, though.  After doing the Metro-North thing (too uncomfortable and that crash a couple months ago still gives me pause), the Amtrak thing (too expensive), and the drive-to-Manhattan thing (parking is grossly overpriced, though the driving itself isn't too bad), I decided to drive down to Fordham University, park the car there, and hop a Subway to Lincoln Center.  Economically, it made sense.  Parking was free, even if I did have to walk half a mile to the Subway stop (yay for good exercise!).

The next question was . . . do I drive my 2010 Accord EX sedan or my 2002 Passat GLX wagon?  Or do I take advantage of my AAA and Marriott Rewards memberships and snag one of their incredible Hertz one-day car rental deals?  Given that I drove over 300 miles yesterday, I went the rental car route.  Unlimited mileage, discounted fuel cost (if I prepaid, which I did, given that I burned the entire tank), dirt cheap rate.  That, and I love driving a variety of cars to see what they're like.

When I reserved my compact car, I was expecting to get the keys to a Ford Focus, Hyundai Elantra, or Chevy Cruze.  I saw the kind man behind the counter grab a set of Kia switchblade keys, so I figured I'd be driving the new Forte.  Instead, I was given a 2013 Soul for the day.  I was disappointed at first, as I've been curious about how the new Forte drives, but overall, the Soul pleasantly surprised me.  Here are my observations in no particular order:

1.  For a small, four-cylinder compact, it has a surprisingly good amount of get-up-and-go.  It was especially refreshing to experience a six-speed automatic that kept the engine relaxed and under 3000 RPM at 80 mph, but even more refreshing when it instantly downshifted to give me power when I needed it.  One of the best automatics I've ever driven.  Not once did I have to use the tap-shift sequential manual feature.  The 2013 Elantra I rented for my cross-country road trip this summer had a similarly good 6AT, but its engine wasn't quite as potent.

2.  On the flip-side, fuel economy was disappointing.  With a 6AT handling shifting duties for a trip that took place almost entirely on the freeway, 27.1 MPG on average was a letdown.  I was expecting mid 30s given the nature of the trip, the size of the car, and its EPA sticker.  I blame the 6AT's responsive downshifts that would often have the four-banger winding out to its redline every time I wanted power.  This is where the standard six-speed manual transmission would've helped, as I would have wielded complete control over the engine's power.  Alas, in my personal experience with a few of their products, Hyundai/Kia's manual transmissions are not nearly as good as their automatics.  Le sigh.

3.  The ride and handling were about as I expected them to be.  Inoffensive, though hardly invigorating.  The steering had pleasing heft, but the car understeered quite a bit when cornering and the tires were about as sticky as a bag of wet mice.

4.  On the flip-side, the car was much quieter at highway speeds than expected, and especially given its boxy shape.  It was quieter than my 2010 Accord, in fact.

5.  The driver's seating and position left a bit to be desired.  Perhaps I'm spoiled by both of my cars' power driver's seats and lumbar adjustments, but this car had neither.  The seatback was about as flat as iHOP's signature breakfast item, and my lower back would have craved the football-like support present in my 2010 Accord's driver's seat.  Also, the armrests (door and console) were not nearly as padded as I would've liked.

6.  Fit and finish were mixed.  There was a ton and a half of chintzy hard plastic seemingly everywhere, yet the steering wheel and shifter had soft leather wrappings.  Speaking of the shifter, it was one of the smoothest, most damped and refined automatic gear selectors I've ever tried.  It wouldn't feel out of place in a BMW.  Ditto for the wiper and turn-signal stalks on the steering column.

7.  The cargo area was disappointingly small and the tailgate felt cheap when I closed it.

8.  The sun visors were huge, slid to cover all of the upper door glass (something every sun visor should do), and had lights for their vanity mirrors.  I was expecting none of this in this price class.

9.  That said, why did the driver's window not have an auto-up function?  My 2002 Passat has auto-down AND up on BOTH front windows.  It's an indispensable feature not only when ordering fast food, but when trying to clear a raunchy egg fart out of the car as quickly as possible.

10.  The audio quality was quite good for a base system.

11.  The iPod interface was terrible.  To use it, you need a special cable from Hyundai/Kia that this car of course did not have.  The car had Bluetooth audio, which I used, but unlike any other BT audio system I've used, music could not be played/paused, or tracks changed, from the head unit or the steering wheel controls.  Really disappointing.  I don't want to fumble around with my phone while driving to change songs or play/pause the music.  Also, using the USB port to charge my iPhone did not work.  For a car marketed to people my age, this is inexcusable.

12.  Oddly, though, the phone integration was the best I've ever experienced in a car.  Pairing was easy and quick, and I was able to dial numbers in my contacts entirely with voice commands and the steering wheel controls.  Every other car Bluetooth system I've used has not been able to access my contacts without first downloading them to the car's memory.  Very impressive.  If only they could get the audio integration up to this level.

Overall, the car surprised me, and mostly for the better.  Not bad at all, and the new version probably improves on the few complaints I did have.  Would I take it over either of my current cars?  Nope.  Could it be a great car for people shopping in its segment or for people who want something small, maneuverable, and quirky?  Absolutely.