2012 Kia Soul Driving Impressions

The Soul is nimble and fun to drive. We drove Souls with the 2.0-liter engine and 6-speed automatics primarily. We didn't get any seat time in the base model with the 1.6-liter engine but given that it's almost as powerful as last year's 2-liter, the car is no heavier, and the transmissions now have more gears, fewer people should feel the need to step up to the + or ! for mechanical reasons.

Both engines get direct injection for 2012, adding high-end power without using any more fuel most of the time. The 2.0-liter engine makes 164 horsepower at 6500 rpm with a good 148 pound feet of torque peaking at a fairly high 4800 rpm. This is more than adequate in a 2,700-pound car and the Soul can keep up with traffic easily; many V8-powered full-size SUVs aren't demonstrably quicker. It does require a serious prod with your right foot to force a downshift for passing or merging, but does so quickly and upshifts in steps as appropriate.

The automatic's shifter has up/down manual control to the left of the D position, handy for long descents or constant elevation changes. We found nothing to suggest the six-speed manual shifter and clutch aren't at least as good as the outgoing five-speed; choosing the automatic over it would most likely be due to packaging and option limitations with the manual.

Following the 2012's debut Kia plans to offer an option on automatics of ISG. This stands for idle stop and go in which the car automatically turns the engine off at stops and restarts it when you lift your foot off the brake to prepare to move again. We sampled this in 1.6-liter Kia Rio models and found it works as advertised, the first time it functioned my driver didn't even notice. It also nets a 1 mpg increase in city EPA ratings; if you spend a lot of time sitting in traffic you may realize greater gains.

Either engine has sufficient power to have traction control reign in tire spin in exuberant driving or sharp turn starts on wet surfaces. No all-wheel drive system is offered nor is it needed. With the majority of its weight over the drive wheels and a lightweight package, a set of winter tires will get you through the neighborhood better than many heavy four-wheel drives.

The power steering is hydraulic rather than electric, and has a nice light but not vague feel. It makes the whole car feel lighter, and it responds to driver input well. Don't expect it to feel like a sports car, but then it's not intended to.

The suspension is good, compliant, okay over speed bumps, and not once did we hit anything that produced any jarring or bashing impacts. It's not sophisticated and will transmit some bumps on rough roads, but you won't find anything noticeably better for $13,000, nor will you upset your passengers. Brakes are all-disc on all models and we found them firm and solid in the wet or dry.

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