Throwback Review: Hamsters Not Included

A Victory & Reseda "Throwback Review" of the 2010 Kia Soul

So, what is "cool?"

It's an objective definition that pervades actual agreement amongst us. It's not at all absolute as the concept of "cool" is fluid. What was cool ten or so years ago isn’t cool now. And, so forth…

I attempted to ask the question on Facebook to some limited responses. Again, the question went nowhere – just like arguing over one's coolness over another.

Then, we add the word "hip." What is "hip?" It was a Ska song from about 30 years ago, but that’s not the right answer for this purpose. Would it be better if I asked whether "hip" is another level of "cool?" That would confuse everyone reading this blog…

"Hip" and "cool" are two objective words being tossed around the automotive world to find a way to sell automobiles to the younger crowd. Think "Scion" for a moment. That's Toyota's great idea to sell its most non-mainstream vehicles through a different brand while still sharing space at the local Toyota dealer. The Honda Element was once considered "cool" and "hip" before it became the darlings of the urban home rehabber set.

One thing I've noticed about these "cool" and "hip" conveyances: Not a lot of people aged 18-30 are driving them. Owners of these vehicles tend to be older – much older. So, how do you sell these “cool” and "hip" automobiles to the younger, undergraduate or working-straight-out-of-high-school set?


You've seen the commercials. It began with hamsters on the road in their spin-wheels – going nowhere. All of the sudden, the camera focuses on a carload of hamsters rolling alongside these stationary spin-wheels, and grooving to some hybrid Hip-Hop/Rock tune. Heads bobbing – just being “cool” and "hip."

In the latest commercial selling the same vehicle, the "coolest," "hippest" hamsters are now macking on old school hip-hop gear rapping to Black Sheep's "The Choice is Yours." All of the old school/new school stereotypes blaze through your video screen – again making the point between hamsters who roll in the latest "hip" and "cool" conveyance against a series of whack rides. With CGI, anything is possible!

Do hamsters make a car "hip" and "cool?" Kia certainly believes so. That's why you're seeing all of these Soul commercials featuring these CGI hamsters.

For the Memorial Day Weekend, I took out a Kia Soul to see whether (a) it is as "cool" and "hip" as is being marketed, (b) whether it is practical enough to be considered as an every day ride for being a tall hatchback/compact crossover wagon and (c) whether this 46-year-old single Gay man (Bear, whatever) can live with one even for a short amount of time.

My example, the Soul "+" model, came well equipped to begin with: A welcomed relief for the journey up north to Duluth and Sandstone. What I appreciate about the Soul is the higher ground clearance. This came in handy on unpaved surfaces. The tall stance and upright hatch helped with headroom and cargo loading. Though smaller than the Scion xB and the Honda Element, it does look rugged enough to handle the urban jungle as well as away from it. For reference, the Nissan Cube is lower to the ground, but just as small as the Soul.

There is another thought about the overall design. I'm thinking back to the 1920s when automobiles were upright towards the back. The old "closed saloons" and "hardtops" of the 1920s and 1930s just flashed in front of me one day while observing the Soul. Granted, the green color wouldn't have been in vogue before and after the Stock Market Crash of 1929.

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Inside is an interesting treatment what Kia considers "cool" and "hip." For the instrument panel seems modern for compacts these days, including the cleverly designed center stack area housing the HVAC controls, audio system and a small cubby hole that's somewhat tricky to open up. If you slide the latch to the right, you have to push down on the top of the panel to open it. Not clever, in practice.

The seats remind one what the car is since it is stitched all over the upper parts of each seat. I'm thinking 1980s Chevrolet Camaro here. The good thing is the "+" model comes with a good chunk of equipment ranging from an audio system with Sirius satellite radio and Bluetooth connectivity to power windows, power door locks and cruise control.

It's not exactly creamy comfortable. The seats are a bit hard, but will give a tad while getting used to you. To my closest friends and traveling companions for the weekend, they simply love how the interior accommodated the three of us (All over 6'1" and "big boned," BTW) with a reasonable amount of comfort. The drawback is way out back where, though it is expandable, rear cargo space can be a touch shallow when the rear seats are upright. You do get plenty of height to compensate, but I would prefer more cargo space depth behind the seats.

2010 Kia Soul 11

Under the hood is an engine that caused some concerns in previous reviews of the Soul. They knocked the engine for not being finished off with a plastic cover, reducing the noise you get under throttle. They also knocked the drivetrain for being out of date – granted it's connected to a four-speed automatic gearbox. I also heard the term "agricultural" described as the way of motivation for the Soul. The engine is familiar – the 2.0 liter DOHC 16-valve mill from the Spectra of yore – however, it's been milked for another 22 horsepower over last year’s Spectra. If you want more refinement, the Forte sedan and Koup gives you another 12 horsepower to play with.

The truth about the Soul is that its chassis is derived from the subcompact Rio, but with a taller body tacked onto it. With the drivetrain from last year's Spectra (or, if you so argue, a lower powered Forte), it simply works for this body! I've always enjoyed the willingness of ye ole Spectra to gobble up miles with an enthusiastic and revvy motor. It's not a barnburner, but I'm happy with how it runs in this "hip" and "cool" package.

Considering the chassis is from the Rio, one must assume the worst in terms of ride, handling and such. Not quite. It rides decently, except over rough road surfaces. Yet, I wasn't expecting Cadillac smooth or Prius solid – but it’s manageable. There's quite a bit of roll when it takes the curves. Part of it is the higher ground clearance based on a suspension system made for a subcompact car. There is indeed room for improvement in tweaking the suspension set. The steering could be a bit tighter from turn-to-turn, yet I like how it feels overall. Braking is quite good for a small boxy machine.

Where most smallish crossovers fail is delivering proper fuel economy. Having a taller body on top of a compact platform usually spells disaster for those looking for a car that sips fuel – instead of inhaling it. For example: the Chrysler PT Cruiser and the Chevrolet HHR – both based on compact sedans – gets on the average about 4MPG less than its original models and the crossover versions. For the Soul, the 24.5 MPG loop it turned is better than most of the compact-based crossovers. In comparison, I would achieve consumption figures in the upper 20s through the low 30s in the Kia Spectra and Hyundai Elantra. But, was I complaining for not achieving higher fuel economy? Not in this "hip" and "cool" compact box.

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So, how was it like driving a car favored by hamsters? For starters, my closest friends enjoyed the Soul more than I. They believed it was the best vehicle they've ridden in with me in the past several years. It certainly accomplished the job of fulfilling a Holiday weekend away from home. Not only that, it turned a few heads in places where you don’t see the Soul often.

Here's the thing about the Soul, to thoroughly enjoy it, I had to let go of a lot of my enthusiast side. No, it's not made to take corners or to smoothly get me from Minneapolis to Duluth to Sandstone and back. Let alone fulfilling Plans B, C and D – Cedar Rapids, Omaha and Kansas City. It's made for fun and frolic – I'll agree with that. I would prefer more cargo space behind the rear seats, but the seating areas won over the people I care about the most.

These are small victories adding up for a car not to be taken seriously. If I wanted a serious Kia, I get the Forte sedan or Koup – or, jump up to the 2011 Sorento. Or, wait until the upcoming 2011 Optima.

While we laugh at the hip-hop hamsters selling the Kia Soul, consider the message of the song's in the commercial: The choice is yours. If the Kia Soul is "where it's at," let go of your inhibitions and enjoy the ride! Or, at least be "cool" and "hip" driving it.

DISCLAIMER: Vehicle was rented by Randy Stern

All photos by Randy Stern

PRE-OWNED VEHICLE INFORMATION: Per a search on several car shopping sites, V&R found there were several 2010 Kia Souls available between $5,200 and $10,000. Mileage and condition varies, but most were found with over 80,000 miles on the odometer, the highest being over 130,000 miles. Always have any vehicle inspected before purchase.

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