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Koreans build a beat box

The 2010 Kia Soul Sport is the latest four-cornered 'tween-mobile on the market and the carmaker's answer to the Scion xB.

July 31, 2009|DAN NEIL

Back before the Earth cooled, JCPenney and other fine retail outlets sold a component stereo system whose speakers pulsed with colored lights in sync with the music. There also was, it seems to me, a Wurlitzer organ that had dancing lights in the speaker cabinet. In the 1970s, this qualified as staggeringly awesome.

So I was surprised -- and not a little nostalgic -- to see this "technology" show up in the 2010 Kia Soul Sport, a fervid box of discount hipness targeting audio-obsessed teens and twentysomethings.

Our $18,345 test car was equipped with six speakers (including a center channel and subwoofer) powered by an external amp pushing enough decibels to loosen one's grip on bodily functions.

The door speakers have LED lights built in that throb to the music. Please be advised that, if you are sitting in the grocery store parking lot at night grooving out to Katy Perry, and you are in your late 40s, you will look like a demented old man.

The Soul is a cool-looking little gizmo penned with confidence if not gall: The bold upward window sill line, the deep beveling around the windows, the outsized fender flares, the frog-eyed headlamps and vertical tail lamp assemblies. Pull it all together and the Soul looks like a Land Rover LR2 that had its way with a Scion xB. Well done.

Other than its resolute boxiness, the Kia Soul recommends itself primarily on the basis of price, and I must say the Soul delivers a significant amount of kit for the money: power accessories, keyless entry, fog lights, lots of tarty sport trim (roof spoiler, side sills, front bumper and side moldings) and fairly racy 18-inch wheels and tires.

Is it fun to drive? God no. It's a shopping cart, an eight-cornered wheelbarrow. Powered by a 2.0-liter, 142-hp four-cylinder engine and five-speed manual transmission, the Soul moans like a poltergeist under hard acceleration.

The steering feels vague and the car corners skittishly. The clutch and brake pedal couldn't feel more numb if you had an epidural, and the shift lever feels like a spoon in an empty cake bowl.

The Soul -- with MacPherson strut front suspension and torsion beam rear -- is built on a modified Kia Rio platform, which I don't believe is on anybody's list of mind-blowing sporters.

The Soul is certainly drivable and pleasant. But fun? The Soul falls somewhere between having your teeth cleaned and Vacation Bible School.

Note: If the anesthetized torpor of the five-speed-equipped car proves to be too much, you can choose a four-speed automatic for no extra cost. Still too hairy? The base model comes with a 1.6-liter, 122-hp four-binger.

Here's the thing, though: The target audience is not much interested in driving fun, per se, at least as we defined it back in my carbureted youth.

For the Kia's first-car audience, fun means being able to pile your friends in the back -- and the vast rear doors and large back seat make that easy -- and heading out for an affordable night of self-inflicted hearing damage. Fun means a warranty that won't expire until after you get out of graduate school. Fun means being able to make your car payment. Fun means affording the gas. The Soul Sport gets quite decent fuel economy of 30 miles per gallon on the highway.

For financially assisting parents, the Soul offers the consolation of lots of safety gear, including stability control, six air bags and active headrests.

The Soul scored five stars in both Europe's NCAP and the feds' NHTSA crash test rating. Having your kids come home in one piece is fun too.

The atman of this car resides in the interior, and it doesn't disappoint . . . much. The seats are mounted high on pedestals so there's plenty of legroom to go with the vast headroom (Sarah Palin supporters need not doff their moose-antler hats).

The high-design, two-tone interior -- red/black in our "Molten" red test car -- looks great. The center stack's audio and climate controls are easy to reach and operate. Most of the dash is covered in a kind of dot-pattern soft plastic, like the rubbery grip tape you'd put on a skateboard. It's nice.

The big problem with the interior is that the hard plastic on the doors and interior panels is easily scuffed. The driver's door of the test car was already pretty well scarred when I got to it. I expect Kia soon will rethink its choice of materials for this high-wear area.

How does the Soul stack up against the segment's benchmark, the Honda Fit?

Incontestably, the Fit is a better-engineered car and more fun in stick-and-rudder driving. But the Soul has a lovely, expansive feel to it, and it's a screaming value.

The Soul joins the Scion xB, Honda Element and the new Nissan Cube in the boxy boxing ring, and I think it will do just fine.

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dan.neil@latimes.com

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BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX

2010 Kia Soul Sport

Base price: $16,950

Price, as tested: $18,345

Powertrain: 2.0-liter, 16-valve DOHC four-cylinder with variable valve timing; five-speed manual transmission; front-wheel drive

Horsepower: 142 at 6,000 rpm

Torque: 137 pound-feet at 4,600 rpm

Curb weight: 2,800 pounds

0-60 mph: 8+ seconds

Wheelbase: 100.4 inches

Overall length: 161.6 inches

EPA fuel economy: 24 mpg city; 30 mph highway

Final thoughts: A Korean Cube

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