Los Angeles commuting conditions are quite the proving ground for small cars. With most of LA commute times spent either racing from stoplight to stoplight, crawling along in gridlock, or screaming along expressways at 80 mph or more, these conditions bring out the worst in a lot of small cars—boominess, road noise, a lack of torque, hesitant transmissions—and with lots of imposing vehicles and wide lanes, you don't get the natural maneuverability advantages you get in other cities. But we only emerged happier with the 2010 Kia Soul.
For one, our 2010 Kia Soul Exclaim (denoted by the '!'), came with a powertrain that seemed perkier than expected and willing to roll with whatever we gave it. The 142-horsepower, 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine is the larger of the two engines offered on the Soul (there's also a 122-hp 1.6), and in our test car it came with a four-speed automatic transmission.
It's hardly the stuff of dreams in looking at the numbers, but the powertrain manages to propel the 2,800-pound Soul quickly enough, thanks to well-chosen gear ratios—even if having four speeds means they're really far apart. But the whole setup has been calibrated well; there's no indecision, and at mid-throttle the transmission seems happy to stay in a higher gear and take advantage of all the mid-range torque the engine has. Yep, full-throttle downshifts earn a slight bit of boominess, but it's momentary, not a constant cruising-speed issue, even at 85 mph.
All other aspects of the driving experience are confidence-inspiring, even a little bit sporty. The ride of the 2010 Soul is definitely on the soft side, but just firm enough to instill confidence around tight freeway ramps and for quick lane changes. And brake pedal feel is nice and firm, with the Exclaim including an upgrade to four-wheel discs.
Our only gripe is that the Soul became downright bouncy on the wavelike LA freeways, heaving up and down with more drama than we would have noticed in a longer-wheelbase sedan or crossover. But we felt secure the entire time. And overall there's very little sideways body motion in this taller vehicle, and almost no nosedive or lift, which keeps the experience feeling especially buttoned-down. So does the steering, which has a rather quick ratio but a hefty, secure feel at speed. If we could change anything about the steering, it would be to crank up boost at parking-lot speeds.
EPA ratings for our powertrain combination are 24 mpg city, 30 highway, and we managed to get 24 mpg over 130 miles of rather aggressive driving that would probably have left hypermilers shaking their heads.
Add to this, the Soul's stylish good looks inside and out, along with cavernous cargo capacity, simple switchgear with a nice tactile feel, and the awesome-sounding 315-watt sound system with well-integrated Bluetooth.
The Soul even managed to wow the valets at a fancy Hollywood restaurant…who seemed a little embarrassed but delighted when I told them the price: around $18k, as equipped.
If there was ever any doubt, now we're even more convinced that the 2010 Kia Soul is a surprisingly deft and stylish commuter device, for a thrifty price.