TARRYTOWN, N.Y. -- New York Route 17, a two-laner that wiggles up Bear Mountain from the Hudson River Valley, became our curvy track to test the road-hugging manners of a seriously cubistic crossover utility vehicle from Kia of South Korea.
A chrome-plated badge on the flip-up tailgate tags our vehicle as the Soul, and the 2012 editions score new engines and six-speed transmissions promising not only more power points but higher fuel economy numbers.
Kia's cubistic CUV landed in North America in 2010 as a small-scale city car sized in the subcompact class with two modest powertrain options, a surprising amount of room in the five-seat passenger compartment, lots of on-board safety equipment and some attractive price tags.
Soul 2012 issues carry the new powertrains plus tweaks to the wild body styling. MSRP numbers rise slightly with the engine upgrades but remain in the affordable column.
Boxy square with a flat roof pitched over angled windows and roly-poly shoulders circling pint-size wheels, Kia's hatchback CUV features bold styling that begins up front at a stubby prow housing a narrow chrome grille and oversized headlamp clusters. Below is a gaping lower grille with cutouts for air intake ports. It joins flanking thick strips of body-colored fascia which wrap around front corners and arch over front wheels as articulated muscular shoulders.
Yet the unique shape of this car comes from the design of that flat roof. It slopes down from a raked windshield and trims side windows into ever-narrowing proportions.
The tail of Soul drops away from the roof with interruptions only from trailing edges of bulging rear wheelwells and protruding fascia set below the tail door's bottom edge.
Modifications for 2012 include front and rear fascias stretched to project a wider stance and revisions to headlamps, taillights, side mirrors and wheels.
Like a curve-craving sports sedan, Soul rides on the front-wheel-drive chassis of a car. The platform supports the 100.4-inch wheelbase and a wheel track width of 61.8 inches front and 62.5 inches rear. Pinning the wheels near corners of the chassis brings stability to the stance and enhances Soul's agility when cornering.
Soul has car-like suspension elements -- independent MacPherson struts mounted on a subframe up front and a transverse torsion beam axle in back also with subframe -- to deliver the smooth ride quality of a car.
The steering system adds electric power assistance, which eliminates a load of hydraulic equipment and contributes to the efficiency of Soul's small engines.
A disc brake goes to each wheel -- with linkage to an anti-lock brake system (ABS) with brake assist system (BAS) and electronic brake force distribution (EBD), plus hill-start assist control (HAC) and vehicle stability management (VSM) which coordinates the electronic stability control (ESC) and ABS systems to maintain control of the vehicle.
Measures for passenger safety in the cabin extend from the sturdy safety-cage construction to front seatbelts with load-limiting and pretensioning apparatus, backseat restraints with anchors to mount a child's seat, smart multi-stage frontal air bags and side air bags for the front seats along with curtain-style air bags tucked in the ceiling for outboard seats on two rows.
The 2012 Soul base edition stocks an in-line four-cylinder aluminum engine which displaces 1.6 liters and has dual overhead cams with gasoline direct injection (GDI) and Kia's dual continuously variable valve timing (DCVVT) equipment. The plant makes 138 hp at 6300 rpm plus 123 lb-ft of torque at 4850 rpm.
A six-speed manual transmission works with this engine, but a new six-speed electronic automatic is optional, and fuel economy figures climb to 35 mpg for highway driving.
Soul+ (plus) and Soul! (exclaim) editions get a new 2.0-liter four-in-line aluminum engine which also has twin-cams and DCVVT valve controls. It knocks down class-leading 164 hp at 6500 rpm and torque of 148 lb-ft at 4800 rpm.
Soul+ offers the manual or automatic shifter but Soul! employs the automatic exclusively. EPA fuel estimates using the automatic tally to 26 mpg City and 34 mpg Highway.
Kia will offer its Idle Stop and Go (ISG) technology on Soul later this year. The ISG equipment reduces fuel consumption slightly by automatically shutting the engine off when the vehicle stops at a traffic signal, then automatically restarting the engine when the driver releases the brake pedal.
Layout of Soul's cabin consists of a pair of contoured buckets up front and followed by a bench broad enough for three but with indents for two. Seatbacks on the second row split in 60/40 sections and fold down flat. Soul's cargo bay has 53.4 cubic feet of stow room with rear seatbacks down.
Kia doesn't skimp on standard equipment even for the Soul base edition. The gear includes 15-inch steel wheels and 195/65R15 tires, air conditioning, tilting steering wheel, power controls for windows and door locks, 6-way manual controls for the driver's seat and a sound kit with AM/FM/XM/CD/MP3/USB.
Soul+ adds the 2.0-liter engine, 16-inch alloy wheels with 205/55R16 tires, a keyless remote entry device, Bluetooth connectivity plus optional foglamps and sunroof.
Soul! stocks the sunroof, LED projector headlamps, LED taillamps and foglamps, 18-inch alloy wheels with 235/45R18 tires and a 350-watt seven-speaker Infinity audio system. A Premium Package installs heated front seats, leather upholstery, automatic climate controls, a navigation system and push-button start with smart key.
The MSRP for Kia's 2012 Soul begins at $13,900 for a manual transmission or $15,700 with the automatic.