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2012 Kia Soul

The 2012 Kia Soul proves yet again that Kia Motors is only getting better.

The 2012 Kia Soul is yet another example of how the Korean-based automaker is consistently stepping up its game. Quick enough to be fun, big enough to be useful and built well for its price tag, the Soul is a worthy rival for other cars in its small SUV class.

Kia is working to muscle into what I call the affordable quality club. Any driver can drive a luxurious, top of the line vehicle such as a Mercedes Benz, BMW or Lexus. The trick for most car buyers is how to squeeze in some of the fancy features all of those automakers provide without having to make the same financial investment.

The car companies looking to fill that void include Volkswagen, Subaru and (with some models) Ford. Now, Kia is building toward adding themselves to the club with vehicles like the Soul.

The Soul doesn’t come with a massive power-plant. It includes a 1.6 liter, four-cylinder engine putting out 135 hp, while offering 28 street and 34 highway mpg. You can also drive home with a 2.0 liter four cylinder model with 160 horsepower serving up 27/33. I had the bigger of the two setups for my weeklong test drive and – while it was hardly a sporty ride – there was never any shortage of power on the street or freeway.

Buyers can choose a six-speed manual transmission, and I kind of wish I could’ve tried that one. I had a six-speed automatic transmission that it’s new in this year’s model. It did the job well, but  – once again – driving without a manual transmission is essentially just steering.

On the outside, the Soul’s tapered cargo space modernizes the look. It’s styled more subtly than a rival Scion xB, but more aggressively than a Ford Escape. Buyers can add LED taillight clusters for an upgrade fee. The way the cargo bay sits directly over the back wheels is a little reminiscent of a Land Rover Defender – though I’m not recommending you take this out for aggressive off-roading.

In my top shelf model, I got an Infinity audio system with AM/FM/CD and satellite radio. I also tried out the navigation system and Kia’s UVO voice-control system for controlling car audio, making handsfree calls via Bluetooth and other basic functions. If you want to pay for them, you can add in heated seats and climate control.

The only odd and unnecessary feature I found in my particular test version was a bizarre and distracting interior lighting display. The doors were line with circular highlight lighting that could change colors. I could pick a single color to illuminate the car interior with a subtle glow, or I could set it for random rotation in which it would change from blue to red to green, etc. If I wanted to set it up with the audio system, it would throb with the beat like I stumbled into some amateur-hour, four-wheeled dance club. The feature seemed unnecessary and cheesy. The only thing I could figure was it’s an option for younger drivers who want more flash (no pun intended) in their vehicle.

That silly glitch aside (and it’s an obvious bet that feature doesn’t come standard), the 2012 Kia Soul is well-appointed with adequate build quality – especially when you consider its cost runs from $14,000 t0 about $20,000, depending on your options and features.