There are elements of compact military vehicle in the styling of Kia's Soul. And it is a car on a mission: to prove there's more to the world's fifth-largest car maker (Hyundai-Kia) than stodgy soft- roaders, pedestrian people-movers and ho-hum hatches and sedans.

That's why Kia Oz will be satisfied to sell the mere 400 units forecast for 2009. As long as it's helping change perceptions of the brand.

In the time we spent with it, none of the punters who saw it, liked it. But at least they saw it. Admittedly, they weren't Gen Y, the Soul's target demographic.

Forget how it drives for now, because hey, factors like the Mini-esque range of features and accessories available are much more important, kids. Houndstooth pattern or full-body dragon decals and 'sound-sensitive' mood-lit speakers (as part of the top-spec audio) are just a few. And there's some tasteful stuff, too.

After you've spent hours at crafting your own brand of four-wheeled urban chic and go for a test drive, you'll be pleased to discover the Soul is actually quite fun. Its ability is all stiff-springs-'n'-dampers (rather than inherent chassis genius) but body roll is minimal and it's entertaining enough to hook into corners with verve. Just don't push too hard, because even the top-spec 18in rubber gives up early. Poor roads ultimately reveal the lack of chassis polish, where ride quality degenerates and suspension noise intrudes.

You wouldn't call Kia's hydraulic power steering state-of-the-art, but this, the company's first electric-steer system, is a reasonable effort, despite a quirk that saw the first example we drove feel leaden and unassisted in the initial few degrees of lock. The characteristic wasn't as pronounced in other examples and once more lock is wound on, the Soul points with fair accuracy and weight.

The turbo-diesel is an agricultural unit, especially when worked hard, but in the context of the Soul's rugged looks, the soundtrack isn't entirely unwelcome. The oiler at least offers the mid-range shove sadly lacking in the 1.6 petrol version, which slogs hard pulling 1250-plus-kilograms. Faced with any sort of incline, the petrol auto hunts for a mechanical advantage. If you prefer to select ratios yourself, the four-speed slusher offers only a ye-olde top gear lock-out and the option of pulling the lever back to second.

It's not about to reset any benchmarks for dynamics or driver appeal, and the jury's still out on where the Soul fits into the automotive hierarchy of cool. But at least it's got people talking, and that's more than the Magentis ever did.

Kia Soul2
Engine 1582cc inline 4, dohc, 16v, t/d
Max Power 94kW @ 4000rpm
Max Torque 260Nm @ 1900rpm
Transmission 5-speed manual
1-100km/h 11.5sec (estimated)
Price $26,690
On sale Now

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