The boxy Kia Soul is still funky-looking and still has dancing hamsters in its award-winning television ads.
But for 2012, the youthful Soul is restyled for a more high-tech look, has more powerful, yet more fuel-efficient engines, new six-speed transmissions and more features, including an infotainment system with voice recognition. Kia even offers 18-inch wheels now.
This model year, the five-door Soul also adds Idle Stop and Go (ISG), which automatically turns off the engine when the car is at idle, such as at a stoplight, and then automatically restarts the engine when the driver's pressure on the brake pedal lets up. The ISG, which is commonly found on gasoline-electric hybrid vehicles, helps conserve fuel.
What's not changed: The front-wheel drive Soul hatchback retains its industry-leading warranty coverage, which includes 10 years/100,000 miles for powertrain and five years/60,000 miles for limited, basic car coverage.
And it still comes standard with lots of safety equipment, such as traction control and electronic stability control, six air bags and antilock brakes.
Best of all, the Soul, which is a recommended buy of Consumer Reports magazine, remains priced below many competitors.
Starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, is $14,650 for the base Soul with 138-horsepower, 1.6-liter, four-cylinder engine and six-speed manual transmission.
But the lowest retail price for a 2012 Soul with automatic is $1,800 more, or $16,450.
The 2012 Soul is offered with a larger, 164-horsepower, 2-liter four cylinder with a starting MSRP, including destination charge, of $17,050.
Competitors include the boxy-styled, Nissan cube, which has a starting retail price of $15,500 as a 2011 model with 122-horsepower, 1.8-liter four cylinder and six-speed manual transmission. The competing 2012 Scion xB has a starting retail price of $17,030 with 158-horsepower, 2.4-liter four cylinder and manual transmission.
Note that the federal government's top fuel economy ratings of 27 miles per gallon in city driving and 35 mpg on the highway for the 2012 Soul with base engine are better than the fuel ratings for the cube and xB. For example, the 2012 xB's mileage rating is 22/28 mpg.
The Soul has become Kia's top-selling car, with sales topping 92,600 through the first 11 months of this year. This is up 52 percent from the same period a year ago.
No doubt buyers are attracted by the Soul's value for the price.
Standard equipment on all models includes ample cargo space, Sirius XM satellite radio (buyers must subscribe to keep this satellite radio beyond the complimentary tryout period), dual-level glovebox, air conditioning, power door locks, outside mirrors and windows, as well as USB/auxiliary jacks.
The test Soul, a Plus model with the larger four cylinder and six-speed automatic transmission included Plus standard features like keyless entry, Bluetooth phone connectivity, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, audio controls on the steering wheel, two powerpoint outlets and metal-look interior trim _ all for $18,050.
At just 13.5 feet long from bumper to bumper, the test Soul fit easily into compact parking spaces and handled nimbly in tight spots.
But inside, the feeling was anything but tight. The 5.3-foot-tall Soul provides 40.2 inches of headroom in the front seat and 39.6 inches in the back seat, so even tall riders don't feel constrained. This is akin to the headroom inside a 2012 Chevrolet Equinox sport utility vehicle.
This ample headroom isn't achieved by forcing riders to sit low to the pavement. Rather, it's the product of a roofline that doesn't slope much until it's behind the back seats. In the test Soul, passengers had good views out of the vehicle and to the traffic ahead, though we still couldn't see over or beyond big pickup trucks or vans.
Be aware, though, that three adults in the back seat sit close to each other, even if the generous 39 inches of rear-seat legroom meant no one's knees touched the front seatbacks.
Note that rear seatbacks are split 60/40 and fold down to extend the 19.3 cubic feet of cargo space behind the rear seats to an SUV-like 53.4 cubic feet. It wasn't difficult to load items inside since the flat cargo floor was at thigh level on me and the rear bumper was not obtrusive.
The uplevel, 2-liter, double overhead cam, four-cylinder engine with variable valve timing provided commendable power, even with the Soul's cargo area filled with suitcases and shopping bags.
I did hear the four-cylinder buzziness at times when pressing the car to accelerate on uphill road sections. But the engine response and power delivery was pleasing, not at all lagging. Torque peaks at 148 foot-pounds at 4,800 rpm, and the Soul weighs less than 3,000 pounds and can feel sprightly on the roads.
Without trying at all, I averaged 29.1 mpg, which is just over the combined city/highway mileage that the federal government estimates in combined city/highway travel.
The tester did not include the automatic engine shutdown and restarting feature. Note that Kia engineers add a more durable starter and alternator with this feature to ensure those stop/starts don't require earlier starter and alternator replacements.
Fit and finish on the test Soul was excellent, and fabric seats were comfortable in summer heat and pleasant looking. But, I could have used some additional lumbar support in the Soul's front passenger seat when I sat there over a three-hour trip.
Consumer Reports puts the predicted reliability of the Soul at average.