Behind the Wheel: 2010 Kia Soul

Ahhh, the 2010 Kia Soul… yeah, that car, the one with the funny commercial featuring rapping hamsters (or are they gerbils?)

I got a chance to drive this odd-looking little car recently, and much to my surprise, I actually liked it – a lot!

I was a bit worried when I first saw the Kia Soul, because I had conflicted feelings about these little cube-cars that have started to become popular lately. I worried that it would be woefully underpowered, have lousy gas mileage, and be top-heavy and completely uninteresting to drive.

Fortunately for me, the Soul turned out to have none of these problems.

The Soul has a fuel-sipping little 2.0L 4-cylinder engine, which pushes out a surprising 142 HP. (For comparison, my own car, a 2003 Mitsubishi Outlander, has a larger 2.4L 4-cylinder engine which puts out… 140 HP.) Because of this, the Soul is zippy enough to be enjoyable to drive – which I think is important, especially in small cars.

Surprisingly, although the Soul looks like it would be kind of top-heavy, it actually holds quite well through the curves. The steering on the Soul is very crisp and responsive, and you don’t feel nervous hitting a curve at some speed (although obviously not too much speed!).

On the inside, the Soul continued to impress me. The Soul has the kind of driving position I just love – elevated a bit, with good forward visibility and a comfy chair that you sit straight up in (no “leaning all the way back while driving” positions here!). The seats are at hip-level, so you just slide right in – you don’t have to fall down into the seats (like you do in some cars), and you don’t have to climb up into the seats (as you do in some big SUVs).

There is also a lot of neat techno-stuff on the inside of the Soul – the radio is cleverly laid out, and very nice – it has both a regular auxiliary input for any MP3 player, plus you can plug in your iPod and control it using the radio’s own controls (although you do need a special cable for that). You can even control your iPod using the controls on the steering wheel – which is really nice (and a safety bonus – you don’t have to take your hands off the wheel or your eyes off the road to skip songs!).

The steering wheel controls, by the way, were some of the best I’ve seen yet. Unlike a lot of other cars, the controls are easy to operate just by feel alone – the buttons and switches all have unique shapes, so you can tell what button you are pressing just by feeling it. Too few car manufacturers take this aspect of steering wheel mounted controls into consideration, and you end up with controls you have to look at first before you use them – and if you have to look down from the road to see what you’re going to push, then what’s the point of having them on the steering wheel in the first place?

It almost seems like the Kia Soul is the “Goldilocks” of cars – not to big, not too small, not too sluggish but not over powered, clever but not overdone – in other words, “just right.”

However, there is one rather… jarring downside to this car, if you’ll excuse the pun – the suspension. The suspension on this car is very, very stiff. Going over bumps and such was almost painful. We’re talking “almost jolt you out of your seat” bad. Now, I know the suspension is probably stiff to help give the Soul good handling in the corners and prevent it from feeling top-heavy, but honestly I would almost prefer a little bit of top-heaving feelings just so I don’t shatter my spine every time I hit a pothole.

With that one black mark against it, the Kia Soul is otherwise a very nice car which I greatly enjoyed driving. I think it’s a very practical and economical car, without being boring, which is a rare thing these days. If the suspension wasn’t so tooth-rattling, I’d almost give it perfect marks. But even so, I still think it is a really good car. If you don’t mind a rough ride, and are in the market for something small, fun, practical and economical, I’d highly recommend the new Kia Soul.

Behind the Wheel: 2010 Dodge Charger

Recently I had the opportunity to spend a couple of days behind the wheel of a car I really wanted to drive – a 2010 Dodge Charger. Yes, that’s right – I wanted to drive what is essentially a muscle car.

Unfortunately I didn’t have much time (just 3 days) with this car, so I didn’t get a chance to really put it through its paces. However, I did get to drive it along a lot of various roads, ranging from straight & boring (but high-speed – 70 MPH speed limit, yippie!) interstate highways to twisty (and properly banked!) secondary state highways that followed the Mississippi river.

The Dodge Charger is a surprisingly big car – as soon as you get behind the wheel you really feel how big the car is, and you sense its muscle car heritage. However, even though it feels big, the Charger isn’t terribly large on the outside, and in fact it is quite easy to handle, both at high speed and low speed (e.g., parking).

The interior of the Charger was actually very comfortable – it was easy for me to find a comfortable driving position, which is often a challenge for me in cars, since I’m so used to the higher-up seating position in SUV’s and trucks. I had 3 other people with me as well when I was driving the Charger, and the back seats had plenty of room for 2 full-sized adults.

Unfortunately I forgot to check which engine our rented Charger had – it would have been either the 2.7L 178 HP V6, or the bigger 3.5L 250 HP V6. Given that it was a rental, I’m going to guess we had the smaller engine, but don’t let those numbers fool you – the Charger isn’t a terribly heavy car, so it gets up and goes quite well. And it’s rear-wheel drive as well (yay!) so you can have some good-old fashioned tail-spinning fun.

All-in-all the Charger was a pleasure to drive, with plenty of power and smooth steering. The automatic transmission, while simple, was fine – I never felt like it was “hunting” for the right gear, nor were the gear shifts really noticeable. I’m sure this car would be quite a ball with a manual transmission, but (sadly) of course you’d never find a manual transmission on a rental car.

The Charger did have a couple of things that bugged me, however. As is apparently typical of all American cars these days, the Charger comes with automatic headlights (I guess because we’re too stupid to remember to turn them on when it gets dark?) and doors that lock automatically once you get moving – and can’t be unlocked (at least from the rear seats) unless you shift into Park. This last one in particular is really annoying – if you’re dropping anyone off, and they are sitting in the back seat, you MUST shift into Park before they can get out of the car!

Also, watch out if you go into the trunk on the Charger – I hit my head more than once on the very low latch on the trunk. And I can attest – it HURTS.

Other than those few problems, the Charger was a fine car and I quite enjoyed driving it. If I ever felt the desire to own a muscle car, I would definitely consider the Dodge Charger as an option. Hey, if it’s good enough for the police, why not for me?

Behind the Wheel: 2010 Chevrolet Malibu

I recently had an opportunity to spend a good amount of time behind the wheel of a 2010 Chevrolet Malibu while driving from Miami down to Key West.

Unfortunately, although I certainly didn’t hate the Malibu, I didn’t exactly like it either. Like so many American cars of the last, oh, 5-10 years or so, it felt like it was trying really hard to feel more upscale than it really was.

A few things I didn’t like were:

  • The very low ceiling (not helped by the fact that our car had a sunroof)
  • The annoying automatic headlights (and what ever happened to all Chevy vehicles having daytime running lights?)
  • The annoying automatic door locks… which passengers could not unlock until you put the transmission into “Park”
  • The steering wheel control buttons that you had to look at to see what they do (you can’t tell by feel)
  • The 3-spoke steering wheel (each of the spokes was just too big to hold on to when cruising, probably because of the need to fit in all the radio & cruise controls)

Some things I did like were:

  • The radio (I do like that Chevy’s have one of the few CD players that actually read CD-Text for song titles – why don’t more cars do this?)
  • The engine (peppy without being hard to control, and definitely nice considering it’s just a 4-cylinder, albeit a 2.4L one, putting out 169 HP)
  • The paddle shifters (completely unnecessary, but still kind of nice to have)

All-in-all, the Malibu was an OK car, but nothing special. If it was a little bit less expensive (running somewhere between $21K-$27K) I would say it’s a good deal for the money. But as is, it’s just… meh.

Behind the Wheel: 2010 Chrysler Town & Country

Recently I had a chance to spend some extended time (nearly 2 weeks) driving around the desert southwest (Nevada, Arizona, Utah) in a 2010 Chrysler Town & Country (with the Touring package).

Now, I’m not normally very fond of minivans personally, but I can appreciate them for what they are – very practical vehicles. And in this case, a minivan was exactly what we needed.

We had 4 people, two of whom had just flown in from Australia, so they had all of their luggage for a 6-week stay in the US with them. So we needed a car that could fit all of that luggage, as well as seat all 4 of us comfortably for the very long drives between various national parks we’d be visiting.

So, it was with all that in mind that I rented a minivan, and the 2010 Chrysler Town & Country is what we ended up with.

Now, on paper it seems like this should be a very respectable vehicle – but, as is so often the case, reality turned out to be somewhat different.

Now, in the sense of giving us plenty of room for luggage and people, the Town & Country did not disappoint. We easily fit 4 huge suitcases in the back (the 3rd row seats fold flat into the floor, a very neat trick) along with 2 big carry-on bags and various other stuff we picked up along the way (e.g., a huge pack of bottled water to keep us all hydrated in the dry desert). There was also plenty of space for the 4 of us, and we each got captain-style chairs which were very comfortable.

However, the driving experience was less than I expected – and I didn’t expect too much, given that this is a minivan, after all.

For one thing, the engine seemed to be a very bad match for such a heavy vehicle (4,507 pounds). While it was a 3.8L V6, it only put out 197 hp and it only reached that maximum horsepower at a very high 5200 RPM.

The transmission was also a source of frustration the whole trip – it was a very nice 6-speed automatic, but the V6 engine has such a narrow power band that even on the mostly flat roads we drove on, it was constantly switching gears, just to keep us moving at a constant speed.

And although the engine delivered impressive power, it did so when we least needed it – for example, at very low speeds. It was very easy to “surge” forward when pulling away from a stop, but on the highway when you needed to pass a slow-moving trailer (as you often do on the long single-lane state highways out there) you really had to mash your foot down into the floor.

And speaking of the long drives we had to make – although the passengers were very comfortable, as a driver I found it a bit annoying that all you have is the little captain’s chair-style armrests. You can’t even really lean your arm on the window – the van is so wide that the door is just too far away from where you are sitting in the driver’s chair.

All-in-all, although the Town & Country had the space we needed, it was not in any way a pleasure to drive. It really seems to have been designed to appeal to people who don’t like driving, rather than people who do. So, I guess if that’s you, then you’ll be happy with this minivan.

Why I Still Use My Canon PowerShot S3 IS Camera

Considering how fast the digital camera world moves forward (in terms of technology), you might find it surprising that I – a huge technology geek – am still using my 2006-vintage Canon PowerShot S3 IS camera, even though it has been replaced by more than a few new models from Canon (at least 5 new models, by my count – and quite possibly more).

Now you might be wondering why I’m sticking with an older camera like this – but I assure you, there is a very good reason. And that reason is, basically, that Canon has not come out with a newer, “better” camera that is comparable to the venerable S3 in terms of features, price, performance, and accessories.

For example, the direct successor to the S3 is the S5, which is basically the same camera, but with 8 megapixels instead of 6, a newer image processor, and a hot shoe for attaching an auxiliary flash.

Sounds great, right? Well, yes and no. While at first glance the S5 seems like it is “better,” there is one other change that’s really annoying – the memory card slot on the S5 is on the bottom of the camera, inside the battery compartment, instead of on the side like in the S3. This means that you can’t switch memory cards easily while on a tripod, since the battery compartment is usually blocked by your tripod mount. And while this seems like a minor nit-pick, you also have to consider that the other new features of the S5 just aren’t quite compelling enough to justify buying an entirely new camera. (Remember: these cameras aren’t cheap, and they don’t have the same resale value that a full DSLR would have.)

There are more examples as well. Moving up the Canon “S” series of cameras we come to the SX10 and Sx20. Now, these are both very nice cameras, but again, they have some downsides that make it just not-quite-good-enough to justify spending a whole bunch of money on a new camera.

One aspect of the new cameras in the “S” series is that the lens speed (i.e.,largest aperture setting) has been slowly going down.  My S3 has a max aperture of  f/2.7 at the wide end, and f/3.5 at full zoom – but the SX10 and SX20 have max apertures of  f/2.8 at the wide end and f/5.7 at full zoom.

And things don’t get any better if you jump up to the next range of Canon cameras – the PowerShot G series. Oh, sure, the early G series cameras had decently fast lenses (f/2.0 at the wide end, which is impressive for what is technically still a “point and shoot” camera), but the later G series all got bumped up to f/2.8 at the wide end, which is… not as impressive.

(For those who are a little confused as to what I’m talking about with these crazy f-numbers and references to “fast” lenses, this article from Wikipedia offers a good explanation. Generally speaking, a smaller f-number means a larger aperture, which means more light can come into the camera in a given amount of time.)

And let’s not forget that I’ve invested a fair bit of change into accessories for my camera. I’ve got filters and wide-angle lens adapters, which I would prefer not to have to re-buy with a new camera. Now, while the S5 would take the same accessories, but the SX10 and SX20 would not. And as for the G series, well, some of them support my accessories (mostly the earlier models) but some do not.

And I’m still not done – because some of the models above have the nice swivel-screen that is so handy to have, but others don’t. And some have the same electronic viewfinder, but others have a rather simple see-through preview hole, which does not actually show you what your picture will look like (instead, you have to use the full-sized screen).

I also am rather particular in my camera using regular AA-size batteries, so that I can find replacements easily in the field if I need to. Also, I can carry extra spares easily and charge them all using standard battery chargers, instead of needing special manufacturer-specific chargers.

So, as you can see, while there are many newer cameras to choose from, none offers the same excellent mix of features and accessories as my venerable old S3:

  • Swivel screen
  • Side-accessible memory card slot (not in the battery compartment)
  • Uses standard AA batteries
  • Accessories via a 58 mm mount on an adapter tube
  • Viewfinder that shows a full view of what the sensor sees (it’s electronic, not optical, but it’s still handy)
  • Good optical zoom range (12x)
  • Decent lens speed (f/2.7 – f/3.5)

For sure, newer cameras offer some of the same features (along with other benefits from being newer & using better technology), but none of them offers the same blend of features. And none of the benefits of the new cameras is, as of yet, compelling enough to make me spend several hundred dollars on a new camera, when my old one does just fine, thank you, and has all these features that I like, and won’t require me to re-purchase all new accessories.

Maybe someday Canon will come out with a new camera that offers the same features as the PowerShot S3, but with upgraded technology (hint hint, Canon!), then maybe I’ll consider upgrading. But until that day comes, I’m sticking with my trusty little S3.

Photos licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 license. Photo credits: HendrixEesti, Yug and Rama. (Click on the photos themselves for further details.)