Behind the Wheel: 2011 Kia Soul

amanda's new kia soul 3Long-time readers will remember that I’ve reviewed the Kia Soul before – but that was the 2010 model. About a year after I wrote that review, my wife bought the 2011 model, and Kia had made enough changes to it to warrant reviewing it again. Plus, I’ve had much more time to get to know the Soul, so I can give a bit more of an informed view on its strengths… and weaknesses.

First and foremost, my biggest complaint with the 2010 Soul was the shine-shatteringly stiff ride – mercifully, this has been improved in the 2011 Soul. It is still a fairly stiff ride, but it’s no longer likely to shake the fillings out of your teeth.

The 2011 Soul retains the fuel-sipping 2.0L engine and easily manages 28-30MPG with both city and highway driving. It’s also incredibly nimble – this is a great city car that’s easy to maneuver in tight quarters and parks or makes sharp turns with ease. The engine is small and quite buzzy at times, but it suffices to get the car moving quickly – though it often needs to downshift to make that happen (the transmission itself likes to stay in higher gears; presumably for fuel efficiency). And once you’re going, the 4-wheel disk brakes do a great job of stopping you in a hurry – indeed, I almost think the brakes on this car are overkill for such a lightweight vehicle.

All models of the Soul are front-wheel drive only, which further cements them as “tall wagons” and not “crossover SUVs.” The Soul does have a traction control system though, which is actually quite useful since it is very easy to get the narrow front wheels to slip when accelerating if the roads are even just a little bit slick.

Forward visibility in the Soul is great – you sit up high enough to see right down the front hood and can easily tell where your front bumper is – but rear visibility suffers terribly due to the very thick rear pillars (and relatively small rear hatch window).

Interior room in the Soul is good (considering its size), but nothing to write home about.

All that said though, I honestly can’t say I like the Kia Soul. The steering wheel is just a little bit too small for my taste, and the steering can be a bit twitchy on the highway. The steering wheel itself has the awkward large spokes so common to cars that have radio & cruise controls on the steering wheel itself. At low RPMs there’s hardly any power in the engine, and though the transmission will downshift to get you into the power band, it doesn’t sound like it likes being there. Although a very nimble car (especially at lower speeds in the city), it just isn’t that much fun to drive most of the time.

All in all, the Kia Soul is a very good commuter car that’s versatile enough to carry people and stuff around without costing an arm and a leg in gas money. A practical car that does what you need, but isn’t that exciting to drive.

Behind the Wheel: 2003 Mitsubishi Outlander

the amazing keithmobile-DTo keep this “Behind the Wheel” series going I thought I’d mix things up a bit and give some thoughts on cars I’ve actually owned, as opposed to ones I’ve just driven for short periods of time.

We’ll begin this little mini-series with my current car, a 2003 Mitsubishi Outlander XLS AWD (which I affectionately call “The Keithmobile-D”).

To start with, the Mitsubishi Outlander is… a kind of a weird little car/SUV/thing – and I’m not just talking about its odd front nose & hood bulge. The Outlander is a strange mix of stylish “tall station wagon” city SUV and hard-working and reasonably capable “utility vehicle.”

wet mitsubishi logoThen again, I suppose this shouldn’t be a surprise, since Mitsubishi itself is kind of an oddball car company, with precious few models compared to some of the bigger car companies – especially here in the US, and especially nowadays when they basically only have 3 models – the Lancer, the Outlander, and the Mirage. But Mitsubishi has always had to live under the shadow of the bigger companies – Toyota, Honda, Mazda, and especially Subaru.

But let’s rewind back to 2003: Mitsubishi has always had a kind of competition with Subaru, what with the whole EVO vs. WRX thing. For a while there this almost seemed like it would carry over into other models, too – with the Outlander poised to compete with the Subaru Outback (right down to the similar-sounding name). Though in my opinion, the Outlander seemed more like the Forrester at the time, since it is a bit of a taller wagon/SUV shape than the decidedly station-wagon-shaped Outback.

The Outlander is kind of a weird mashup of parts from Mitsubishi’s stable of previous vehicles – the chassis is derived from that of the Lancer, but the engine is the same as the one from the Eclipse & Galant. Specifically, it chugs along thanks to a 2.4L 4-cylinder  Mitsubishi “Sirius” 4G64 direct-injection engine, which produces a somewhat underwhelming 140 HP (at 5,000 RPM) but a respectable 157 lbs-ft of torque at just 2,500 RPM. That said, the Outlander weighs just a hair under 3,500 lbs, which is a bit hefty for a car of its size, and which means it’s certainly not the fastest thing on the road – but it’s not the slowest thing, either.

It does have 4-wheel independent suspension, and it handles the bumps quite well – much better, in fact, than some more modern cars. Driving on some old cobblestone streets in New York City can be downright painful in modern cars with their stiff suspensions, but the Outlander just soaks up the bumps without much fuss or bother.

rear tail light 2Despite the somewhat soft suspension, it does handle quite well with relatively little body roll (thanks to ample anti-roll and anti-sway bars). Although the steering suffers from the usual horrible Mitsubishi turning radius, it is well balanced with plenty of feedback – there’s no problem at all just diving right into some tight corners. In fact, the Outlander is really quite fun in the corners, despite technically being an SUV. It also helps that it’s not a terribly tall vehicle, either.

Despite only having a 4-speed automatic transmission (manuals were made, but not available in the US until later model years) it does have a semi-manual mode so you can (kind of) row through the gears on your own.

One downside to the Outlander is its brakes – they are rather lame, especially by modern standards. At the time, anti-lock brakes were an option, and the 2003 models were only available with front discs and rear drums – it wasn’t until the slightly revised 2004 model that they got 4-wheel disc brakes.

With 8.3 inches of ground clearance the Outlander does reasonably well off-road (compared to other car-based SUVs), although it really is more of a “soft-roader” than an “off-roader.” Plus, though it has AWD (full-time via a center viscous coupling unit with a 50/50 front/rear split) the front & rear differentials themselves are fully open, so it isn’t meant for true hardcore off-roading.

One thing the Outlander does have going for it is utility – it is a very useful car. Unlike some other small SUVs it seats a full 5 people without any trouble and yet still has plenty of room in the back for stuff. Fold down the seats and the Outlander can carry an impressive amount of stuff. Also unlike a lot of modern small car-based SUVs, the Outlander can still tow – although not very much, thanks to its lackluster brakes.

It also has one of the best instrument clusters I’ve seen in recent years – easy to read in both full sun and at night, regardless of whether you have the headlights (and thus, the backlights for the gauges) turned on or not.

keithmobile instrument cluster at night

All in all the Outlander is a well-designed, well-thought-out little SUV, which I think could have done quite well. Sadly, however, very few people bought the Outlander, and in subsequent years Mitsubishi enlarged it, making it into a bigger, heavier, more expensive people-mover SUV. (The current model Outlanders come with 3 rows of seats, for example, along with  lower ground clearance, and a price nearly twice what they were originally.) Mitsubishi used to have a larger SUV, called the “Endeavor,” which fit in the next segment above the Outlander, but it looks like that’s been removed and the Outlander was pushed up into its spot – leaving no small SUV to take its place.

If Mitsubishi had stuck with the same body size, and added a stick shift & a turbocharged engine as an option (both of which were available in other markets worldwide, just not in the US), I think the Outlander would’ve been a hit. But since they didn’t, we’re left with just a few examples of what could have been.

Still, if you’re in the market for a small, fun, useful SUV and don’t want to pay a lot, a used Outlander from 2003-2006 might be worth looking at. If it’s in good shape and has been taken care of, an Outlander is a great alternative to one of its Subaru contemporaries – and probably at a lower price. I know I’m biased, but I’ve been very happy with my Outlander – I bought mine new in 2003, and as of this writing it just ticked over 190,000 miles with no sign of slowing down.

Here’s to that SUV with the funny looking nose from Mitsubishi!

A New Keithmobile?

A new Keithmobile? Say it ain’t so! (It ain’t so.)

Could it be? Is it possible? A new Keithmobile – the first new one in 7 years?

amanda's new kia soul 2

Ha ha, no, actually this is NOT a new Keithmobile – the faithful Keithmobile-D (my Mitsubishi Outlander) is still around, and we can’t have more than one Keithmobile at a time, now can we?

However, this IS a new car – our first “second” car – and since we still have the Outlander, that kind of makes this “Amanda’s car.” And boy, does it suit her!

This is a 2011 Kia Soul – which you might recognize instead by it’s insane TV commercial featuring a bunch of singing (rapping) hamsters. Yeah, that car.

Specifically, this is a Soul+ (because apparently Kia felt that using names or even letters for trim levels was too boring, so instead we get symbols – there’s the “+”, the “!” and… the “Sport.” Real creative there.)

You can look up all the particulars online if you care, but suffice it to say that this is the perfect second car for us. The Soul is a nice cruising car – comfy and quiet on the highway, with good gas mileage and a kick-ass sound system (8 speakers, including a subwoofer) which also has a true iPod connection (that is, not only can you play your iPod, but the info about what song is playing shows up on the radio’s screen, and you can skip songs using the steering wheel mounted controls).

Most amusingly, the upgraded audio package includes what can only be described as “mood lighting.” There are LED lights around the speakers in the doors which can glow in one of 5 different colors (red, blue, yellow, green, purple) – and they can either just cycle through the colors slowly, or they can “pulse” in time to your music!

I drove this car a while back as a rental, and thought that it might work well for us as a second car, and after doing some research, we decided that it would be perfect. It sits 4 people comfortably and has ample space in the back (especially with the seats folded down), plus it has that nice “not too high, not too low” driving/seating position which we like.

Oh – and that spine-shattering stiff ride I talked about in my original review of this car? Well, apparently Kia listens to what people say, because they’ve definitely fixed it in the 2011 model. The ride is firm, but not nearly as bad as it used to be. So kudos to Kia for fixing that one big problem!

The Soul is not all-wheel-drive, however, so it will probably spend some time sitting in the garage come winter, but for most of the year (at least around here) it will do quite nicely. And it’s nice to finally have 2 cars in the family!

Truthfully though, the Kia Soul is a very nice little car – not too big, but not too small, either. If you’re looking for a practical car with a bit of style that won’t cost you an arm and a leg, you can’t go wrong with one of these. Hey, I bought one, after all!

Why the Stick Shift?

Quite a few people who have read my Manual vs. Automatic article have wondered why anyone in their right mind would still use, drive, or even want a manual (stick shift) transmission in this day and age. They just don’t understand – after all, modern automatics are so much better (they say)… so much more reliable and easier and simpler and safer… you get the idea.

Instead of answering this question, I’m going to be coy and answer it with another question (actually several questions). So if you’re one of those people who wonders “why would anyone want to drive a stick shift?”, consider these questions as well, and maybe the answer will become clear to you:

  • Why do people still play aniquated games, when modern games are so much better looking, faster, more compelling, etc.?
  • Why do people still go hunting with bows & arrows, when modern firearms make it so much easier?
  • Why do people still fly prop-driven aircraft, when a modern jet engine is so much faster?

If you think about the answers to these questions, and still can’t imagine why anyone would want to drive stick shift (or why the stick shift is going to continue to be with us and relevant in the auto industry), then, well, I’m sorry – I can’t help you. But hopefully my questions have enlightened you to the reason why the stick shift hasn’t gone away, and why it’s not going to go away.

Simply put, the stick shift is no different than anything else – there will always be some people who prefer it. And there are many compelling reasons why people prefer it. Some people feel nostalgic for the “old” way of driving. Others prefer the challenge. Others like the control it gives them and the “feel” of it.

After all, as with most things, there is no “one size fits all” when it comes to car transmissions. To some people, driving is just a way to get from point A to point B. For other people, the trip itself is what matters – and for many of those people, controlling the gear changes is just another part of the driving experience that they can enjoy.

Happy shifting!

Horsepower and Torque

We’re thinking about getting a second car – Yay!

We’ve been looking rather longingly at the Mazda3 5-door. But when I look at the numbers, I get a little… confused.

Mazda 3 (2008 5-door)
Outlander (2003 AWD)
2983 lbs 3461 lbs
4.8 inches ground clearance 8.3 inches ground clearance
Fully independent 4-wheel suspension Fully independent 4-wheel suspension
2.3 liter engine 2.4 liter engine
156 hp @ 6500 RPM 142 hp @ 5000 RPM
150 ft/lb torque @ 4500 RPM 157 ft/lb torque @ 2500 RPM

Take a look for a moment at those numbers. Notice anything… odd? The Mazda has a slightly smaller engine… yet it develops more peak horsepower! How can this be?

And look at those torque numbers… the Outlander develops more torque at lower RPMs. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to find a graph of horsepower and torque curves, so we can’t compare them like that, but still, it makes you wonder.

We’ve taken the Mazda3 for a test drive – it’s definately a spunky little car with lots of “get up and go.” Moreso, I dare say, than my beloved Outlander. And yet… those torque numbers continue to befuddle me.

Horsepower vs. Torque

Horsepower and torque are confusing ideas – we all tend to think we understand them, but when you look at their definitions, you can’t help but feel a little confused. We often tend to think of more horsepower as good, because it makes the car faster, right? Well, horsepower is “work done over time.” Now try to work out in your head how being able to do “more work done over time” makes your car faster.

Same thing for torque – which few people even pay attention to. Torque is just rotational force – which gets really confusing when you realize that even if something is not rotating, it can still have torque! For example, when you try to turn a stuck bolt, you’re applying torque – even if the bolt isn’t turning.

Given that, you’d think that torque would be a very important number for cars – more turning force seems to imply that you could turn the wheels faster, right? Well, yes and no. You see, it’s not just raw turning force – you’ve got to consider that your car produces different amounts of torque at different engine speeds (RPM), and then you’ve got the gear ratio to consider (different for each gear your in, plus the gear ratio of your drive train). If you’re a casual car buyer, trying to figure all this out can give you a major migraine.

There’s got to be an easier, more objective way to measure things, right?

Power to Weight Ratios

Looking back on the Outlander vs. Mazda3 chart, I realized that it may just be the weight numbers that are throwing off my perceptions – the Outlander is quite a bit heavier, due in no small part to it’s (fantastic) all-wheel-drive system. So how can we compare?

A little bit of digging on the subject turns up the term “power to weight ratio.” Ahhhh, here’s what we’re looking for!

Mazda 3 Outlander
Torque/weight ratio 0.050 0.045
HP/weight ratio 0.052 0.041

Ah, now that’s a bit better. We’re still ignoring the final drive ratio (produced by the drive train, etc.), but this is much better for comparing power “at a glance.” And now we can see why the Mazda3 feels “zippier” – it’s power/weight ratio is a bit higher than the Outlander’s.

Of course, this reveals another anomaly – the Mazda’s HP/weight ratio is higher than it’s torque/weight ratio, while with the Outlander the opposite is true. But it’s not really much of an anomaly if you look at the rated towing capacity of the two cars – the Outlander is rated to pull (much) more than the Mazda.

So there you have it – the means to (somewhat) objectively compare horsepower and torque ratings between cars, so as to get a sense for their performance. It’s not the total picture, and of course you should still drive a car before you buy it, but perhaps this will help you narrow down your choices (as it sort of did with me).