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.

Keith’s Anime Reviews: Samurai Champloo

fuu from samurai champlooSamurai Champloo: a samurai-style anime with 2 insanely powerful swordsmen, a cute girl (and her cute pet squirrel), filled with (sometimes not-so-subtle) modern-day references, set to rap and hip-hop music.

This is a show that is made of awesome and win.

Samurai Champloo alternates between hilarious and fun and deadly serious and action-packed, sometimes in the very same scene! It is quite literally one of the most enjoyable anime series I have ever watched.

Surprisingly for such an action-packed show, Samurai Champloo also has its moments of depth – the characters all have complicated lives that brought them into the situation of the show, and throughout the series these back-stories are explored bit by bit… but never too much at once. You only really learn all about the characters at the very end of the series, when all the pieces fall into place.

But don’t let the exploration of the characters back-story distract you from the fun, often odd-ball quirkiness that this series is just chock-full of. From the goofy Dutch guy to the bunch of teens doing graffiti to the game of NINJA BASEBALL – this series loves to let loose with some truly entertaining insanity.

That said, the plot does move a bit slowly in this series, so casual viewers might feel a little lost by the end. So while I wouldn’t recommend this series to absolutely everyone, it is a superb show that I think anyone can (and probably should) enjoy.

p.s. If you enjoy Samurai Champloo, you’ll probably also enjoy its spiritual sibling, Cowboy Bebop.