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    Two Hatchbacks from a Small Car Expert

    By Philip Ruth

    Changing your image can take time. If the world knows you as one thing, and then you want to become known as another, you might be tapping your watch as you wait for others to adjust their expectations. Any LGBTQ who has come out of the closet knows this waiting period well.

    South Korean carmaker Kia is experiencing this in automotive terms. The company is known for small cars, but Kia’s balance sheet would benefit from greater volumes of the profitable luxury sedans, the Cadenza and K900.

    Luxury is partly about image, and Kia’s still-developing heritage keeps its upper-priced cars selling in low volumes. The Cadenza sells about 15% of the competing Toyota Avalon’s volume, and the K900 runs about 11% of the Lexus LS’s. In wooing upscale buyers, Kia isn’t far from starting from scratch.

    Kia is a pro with compacts, though. The Soul continues to be a top pick even after years on the market, and the hybrid Niro is a subcompact crossover with outsized fuel efficiency. In the 10 or so hours that the typical car buyer spends researching their purchase, these Kias can’t help but come up.

    Kia Soul

    Kia Niro

    Pricewise, the Soul starts in the upper-economy class at $17K and reaches $30K in its fully-loaded “!” top trim. The Niro starts a bit higher at $24K—it is a hybrid, after all—and peak Niro runs about $33K. So you can get spendy with either, or you could save your pennies while still getting a reasonably well-equipped car.

    The Niro promises to squeeze more of those pennies with its headline-grabbing 52-mpg EPA city rating for the lower three trims. The upper two drop that number to 46 mpg, and my loaded Touring tester’s mileage computer generally stayed above 40 mpg. The Niro has parsimony to spare.

    It is short on power, though. Mild drivers may not mind the Niro’s half-awake acceleration, but my enthusiastic side was quickly frustrated not only with time it took for the Niro to gather speed, but also with its lag in engagement. I don’t make a practice of yelling at my test cars, but I found myself goading the Niro to “just GO!” as it rolled backward down San Francisco’s steep grades with me flooring the accelerator and waiting for a response. San Francisco’s hills magnify the issue, but the Niro’s throttle lag should be carefully vetted on the pre-purchase test drive.

    The tested Soul had its own conflicted dynamics, courtesy of the top “!” trim’s seven-speed automatic transmission. Its own slow initial response was coupled with irksome busyness as it shuffled its gears. The mid-level Soul lacks a turbo and gives up 40 horsepower from the top trim, but it benefits from a simpler and more satisfying six-speed automatic.

    While these two test Kias had some drive-ability kinks, their design, functionality and economy make them attractive to a wide array of compact car buyers. Kia will continue building its nascent luxury car presence. In the meantime, it would be nice if Kia could avail these versatile hatchbacks with a little powertrain finesse.

    Philip Ruth is a Castro-based automotive photojournalist and consultant at Check out his automotive staging service at