Car Shopping or Soul Searching?



One of the benefits of living in New York City is the public transport system which, although nothing to shout about on the world stage, works sufficiently well to negate the need to own a car. But for me cars are more than just A to B transport, they're an interest, a hobby, a passion, and moving away out of New York City means that once again they will be a part of my life. While driving a car can bring a certain amount of stress, not to mention expense, I find sitting in traffic in my own personal temperature controlled box with comfy seat and choice of music to be infinitely more tolerable than sitting on a stuck subway train trying to avoid the stare of some mentally unstable passenger.

I had booked a rental car for 4 weeks, a competent but forgettable Nissan Rogue, but once a house had been found and lease signed I could register a new car despite still driving around on a New York license. Ultimately we'd need two cars, one for my wife who would be learning to drive, and one for me but I decided to tackle my wife's car first. I had originally considered spending $10k - $12k on a used car for her but finding a suitable vehicle at that price was proving to be impossible as there was a list of requirements it had to meet:

  • A reversing camera
  • Some form of navigation (either built-in or via Apple CarPlay)
  • Blind spot warning
  • Under 30k miles and 3 years of age.
  • At least 2 years of warranty
  • Not too big

This list was problematic for a few reasons, for example reversing cameras were only a federal requirement from May 2018, and while 75% of cars at least had one available as an option, only 50% of drivers chose to pay for one and as a 2018 car is too new for the budget that means at best only 50% of cars listed for sale may have one, but realistically much less than that as small cars are typically chosen for money saving reasons thus reversing cameras are probably less likely to feature on those. Navigation is also an expensive option not often seen on smaller cars so I quickly realized a more realistic budget was around $16k, especially if we wanted a certified pre-owned to get a good warranty. As I was now heading closer to $20k I wondered if there were any new cars I could consider instead? The major stumbling block again proved to the navigation and sometimes even the blind spot monitoring which tends to only feature on higher trims levels and sometimes even requires further expensive packs. But then I stumbled across the one car that included all these safety features on its base model, and added several more that I would expect to find on much more expensive vehicles: the completely redesigned 2020 Kia Soul.

Kia Soul - Rear 3/4 view

The Kia Soul was first introduced in 2008/9 and I will admit I was never a fan of it's styling with big blobby headlights and in any case I was still unconvinced of the general quality and engineering of Korean cars but clearly I was in the minority as Kia shifted over a million of them in 10 years making it by far the most popular of the "box" cars. The all-new new model, boxy shape aside, was a much more attractive prospect with sleek joined up front lights and much more modern rear lights. But the key attraction was the fact that the "S" trim, just one up from the base "LX", includes an 8 inch touchscreen with Apple CarPlay integration, a reversing camera, blind spot monitoring, rear cross traffic avoidance, front collision avoidance, lane keep assistance and even driver attentiveness warning. It's 5 star rating in all crash tests also earned it a top safety pick award. And all this for around $21k or so. If you care about safety and want smartphone integration, no other car comes close in price and that's before we consider the 10 year power-train warranty (5 years on the rest). The boxy styling also means that rear seat adults get plenty of leg and headroom and the trunk space is more usable than it looks due to the wide opening and height.

The problem with buying any new car in the USA is having to deal with the dealers. You should expect to spend time negotiating any discount, unless you're happy to pay list price, but over the years dealers have grown to rely on a particularly devious tactic that really should be banned by the associated brand, namely additional extras fitted by the dealer when the cars are delivered from the factory which forces the customer to pay a price much higher than advertised for a collection of add-ons with massive markups. The number of add-ons in these "appearance" or "protection" packages varies, as does the amount of margin, but in the case of my local Kia dealer it consisted of:

  • Front tinted windows (necessary in Texas so thumbs up from me)
  • Nitrogen filled tires (the benefits of this on road cars has not been proven and frankly I consider it snake oil)
  • Rear pulsing center brake light (Aftermarket product that supposedly reduces the likelihood of a rear-end collision, so ok)
  • Stain resistant treatment to seats (I don't eat in the car so worthless to me, but if you need it you can buy the spray in an auto parts store)
  • Hand painted pinstripe (frankly these are more suited to a 1980's Cadillac then a modern car, but in the case of the Soul it looks ok to be fair)
  • Security marked parts (As the insurance company would have to pay up I don't see how it helps me)

Now, how much do you think the Kia dealer wanted for this set of un-asked for extras?





On a $21k car! That's adding nearly 10% to the purchase price!

They are well aware of course that no-one of sound mind is going to pay that, it's simply a part of their negotiating tactics. When they present you with the pricing they immediately slash the price in half, to $900, as though they're doing you a favor. You of course will negotiate that down even further, maybe you end up on $500. Maybe you even get them for free if you work hard enough. But remember, you're negotiating the price of these extras, the vehicle price hasn't changed. You are still going to end up paying full MSRP for it, and if you have the presence of mind to then start working on bringing that down (and I suspect most people don't) they'll argue they already gave you nearly $2,000 off the vehicle. Which of course they haven't. It's nothing more than a racket. Now some people will argue that a dealer can charge whatever they like for these products, there's no law against that. That's absolutely true, they could ask for a million dollars if they wanted but of course no-one would ever pay it. No, the problem is that it's not an additional package they try to sell you (I have no problem with that), it's the fact that they add it to every single car in the lot before they are available for purchase. So it's already on there (and you may even hate how the pinstripe looks!). You may say, well, you're free to take your business elsewhere, that's how a free market works. Also true, but all the dealers are at it, simply to varying degrees, so you have an illusion of choice. The only way around it is to place a custom order for a car to be built to your spec with this package of dealer junk not on it as agreed when you place the order (and get that in writing). But they also know most people don't want to wait 3 months for a car, they want it now or at least in a few days. They also advertise the vehicles online at the factory price, not mentioning this package anywhere which is where I feel they cross the line.

So what happened with the negotiation on our car?

Well, the car itself with factory options (pearl paint, cargo net, mats, wheel locks) and with taxes and registration etc ended up at around $23,400 or just under. With a $500 cash back promotion that was going on at the time, and negotiation on the previously mentioned extras we ended up paying $23,200 out the door. This means we actually ended up paying $250 for the extras (a figure I consider reasonable as I would have wanted the tints and would be willing to pay for the brake pulsing module and the two combined would probably equate to $200 from somewhere reputable so $50 for the other stuff is ok). Of course this means we didn't get anything further off the car itself than the cashback but as we weren't financing the vehicle they missed out on additional margin there so they weren't too keen to play ball. We were in and out of the dealer pretty quickly, only 15 minutes of negotiating, so if we were prepared to work at it and had gone in there at a better moment, maybe end of month/quarter or certainly end of year or maybe a sales day, I think we could have gotten another $500 off. But I was happy enough especially as I wanted them to keep it for me for another couple of weeks while we were sorting out the house and using up the miles on the rental.

So what do I think of the car?

Well, it's only been 2 weeks and we've covered about 400 miles so far, mostly due to my 40 mile round trip commute and fetching groceries and running errands around town, but initially I'm impressed.

On rough roads the short wheelbase, small wheels and firm ride can cause it to be thrown about a little, but the steering weight is good, just slightly light, and the brakes and engine power are both perfectly adequate. The transmission is an IVT, so not a traditional auto but a CVT which has a computer attached to cause it to behave and feel like an auto on anything but full throttle and it works pretty well which means it's much more pleasant than older style CVT's.

The naturally aspirated 2.0L engine is not going to win any races but the car is sprightly enough away from the lights and has enough power on the freeway to not feel dangerous like economy cars of old. Fuel economy is rated as 27mpg around town and 33mpg on the highway which equates to 30mpg combined, however I find the real world performance to far exceed this. Commuting one way to work is 19 miles on roads with plenty of traffic lights (it takes me 45 minutes) and speed limits are mainly 40/45mph, with maybe 3 miles at 55mph and another 1.5 mile section at 70mph. In the heavy traffic this sort of trip time suggests, I'm typically seeing 38mpg on the computer, about 10% of which seems to come from the stop/start system that kills the engine instead of idling at red lights (I tried the same trip with start/stoip disabled one day and got about 35mpg). While highway runs at 70mph are likely to do no better than 36mpg or so due to aerodynamics and gearing I have noticed figures as high as 42mpg when cruising at 55mpg on long flat roads.

The air conditioning works well enough in the 35+ degC Texas summer heat and the sound from the standard radio is plenty good enough for playing streaming music via Apple CarPlay at realistic levels without distorting even if the bass is a bit lacking and the clarity and imaging won't impress any audiophile. Speaking of which, the smartphone integration works well, with the bright and clear 8 inch touchscreen easily up to the job but you may want to consider the higher specced EX model just to get more than 1 USB socket... Although the trunk space isn't generous by any means, for a couple as opposed to a family it certainly coped with even the largest of grocery and mall shopping sessions with no problem, but most trips to Home Depot would likely need you to fold one or more of the rear seats to handle large purchases.

There really isn't much to complain about, the interior seems well screwed together even if it is 95% hard plastics but with some brushed metal effect plastic trim here and there it doesn't make you feel you're driving a poverty spec. Most issues can be resolved by opting for a higher trim, for example keyless entry and keyless go are something I don't like living without, it just depends if you find enough value in the additional features to justify an additional $2,000+ to step up to a higher trim (I didn't as I don't need the larger screen, built-in navigation or heated seats that it comes with) as it would be easy to go overboard and push the price up to a level that would cause the car to have to face much tougher competition.



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