MIAMI – We are thieves.
We have slipped through a little-known portal, Emilio riding shotgun while I drive in fast getaway mode.
We are stealing time.
For beyond that portal sprawls a twisting remnant of the old Miami Grand Prix race track — rough in spots but its corners and outer exit points still marked by the humped curbs that good racers often touch in keeping a tight line.
Are we in a Jaguar, the sizzling brand in which my pal Emilio Lezcano won his class in the 1988 Miami Grand Prix? The shrieking vehicles of other winners — Price Cobb in a Porsche 962 or Michael Andretti in a Lola/Cosworth.
We’re in the 2010 Kia Soul with 142 horsepower in its most powerful form 2.0-litre rendition.
Kia? Racetrack? So why is Emilio cackling like a man with his pants on fire?
Because this car (to mix NASCAR and Latin) is hot damn, sui generis FUN. Each time I downshift to hit an apex, each time I drift out to come back in again, each time I downshift the five-speed manual for better control and better response, Emilio’s pants reignite.
We are experiencing something that European and Asian drivers have long known: You can have a hell of a good time in a small car with limited power ala the vintage Mini Cooper, built originally to be England’s "people’s car,’’ but which quickly caught on with a racing crowd because its prowess in corners pushed it ahead of far more powerful cars.
In fact, it was once said of the Mini that the only question of whether it could win a race on a tortuous track was how long was the straightaway from the last corner to the finish line.
This car is that kind of fun.
Tom Loveless, Kia vice president of sales, aptly called it an "affordable halo car.’’
But instead of being launched at the high end, as are most halo cars meant to shine on lesser models in a brand, Kia has its lights focused on younger buyers — entry-level folks who can afford its base starting price of $14,950 or $16,950 for the sport model.
Michael Sprague, vice president of marketing pointed out, "Clearly we are targeting a customer we have not seen before.’’
The company, Loveless added, "wants to make it cool to own a Kia.’’
Affordable too, considering that even in most basic form, it comes with ABS, traction control, front, front side and curtain airbags, and a 10-year, 100,000-mile warranty. The lesser engine is a 1.6-litre with 122 horsepower. A five-speed manual transmission is standard, four-speed automatic optional.
All this in what is essentially a functional little utility box?
And yet, its exterior design breaks it from the box that is the interior. Blacked-out A-pillars and dark glass in a wrap-around greenhouse make it look like the car is wearing Ray-Bans.
Its wide stance and steroidal fender bulges give it a sporty look that will certainly appeal to the enthusiast with a limited budget.
Its interior space — reached through four doors and a hatchback — is enhanced by the high roof, which also allows for a raised seating setup, giving the sense of confidence once attributed to SUVs. Of particular note is the floating pod that is the center stack, resembling a remote and featuring audio and climate controls.
On the highway — I-95 near Miami is an adventure, with rumbling and fast tuner cars slung low, motorcycles that scream to their own tune, and big American steel putting along, often with a turn signal blinking ceaselessly and without purpose — the Kia exhibited some fine traits and offered some limits.
I was really impressed with its ability to get up and go, in even fifth gear, from 60 miles per hour. Surprising torque from the sort of car whose torque normally fades after the lower gears. The steering got a bit vague at highway speeds, but that’s not uncommon with small, light cars and is simply a trait you need to be aware of.
On lesser roads, in traffic, up and down the coast near Miami, the Soul’s low-end torque made it a ripping little devil, quick and sure off the line, responsive to downshifts. Which is why it could rip up the remnants of the Grand Prix course with such ease at the top of its ability.
Were I younger (the target group), I’d be sure to test this against the Nissan Cube and the Toyota xB, both more expensive cars.
But being older (an unspoken target group that other small ute boxes have hit solidly), I’m also aware that cars such as this offer easy access, easy loading and unloading of groceries and other cargo, great views from high seats through tall greenhouses of glass, and economy.
Kia is onto something here — as they seem to be everywhere they turn these days — and their halo is shining up, not down.
As Alex Fedorak, Kia spokesman put it, "We’re looking for a new way to roll.’’
And maybe steal some time.
More dispatches from correspondent Royal Ford: