As some of you know, I recently bought a Kia Soul after the lease on my Toyota Matrix ended:
and I thought I’d describe a few of the interesting bits of technology that Kia has included in this vehicle. I won’t get into the car side of things as there are plenty of reviews/comparisons of this car (with others in it’s emerging class) on the internet. I realize that this type of car seems to be a love it/hate it thing when it comes to it’s looks. Obviously I like it or I wouldn’t have bought it so no need to go there.
What may surprise you is the amount of tech that gets packed into this ‘urban crossover’ when you consider the relatively inexpensive cost of the car. The model I bought (called the 4U in Canada) has an upgraded stereo package which features an 8 speaker (including a center speaker above the dash controls and a trunk mounted subwoofer), 315 watt sound system. For a factory installed system, it’s pretty impressive.
1. Voice activated handsfree with Bluetooth
The model I bought comes with steering wheel controls for using your cell phone in the car. This type of functionality is becoming more common in cars today but is usually found on much higher priced models.
The first thing you need to do is pair your cellphone with the car. You can pair up to 5 different phones and the car actually talks you through the process of setting up your phone simply by initiating the pairing process via the setup menu option above.
The first thing it does once it’s paired is downloads your cell phone’s contact list to the car’s memory:
Every time you turn the car on (and your phone is in range with bluetooth turned on) it will take about 10 seconds to transfer the contacts and display the above message (along with the computer’s voice saying it). At first I thought this was annoying but then realized it needs to sync your contacts with the car and really only takes 10 seconds to do so at the beginning of your drive. What really surprised me was that it works perfectly with my iPhone (a 1st gen model). I didn’t have to do anything other than pair it with the car and all my iPhone contacts are available to me via voice activation.
If you press the listen button on the steering wheel, the car will switch off your music and be in listen mode. Here you would tell it who you want to call in this format: “Call Lastname Firstname Location” so to call my work number I’d have to say “Call Biehler John Work” which the car will reply with a confirmation statement which you can say “yes” to in order to make sure it heard you correctly.
You also have the ability to set voice contacts in the phonebook locally. For example, I setup my wife’s contact info in the car to simply shorten it from what I have on my phone. I wish there was a setting in the phone options to change the order of the names or at least honor the settings from the source phone (mine are set Firstname Lastname on the iPhone). But I guess it’s simply an easier way for the car to process the voice request.
Pressing the hangup button on the steering wheel will end the call and your previously playing music will return. Incoming calls behave the same way – your music will fade out and you’ll see “incoming call from XXXXXXX” on the dash display. Pressing the pickup button on the steering wheel will answer it. You can also dial any number not in your contacts by simply saying the number: “Call 5-5-5-1-2-3-4” and the system will display your spoken numbers on the dash display and ask for confirmation before dialing. Apparently this ‘manual’ dialing feature isn’t that common on other vehicles.
iPod support is via a separate accessory cable that plugs into the AUXIN and USB ports which gives you the ability to navigate your playlists on the iPod or iPhone. My cable is on order so I haven’t played with it yet but it’s supposed to charge your device as well. Why KIA doesn’t just throw this cable in the glove box is beyond me. It’s probably about $0.25 worth of materials. You can’t just use your iPod/iPhone cable in the USB port as it’s expecting a mass storage device – it won’t even charge your device strangely. The iPod cable is almost unecessary though since the USB port can accept a thumb drive. It’s arguably easier to just buy a cheap, huge thumbdrive and put all your MP3’s on it and leave it in the car fulltime.
When you plug a USB device into the port, it will scan your files very quickly and start playing the first track on the device. It’s folder aware so you can setup playlists that way fairly easily. You get the full song details, ID3 tags, etc although the default display is the filename (whatever.mp3) in the larger font (which scrolls to show you the full length name if larger than the screen size):
Being able to navigate through a pile of music (from a number of different sources since the stereo also comes with Sirius Satellite Radio, MP3 CD support as well as AM/FM), easily from my steering wheel is new to me and pretty cool.
3. LED speaker lighting
While this gimmicky item won’t appeal to everyone, it’s kind of interesting that they included it. Kia’s target market is probably about 10-15 years younger than I am but I still like the lighting and don’t find it distracting at night.
Basically there is a bunch of LED lights inside the front speakers that can be controlled via the dash as to how they behave:
The OFF setting makes the speaker like any other one – no lights. MOOD makes the lights pulsate slowly. MUSIC has them lighting up to the beat of your music and ON has them at whichever brightness level you’ve set via the +/- buttons.
Here’s a shaky cam video of it in action (MUSIC mode enabled):
The only thing really missing is GPS. It’s not even an option in North America and in Europe is an expensive addon that is simply a Garmin unit built into the space that I currently store my sunglasses at the top of the center console. I’ve always been extremely underwhelmed by factory GPS units since they are fairly limited, usually not nearly as functional as store bought units (I love my Tom Tom) and usually cost thousands of dollars as a part of a technology upgrade to the car.
So far, the only thing I’ve done to the car, other than moving the TomTom over is put an Apple sticker on the rear window. I’m not sure what else I’d want to do to the car to geekify it more so if you’ve got any suggestions, leave a comment.
Update (June 21, 2010): With the release of iOS 4.0 firmware for the iPhone, I’ve noticed two interesting new things with the handsfree bluetooth setup and my iPhone 3GS: I no longer get the ‘Transfer Complete’ voice prompt (but the bluetooth icon still lights up on the dash and my phonebook has transfered) and now when I get an incoming call, the ringtone (including my homemade mp3 tones) for the caller plays through the stereo instead of the default Kia ringtone. Both nice touches that must have something to do with a change in the bluetooth stack used in iOS 4.
Update (July 2010):I still love my Kia Soul but unfortunately, one of the selling points I had is now gone. When I bought the car in May 2009, my dealership, Bay City Kia, included ‘free oil/lube/filter changes for life’. It was in the contract I signed. Unfortunately, this past spring, Bay City Kia closed down and months later I got a letter from Kia Canada explaining this and suggesting a few other dealerships for me to use for service. Too bad neither are anywhere near me and aren’t even close to being convenient to get to. I emailed Kia Canada’s customer service (provided on the letter I received) inquiring if Kia would continue to honour the free oil changes offer that was part of my contract and after waiting a week for a response, I was sent a form email basically saying no. I can’t blame Bay City for this…after all, they are out of business but I was hoping Kia Canada would at least do something for me as this works out to be a significant amount of money over the balance of my car payments that I now have to cough up (roughly $600-700/year or about 2 car payments). So if you’re looking to get a deal on your Kia, make sure it’s not a dealer specific deal, but rather a Kia deal so you can hold them to it, regardless if the dealership goes under.