Pope's choice of Kia Soul as popemobile highlights down-to-earth leader

SEOUL, Aug. 14 (Yonhap) -- Pope Francis's use of the quirky Soul boxy compact by Kia Motors Corp as his popemobile clearly highlights the pontiff's down-to-earth image and penchant to be one with ordinary people.

Diplomatic, industry and religious sources said Thursday the first head of the Roman Catholic Church to visit the country in 25 years had insisted from the outset that he wanted the "smallest" South Korean-made car possible and declined large luxury vehicles that can be properly bullet proofed.

The second-generation Soul, with a Newport Blue Pearl exterior and a 1.6-liter petro engine under the hood, is certainly not the smallest car made in the country, yet it is smaller than the midsize sedans and SUVs that have become the vehicles of choice by many locals.

The pope, after taking office last year, has eschewed the use of a custom-made popemobile with Plexiglas windows and armored side panels and insisted on riding in compact cars made by such large volume manufacturers as Fiat S.p.A., Renault S.A. and Ford Motor Co. He even rode in a minibus with other cardinals.

His predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, often rode in a Mercedes-Benz M-Class SUV for ceremonial occasions and on trips abroad.

Pope Francis has been quoted as calling the popemobile he inherited a "sardine can" and urged other church officials to think about all the countless number of people who do not have enough to eat, before they use high-end cars.

Related to the pope's choice of car, that will sport the "status civitatis Vaticanae-1" license plate, Kia, South Korea's second-largest carmaker, did not release any official statements, stressing it does not advertise matters related to religion or its leaders.

A corporate source, however, said in private that the pontiff's use of the Soul could help promote the car to prospective consumers down the line.

The Soul, made famous by its Hamster commercials, has been a popular car for the carmaker thanks to its unique shape, practicality and modest sticker price.

Because it is a box type, it has excellent room for passengers and offers good visibility. The newer version released in late 2013 has been cited for much improved handling and ride quality compared to the previous model.

Kia, one of the flagship companies of Hyundai Motor Group, the world's fifth-largest automotive conglomerate, said it had sold some 961,138 Souls as of July of this year, with demand being high among young people and in countries such as the United States.

The car that first reached consumers in 2008 has been particularly popular in overseas markets, where combined sales have reached 881,549 units. This includes 55,195 cars built abroad and makes up 91.7 percent of all Soul's sold so far.

In the January-July period of this year alone, Soul sales reached 142,015, with 136,312 cars being sold in foreign markets.

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