ORLANDO, FL – While Kia had high hopes for the Soul when it launched the boxy cross/utility vehicle two years ago, it’s still surprised by the unrelenting demand for the vehicle.

Through February, Soul sales stood at 12,029 units, 109.4% ahead of like-2010 and marking one of the biggest volume gains of any model in the U.S. this year, Ward’s data shows.

Last year, the model racked up 67,110 deliveries, easily topping its competitors, the Scion xB, Nissan Cube and now-discontinued Honda Element.

How to keep momentum for the Soul going, especially in an industry littered with hot-today, cold-tomorrow products, is a task getting serious attention, company officials say.

For inspiration, Kia took a close look at the market history of the quirky models that predate the Soul: the Element, xB, Cube, Chrysler PT Cruiser and Chevy HHR.

“We studied all of their sales trends and what (was done to keep the) vehicles fresh and interesting,” Michael Sprague, vice president-marketing for Kia Motors America tells Ward’s in an interview at a media backgrounder for the new Sportage and Forte SX here.

Using that as a guide, Kia zeroed in on adding limited-edition models. The Soul now has had five, including the White Tiger version that went on sale last month at U.S. dealers.

The White Tiger Soul includes a white exterior paint scheme punctuated by decorative grey graphics, 18-in. black alloy wheels, push-button start, automatic climate controls, black leather seats and heated front seats at a base price of $20,695.

“For the dealers, that’s important, because they see we are trying to keep (the Soul) fresh and keep the momentum, so they get excited by it,” Sprague says. “(Consumers say), ‘I like the Soul, I like the uniqueness of it and I like this limited-edition because it’s even more unique.’”

Still, as falling sales of the Scion’s xB show, one-off models go only so far. “At some point you have to re-do (the model),” Sprague says.

The Soul isn’t due for a full revision yet, but it will get a mid-cycle refresh for ’12. Front and rear fascias will be tweaked and more up-level content added, a Kia official told Ward’s last year.

Sprague credits word-of-mouth, increasing as more Souls hit the streets, for the vehicle’s sales success. “We’ve not done much advertising with it,” he says.

Except for some Soul movie-theater commercials, most of last year’s marketing budget went to the Sorento and Sportage CUVs. This year, resources are focused mainly on the new Optima midsize sedan.

“We’ve found (the Soul has) been able to maintain and increase (sales) because people see them on the road and they make a statement,” says Adam Perlow, KMA director-retail sales operations.

With so many new models in Kia’s U.S. lineup, balancing marketing money is important, Sprague says, noting Kia had hoped to avoid the need for heavy promotion of the upcoming next-generation Rio subcompact on sale this summer.

“Since the beginning of year I said, ‘Yes, we’re launching a new Rio, but we need to focus on our core models. It’s nice to have a new car in the family but I’m not going to worry about it,’” Sprague says.

But now that gas prices are approaching $4 per gallon, “all of a sudden the Rio becomes a much more compelling product,” he says. “So I think we probably need to re-address how we’re going to go to market with that vehicle.”

The new Rio was unveiled at this month’s Geneva auto show. A 5-door version will debut at April’s New York auto show.

Kia sold 24,619 Rios in 2010, a 29% decline from 2009 and roughly 75,000 units shy of Nissan’s segment-leading Versa.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com