But with its just-right pricing and livelier-than-average style, the Soul was a hit for Kia, vaulting to second place behind the automaker’s Optima midsize sedan in terms of annual sales in the United States. For round two, the stakes are high. At first glance, the Soul pictured above looks rather like its predecessor. But the difference, as we learned while hurtling this compact five-door through winding byways in Minnesota and Wisconsin, is in the details.
Mess with the Soul’s, er, soul, and you’ll lose its appeal. To that end, Kia’s California-based design team, under the direction German Peter Schreyer, subtly refined the squat, boxy Soul. The new model is a hair wider, longer and lower than before, but its most notable change is that it sits on a new, stiffer platform with a longer wheelbase.
Up front, the Soul retains nearly all of its predecessor’s styling cues; it’s only out back where things start to diverge. Big LED tail lamps on range-topping models give the Soul a new, more complex rear identity. Wheel offerings range from 16 to 18 inches, starting with hubcaps and ending up with attractive alloy units.
Bigger changes come inside, where the look is vastly more upmarket than before. We weren’t able to do much more than poke our heads inside of a low-spec Soul, but the well-equipped models we sampled were chock full of premium materials and touches.
All Souls get a new, “raindrop-inspired” look replete with various circular design details. Of particular note are the attractive tweeter/air vent “pods” at either end of the dashboard. Infotainment, taking the shape of Kia’s UVO eServices system, is accessed through an eight-inch capacitive touchscreen. Running on an Android-based operating system, the setup allows map scrolling at the touch of a finger.
Of course, the pulsating light ring audio system’s speaker covers seen on the outgoing Soul has made an appearance here, too, where they are joined by a new 350-watt Infinity audio system. Load up a Soul to budget-busting levels and you’ll also find a new 4.3-inch TFT user-configurable screen in the instrument cluster, as well as a 10-way power driver’s seat, heated thrones in every outboard position and, truly illustrating the trickle-down economics model, an air conditioned driver’s seat.
Underneath, Soul reveals its more modest roots by employing a conventional MacPherson strut front and torsion bar rear suspension. It’s cost-efficient kit not known for performance prowess, although the front setup boasts a new subframe held on by four large bushings. Electric power steering is along for the ride, this time with Kia’s nifty FlexSteer system. Press a spoke-mounted button to cycle through standard, comfort (low resistance) and sport (high resistance) modes.
A pair of direct-injected four-cylinder engines remain on offer, both of which have been modified to deliver improved low-end grunt. Base trims will be powered by a 1.6-liter, 130-horsepower, 118 lb-ft. of torque four-cylinder, output that’s actually down a little from last year. Opt for the more lavishly-equipped (and higher sales volume) Plus and Exclaim models and you’ll net a 2.0-liter unit rated at a healthier 164 horsepower (the same as last year) and 151 lb-ft. of torque (up three lb-ft.).
The base model offers either a six-speed manual or a six-speed automatic, while the 2.0 is only offered with the automatic unit.
To expand on the three trim levels on offer might take some time; suffice to say that the sparsely-equipped base model is probably worth skipping, while a loaded up Exclaim (written as ! in Kia documentation) is really a questionable value at $26,200. The sweet spot lies in the Plus (+ in Kia-speak), which can be had with a nice array of options including the standard 2.0-liter for under $22,000.
Despite its squared-off shape, the Soul is a pleasant road companion. The front-wheel-drive chassis and precise if road feel-free electric power steering hardly lend themselves to aggressive corner carving, but there’s more here than initially meets the eye.
Over pockmarked pavement in the upper Midwest, we discovered that the buttoned down suspension’s new front subframe isolates the Soul better than before. Even with the optional 18-inch alloy wheels that help make the Exclaim with the Whole Shabang package (that’s its real name!) $10,000-plus more than a base model, the results are impressive. Soul’s ride quality lifts it out of the subcompact and compact car norm.
As we alluded to before, steering is of the point and shoot variety. Accurate but devoid of much information from the road, the tiller is redeemed by both a grippy three-spoke steering wheel and the user-adjustable FlexSteer. Comfort is pinky finger light, while Sport felt “just right” to our paws.
Some body lean into corners aside, winding byways present no real threat to the Soul unless they include aggressive grades. At that point, the driver is forced to hammer the gas engine into action. Even with the upgrade 2.0-liter engine, the only one we were able to sample, there’s more growl than grunt. That said, the six-speed automatic gearbox did its best to keep the Soul within its power band, and power here is of the “more than adequate” variety for most terrain.
Moreover, we recorded 33 mpg on a gentle highway stretch, a couple of clicks above the 23/31 mpg rating by the EPA (opt for the 1.6-liter and you’ll see figures of 24/30 mpg). While the base engine’s city economy actually drops by 1 mpg, the 2.0 is up 3 mpg over last year’s figures.
Leftlane’s bottom line
Sometimes, a thorough rethink isn’t necessary. In the case of the Kia Soul, a smash hit from a company not prone to many mistakes these days, those incremental changes add up to a much-needed dose of refinement.
Soul isn’t for everyone, but those who do appreciate its bulldog looks will be rewarded by a vastly improved interior and a serious ride quality upgrade.
2014 Kia Soul base price range, $14,700 to $20,300.
Photos by Andrew Ganz.