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The Kia Soul has a distinctive style that's driven it to wide appeal. Since it was new for 2009, the Soul's established itself as a versatile hatchback with more that its fair share of funky appeal--and it's been one of Kia's biggest hits in its big growth, along with the Sorento and Optima.
This year, the Soul gets its first major redesign, and it's a carefully crafted second act that does nothing to dilute its visual appeal, and lots to improve its few faults.In updating the already-bold Soul to Kia’s latest small-car platform (shared with the new 2014 Forte), it’s not surprising that the automaker took an ‘easy does it’ approach—making the new model look like a slight evolution, while addressing some criticisms of the outgoing model. Namely, the 2014 Kia Soul is more comfortable; it rides and handles better; and it packs in even more features than before. From what we can see, the brand has delivered exactly that, and what it needs to keep this niche hit rolling into the mainstream.
Stepping back a few paces, the fundamental proportions haven’t changed. Within an inch, it’s the same size as before; and from the side profile, it still has the same abrupt windshield pillar and somewhat canted-back look to the roofline. In back, the look of the hatch has been changed a bit more with a new ‘floating' body-color panel and blacked-out areas to help accent the bolder taillamps, and the combination of a higher ‘grille’ and smoothed upper beltline serve to make it look perhaps a bit taller. Inside, there’s the greatest level of change, with soft-touch plastics on the dash, doors, and console, and leather seats back on the options list. LED mood lighting makes a kitschy appearance against the circular design theme. Piano-black trim finishes off the look, while the center stack cants slightly toward the driver.
The big news regarding performance is that the new Soul handles much better than before, thanks to a better chassis and a retuned suspension. Kia says the new body is almost 29 percent more rigid, with more high-strength steel. The strut front suspension has a relocated roll bar, and the torsion-bar rear has a thicker tube, plus vertical, dual-path shocks for better ride isolation—while overall suspension travel has been increased. Altogether, it rides softly and smoothly, yet responds progressively and predictably when you need it to. The Soul's electric power steering has optional Flex Steer, which lets drivers choose from three settings for steering feel—comfort, normal, and sport—though the difference in feel is negligible.
Engines aren’t quite carryover, but with nearly a 100-pound weight gain for the new model, you won’t find the 2014 model any quicker—or more fuel-efficient than before. We’d probably recommend against the base 1.6-liter four and its 130-horsepower, 118-pound-feet output unless you’re getting the six-speed manual transmission. Otherwise, Soul Plus and Soul Exclaim hatchbacks are fitted with a 2.0-liter, direct-injection four-cylinder with 164 hp and 151 lb-ft of torque, along with a six-speed automatic (optional on the base). The Soul isn't a downright sporty car in any of its combinations; but with the larger engine you’ll find the Soul quick enough—although tall gearing leads to frequent downshifts on the highway, and the transmission tends to hunt on long grades.
Even with the cabin essentially the same size, Kia has functionally improved the Soul's packaging, carving out a little more interior space and improved comfort. Dual-density foam and somewhat extended seat cushions help in front; so do modestly improved ergonomics in front, with more steering-wheel controls and the center-console controls canted slightly toward the driver. It’s very easy to get in and out, in front or in back. The only caution is that the Soul has the width of a small car, so even though there’s plenty of headroom and legroom, fitting three adults across in back is a no-go. The rear hatch opening wider by a couple of inches, and seats fold forward easily. And with more sound insulation and padding, the Soul's interior noise levels have fallen by a few decibels. Yet as Kia has made tremendous improvements to reduce road noise in the Soul, it hasn’t made as much effort at the firewall; the boom from the four-cylinder engines underhood is in the same league as other small econo-cars, so that's the only blemish on its sheen of refinement.
Safety hasn’t been a strength for the current Soul, but we hope that will improve with the 2014 model, which is built on an entirely new structure. Kia says that the new Soul has different load paths than either the former model or the other models that it’s structurally related to, and that should help with the tough new IIHS small overlap frontal test; for now the IIHS has tested and rated the Soul as 'good' in all other categories. All models include a total of six airbags, with dual front airbags, seat-mounted side bags, and full-length side curtain bags. Also worth noting that even the base Soul includes superior four-wheel disc brakes, while many other inexpensive small sedans include just drum brakes in back.
There are three different trim levels: base Soul, Soul Plus (+), and Soul Exclaim (!). Prices start at just $15,495 for a reasonably well-equipped base model with a six-speed manual gearbox and the 1.6-liter engine. But if you’re willing to add a four-figure sum to that modest bottom line, you can load up a Soul to include things that are unusual in a mainstream model--like a heated steering wheel, heated rear seats, and cooled/ventilated front seats. What’s more, connectivity and infotainment—and the optional navigation system—are fully up to snuff with the systems available in much more expensive, premium vehicles.
That new UVO eServices infotainment system uses an excellent new eight-inch capacitive screen and, with navigation, and based on a quick first introduction in a pre-production Soul, it looks like one of the better systems on the market, even casting upward to luxury brands. Based on an Android linux operating system, it doesn’t suffer from the lagginess that plagues some such systems, and with plenty of apps planned for the future (Pandora and others are just the start) plus potentially easy upgrades through the SD card slot.