It's hardly the stuff of enthusiast dreams, but the Kia Soul is an endearing performer, with frisky acceleration and steering.
Maybe it's the friendly, kicky sheetmetal or the hamster-driven marketing campaign, but the Soul colors your driving impressions before you even key it to life. Once you do, there's a little more to enjoy this year, with a pair of new drivetrains that boost power and quiet down the Soul's old raucous inside voice. The base Soul has a 1.6-liter four-cylinder, good for 135 horsepower and 121 pound-feet of torque, coupled to either a six-speed manual or automatic transmission. We'd still opt for the larger 2.0-liter four, which isn't that much less economical, and grunts out 164 horsepower.
With the extra power, the Soul's an cruiser with good urban grunt, particularly helped out by the new automatic transmission, which has two more gears than the outgoing box. We're not so much in favor of the manual, which shifts fine but has long throws and long pedal movement, and runs counter to the Soul's city-scooter mission.
In most versions the Soul rides smoothly, though it can get a bit bouncy on some freeway surfaces, where road noise gets to be an issue as well. You should think twice about the big 18-inch wheel and tire package, for those reasons. Steering is electric and quicker than the norm in the hatchback class (except for the Ford Focus), and with a 2800-pound curb weight, the Soul feels eager to corner on its strut front and torsion-beam rear suspension. It's one of the few compacts that feels more adept than the sum of its parts, something the Honda Civic's all but given up.