2014 Kia Soul: First Drive

August 31, 2013
Once in a great while, a product can be just enough of an outlier to reach discerning, trend-conscious buyers new and old, yet not so different that it feels contrived, or paints you the fashion victim or odd duck. The Kia Soul has been that—the ‘mainstream alternative’ hit of the auto market. And now that we’ve had our first drive of the completely redesigned 2014 Kia Soul, we see no sign of that hit parade slowing down.

When it arrived for the 2010 model year in the U.S., the Soul didn’t fit into any clear competitive set. Then again—drawing from some of the lasting icons of the music industry—neither did ‘new sound’ alternative icons like the Pixies, Sonic Youth, or The Smiths. Heck, even Nirvana wasn’t mainstream at first. Like them, the Soul has changed the competitive set, and left rivals scrambling for their own hit; their own game-changer.

Of course, the Soul wasn’t first to this competitive set. But it’s only served to exaggerate the perplexing space-inefficiency of the Scion xB and it’s left the Nissan Cube and its odd water-ripple interior theme bobbing in its own wake.

Simultaneously, with downsizing, concern about fuel economy, and penny-pinching, the affordable Soul was “the right car at the right time” for U.S. buyers from a functionality standpoint.

A niche hit with crossover appeal

And while the Cube, Scion xB, and now-discontinued Honda Element have all been niche models, the Kia Soul, like those those ‘alternative’ tracks, have staying power—not just with a narrow group of Gen Y and Millennials, but with empty nesters, too. The average age of a Soul buyer is 48 years old—but, ehem, Kia is quick to point out, a great number of Souls are driven by twenty-somethings but registered to the parent.

Kia, understandably, was concerned that when it went to remake the Soul, it might fall to some of the same issues that Scion did when they tried to remake the xB as a more 'mainstream' vehicle--and seriously struck out, if you go by sales. The new 2014 model is built on an new platform—the one underpinning the 2014 Forte—but you might not even know it. The proportions, the profile, the roofline; they’re essentially all the same. Only front and rear-end appearances are a bit different, but they don’t spoil what’s so good about the original design.

Inside, the first-gen Soul was plasticky, and thankfully they got down to business and changed a lot, subbing in soft-touch surfaces from the elbow areas on up, a new circular theme from the Track’ster concept car, and a decidedly upmarket look to the gauges, and the center stack, which is now canted toward the driver.

Ride, handling, cabin comfort—it's all better

Driving the new Soul gently, casually in traffic, several things were immediately apparent: The new Soul is way more comfortable (better seats, and an improved ride), and it’s far quieter inside. You don’t hear the road surface at every moment.

Indeed, Kia spend a lot of time tuning this version of the Soul to have improved ride and handling, and it’s a rather dramatic improvement. The real surprise came when we pushed the new Soul harder into some corners; new twin-tube shocks make a huge difference in a vehicle like this—far more than in the expensive sport sedans that they made their debut in many model years ago. Here, the suspension loads up nicely; no bump stops, no shrieking or wallowing.

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