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.

Like many other Hyundai and Kia products of the past couple years, the Soul gets a new three-stage Flex-Steer system. Hit a button on the steering-wheel spoke and you simply cycle through three different modes—Comfort, Normal, and Sport. While there is a modest difference in effort between the three, we considered the difference quite subtle. Comfort called up an almost disconcertingly light on-center feel, and we found ourselves making too many small adjustments, but the system feels just fine in the other two modes, loading up a bit off-center, and with a better sense of center than former Kia systems (thanks in part to a relocated steering box and new one-piece steering gear).

Kia has also made the rear torsion-beam tube itself thicker—now 76.0 mm, up from 70.2 mm. Then it added a rear subframe and specially tuned bushings to help filter out, as Kia’s executive director of product planning, Orth Hedrick, called the “moan noise”—the constant awareness of road coarseness. In addition there’s double-layer sealing (expansion foam, and a reinforced isolation pad for the cargo area) throughout to keep the road noise at bay.

Noise kept at bay...um, except from the engine bay

Considering all this work done to seal out road noise, we’re surprised that more work wasn’t done at the firewall. The engine still booms obtrusively whenever the transmission brings it above about 3,500 rpm. Push deeper with your right foot and even if you have the sound system cranked up you’ll definitely know when you’re in the engine’s upper ranges; it's not uncharacteristic for this price class, just a question of why did they stop there?

Both engines now incorporate direct injection, as well as roller-type lifters and dual-phase continuously variable valve timing. Engine output is virtually unchanged, at 164 horsepower and 151 pound-feet of torque for the 2.0-liter, and 130 hp and 118 lb-ft for the 1.6-liter. With those improvements and new engine tuning, torque at 1,500 rpm has been increased by five percent in the 1.6-liter and nine percent in the 2.0-liter.

While versions of the 2014 Soul exist with the 1.6-liter and either a manual or automatic transmission, we sampled only the 2.0-liter four and automatic transmission—the most common iteration in the lineup. Most are going to find this combination to be just fine; it feels perky around town and out on the highway, although tall gearing and an especially tall sixth gear can leave the transmission downshifting frequently—and even ‘hunting’ on long grades. It’s an efficient combination, nevertheless; over several hours and about 140 miles, we saw nearly 25 mpg.

Perfect packaging, again—now with better seats

The perches in the former Soul felt a little like barstools at times, but oh what a difference a mild design tweak can make for seats. The front seats in the 2014 Soul adopt a new dual-density foam construction, and they’re just a bit longer in the lower cushions; altogether, the Soul now has much better support for longer-legged folks on longer drives.

As before, the hip point on the Soul is quite high, which means that you have a rather commanding driving position and a great view out ahead and to the side. Entry and exit feel natural and involve minimal ducking of heads, in front or in back. Cargo versatility is awesome, too, with the rear seatbacks flipping forward, almost flat, and a very low cargo floor. Just don’t, by the way, try to fit three adults across in the back seat.

The new UVO eServices infotainment system with navigation that’s offered as an option is well worth it, from our first sample. This is a completely new system, based on Android linux; the capacitive touch display worked perfectly, with no lagginess, and it looks great. And in top Exclaim (!) models such as the one we drove, the smaller TFT LCD color screen that’s in the middle of the instrument panel even displays turn-by-turn directions from the nav system. Upgrades should be quite easily done through the SD slot, as well.

Base sound systems include six speakers and don’t offer the large touch screen; but they do have more than the single-line display of some vehicles.

From base to Exclaim, still quite the deal

In fact, while we drove the 2014 Kia Soul Exclaim, with all the new bells and whistles, including ventilated/cooled and heated front seats, heated rear seats, a heated steering wheel, and automatic climate control, among many other extras—at a price of less than $27,000—we’re still wondering about the $15,495 base model, which includes power accessories, heated mirrors, Bluetooth, and six-speaker audio (with satellite radio, even). With all the interior upgrades and improved cabin comfort, it could truly be the deal of the lineup.

No matter which Soul you end up with, chances are you’re going to be happy. Like its predecessor, the Soul from what we saw in a relatively brief drive stands out in the market simply for its lack of serious flaws.

Is the new Soul any less of an outlier? With its plush ride, improved interior, and market success, yeah, we’d say so. On the outside, though, it sure hasn’t lost its edge.

Provided you don’t drive your cars flat-out all the time or judge them by lap times, the Soul has so many layers of niche appeal that you’re bound to be happy in its fold for a long time.


See our full review of the 2014 Kia Soul for more details, specs, and all the rest. And follow The Car Connection on Facebook, Twitter and Google+.

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