First drive: 2020 Kia Soul grooves into low-price rhythm

February 25, 2019

What do you see in the 2020 Kia Soul: practical commuter, spacious hatchback, or schtick with light-up speakers?

The Soul catfished us all with its “all of the above” answer and low price. It very well may be an automotive Rorschach, just don’t connect the blobs and spot a hamster, please.

With the new Soul, Kia has another gimmick wrapped around a spacious and affordable godsend—like the last version that exceeded the automaker’s expectations and outlasted rivals such as the Nissan Cube and Scion xB.

DON'T MISS: Read our 2020 Kia Soul full review

The new Soul goes on sale soon with a price that’s $1,000 more than the outgoing version but still less than competitors. At $18,485 to start, the Soul makes a case for value with a comfortable pace and a sense of humor. Those may be endearing qualities for shoes, too, but the 2020 Soul is proof that “efficient, low-priced commuter car” aren’t five dirty words like “get ready for tax season.”

2020 Kia Soul

2020 Kia Soul

Wheel talk

It doesn’t take long to “get” what the Soul is after. It’s a compact car, after all, that steers closer to runabout than runaway. The base engine and automatic transmission are geared for low-speed spunk, and its short turning circle is a boon around strip-mall parking lots.

Its steering is heavier than we expected; far from the easy circles made in other econoboxes, but Kia’s lacks any sort of build up. From the generous middle, where the Kia glides comfortably without much effort at highway speeds, the steering ramps up quickly and without progression. Lock-to-lock is a mere 2.5 circles, which is delightfully easy at low speeds.

The Soul warms up quick to our right-foot touch, the throttle is eager to please but a little flummoxed when pressed into duty. The good news: the base automatic transmission doesn’t howl with its back to the wall; the Soul’s amused at the request and complies—eventually.

2020 Kia Soul

2020 Kia Soul

2020 Kia Soul

2020 Kia Soul

2020 Kia Soul

2020 Kia Soul

Smile for style

Its good sense of humor is just as apparent from its exterior, which is just as boxy as the last version but also just as endearing. The wild lines around the windows from the last version have been tamed in the new Soul’s sides, but balance-transferred to the rear end in the form of Ultimate Warrior-shaped boomerang taillights. The front end gets the big-grille treatment, but it’s better than the split-faced maw from the outgoing version.

Inside, the Soul still offers light-up speakers, but also just as much room as before. It’s grown compared to the last version, but only slightly—just over two inches, bumper to bumper, and a little more than an inch between the wheels. That’s good news for passengers, who still get gobs of interior leg room like economy plus, but without the inflated price.

Gone are the Soul’s trio of engines, pared down to just two this year, and confusing trim levels that used punctuation. The new Soul is offered in LX, S, X-Line, GT-Line, and EX trim levels, with different equipment but the same philosophy as 20-something bachelors: cheap but also good enough to be believable. Its low price starts around $18,500 and fully loaded versions reach higher than $28,000, but the Soul’s sweet spot is around $21,000 with active safety and a 7.0-inch touchscreen with smartphone compatibility—about where its competitors start. Where the others offer all-wheel drive is thousands more, but the Soul skips that altogether.

READ NEXT: 2020 Kia Soul hatchback costs $18,485 to start; perky turbo costs $28,485

The pokey base engine from last year was scrapped for a 147-horsepower, 2.0-liter inline-4 this year that’s effective in its indifference—it doesn’t do anything particularly well (efficiency, speed, quickness), it just does. Most commonly, the 2.0-liter will be paired with a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) that extracts efficiency at a 30-mpg clip. A 6-speed manual is available on base models and rates lower if one could be found.

Like the last version, Kia offers a Soul with a turbocharged powertrain—but buyers would do well to skip it this time. Its 201-hp output makes a promise that its 7-speed dual-clutch automatic doesn’t deliver—what fun there can be found at higher speeds is spoiled by low-speed hesitation and clunky shifts.

The Soul still rides atop MacPherson struts up front and a twist-beam rear end picked for its low price point, but a chassis made stiffer by 35 percent lets the suspension do more work. Even the GT-Line with the optional 1.6-liter turbo-4, which sports tall 18-inch wheels and stiffer springs, didn’t suffer when the road turned turbulent. Loud outside, soft inside.

2020 Kia Soul

2020 Kia Soul

The music of our Soul? Space

The best taste of the Soul’s food was in its interior, which made better use of space than an IKEA showroom floor. Inside, 6-footers could sit behind other 6-footers with more room in the back than most sedans. With the cargo area maxed out on space, the Soul opens up for more than 20 cubic feet, hamstrung slightly by a relatively tall liftover height and low opening hatch (ask my forehead how it knows).

The cloth interior of our X-Line tester felt durable and sturdy—more capable perhaps than the body-clad exterior of the X-Line that’s meant to appeal to outdoorsy types.

MORE: 2020 Kia Soul EV rated for 243 miles, improved efficiency

Its leg room is prolific in the front and rear seats, and when folded flat, the Soul offers more than 60 cubic feet of cargo room—or enough to move into and out of our starter apartment, several times.

It’s not hard to spot the places where Kia saved: all but top models have manually adjustable seats, one USB charger, and thin-feeling doors. But it’s easy to see the Soul’s appeal this time around, even if it is a thin sheen of style around superb utility all over again.

Kia provided travel and lodging to Internet Brands Automotive to bring you this firsthand review.

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