Just when it seemed boxy cars were going away, the new 2014 Kia Soul not only carries on, but is redesigned and better than ever.
Riding on an all-new platform, the 2014 Kia Soul is longer, wider and more rigid than its predecessor, making for a more comfortable and safer ride. New sound insulation and improved acoustic engineering makes the cabin much quieter.
Perhaps most significant, though, is the improvement in the interior quality and design. Flat, hard plastics have been replaced with curved, soft-touch materials. The Soul has a unique circular theme throughout the cabin, which can be seen in the center stack and echoed in the air vents (with nifty round speakers that sit on top), the driver instrument cluster and the gearshift surround.
On the outside, the most noticeable difference is a more softened shape, compared to the upright cracker box of the past. There's no question the new Soul is still a box; it keeps the same proportions but sports more sophisticated lines, incorporating bends and curves into a still-unmistakable square silhouette.
The front end's tiny upper grille and a giant, mesh-covered lower grille make the Soul look grounded and hunkered down. Round accents, like foglights, contrast with the Soul's boxy shape.
Two direct-injected, four-cylinder engines carry over from the previous-generation Kia Soul. The base 1.6-liter makes a modest 130 horsepower and 118 pound-feet of torque, available with a 6-speed manual or a 6-speed automatic transmission. Fuel economy is an EPA-estimated 24/30 mpg City/Highway, or 26 mpg Combined, regardless of transmission.
Most will want to opt for the 2.0-liter inline-4, which is good for 164 hp and 151 lb.-ft. of torque and is available only with the 6-speed automatic. EPA-estimated fuel economy is 23/31 mpg City/Highway, or 26 mpg Combined, showing the more powerful 2.0-liter engine neck-and-neck with the standard 1.6-iter. Of note, all versions of the 2014 Kia Soul run on Regular gasoline, while the Fiat 500L and Mini Cooper Countryman require Premium.
In-car technology has also been updated in the 2014 Soul. Cars equipped with navigation use a new system powered by Android, replacing the old Microsoft system. Cars without nav continue to use the Microsoft-powered UVO voice-recognition and handsfree system.
We found the 2014 Kia Soul to be a fun car, great for tooling around in the city, and on mid-range road trips. There's plenty of room to carry gear, and the back seat will fit two or three in relative comfort for a compact vehicle. Driving dynamics are improved, but with its moderate acceleration, numb steering and relatively harsh ride, the Soul isn't a vehicle you get for its performance.
Although it starts in the reasonable sub-$15,000 category, don't expect much at the entry-level price. Options such as navigation, the premium Infinity audio system and other goodies are expensive and add up fast. So expect a well-equipped 2014 Kia Soul to come closer to the $20,000 mark.
More people are cross-shopping Kia Soul with other compact cars. In fact, in a time when more people are looking for what they can get for their money, instead of shopping in a traditional segment, the Kia is a unique player in a price range that includes not only more direct wagon-type competitors such as the Fiat 500L, Nissan Cube and Mini Cooper Countryman, it also is a potential contender space-wise for those shopping for compact SUVs such as the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4, as well as sub-compact hatchbacks including the Ford Fiesta, Honda Fit and Mazda2.
Soul base manual ($14,700); Soul automatic ($16,700); Soul Plus ($18,200); Soul Exclaim ($20,300)
The Kia Soul is still very much a box, but its lines are softened for 2014. Once very upright angles now incorporate bends and curves into its unmistakable silhouette.
Designers say the Soul was designed from the outset to resemble a wild boar wearing a backpack. As such, the Soul has a wide, squat appearance. Compared with the outgoing model, the 2014 Soul's wheelbase is nearly an inch longer, and it's more than half an inch wider.
The front end features a tiny upper grille and a giant, mesh-covered lower grille, making the Soul look grounded and hunkered down. Round accents, including foglights, contrast with the Soul's boxy shape. Soul Exclaim models have front tusks, echoing the wild boar theme.
From the side, the upright cracker box look of the past has been replaced with a slightly more aerodynamic design. The windshield is more steeply raked than before, making the Soul look more laid back in front than upright. The decreasing, trapezoidal shape of the side windows remain, as does the squared-off rear. Wheel designs differ by trim level; optional alloys look better than the base model's plastic wheel covers.
In back, the Soul sports a new version of its long, high-mounted tail lights. The liftgate has been widened by 2.4 inches over the previous Soul, giving it a broader-looking rear end as well as making it more convenient to load. Two round tail lights at the bottom contrast with the right angles of the roofline and liftgate.
Perhaps the best thing about the 2014 Kia Soul is the improvement in the interior quality and design. Flat, hard plastics have been replaced with curved, soft-touch materials. The Soul has a unique circular theme throughout the cabin, which can be seen in the center stack and echoed in the air vents (with nifty round speakers that sit on top), the driver instrument cluster and the gearshift surround.
The instrument cluster features two large, analog gauges with a driver information screen in the middle. High-end Exclaim trims can be equipped with an electronic TFT display. All variants we saw were contemporary and easy to read, without looking too quasi-futuristic, although we didn't get to see an example of the base model.
Multiple buttons on the steering wheel make changing stations, accessing audio and making a phone call convenient, but are so numerous they take some time to get used to.
Fabric seats were of fine quality. Basic seats offer moderate adjustability; our test car had upgraded power seats with a lumbar support that were more comfortable. We did notice after a few hours, however, that our lower backs and rear ends were a tad sore.
Our optional leather upholstery was stiff and waxy, and we might not have known it was genuine if we hadn't sniffed it to get a whiff of that unmistakable cowhide smell. We'd opt for the fabric, unless you want your Soul fully loaded with the Primo package, which automatically includes the leather.
Storage in front is plentiful on Plus and Exclaim models, with a center console that has a deep storage box. Lower side door pockets are wide and can hold one or two large water bottles or coffee cups. Side door handles also have a cubby that can hold small items like a mobile phone, though we were dismayed when our driving companion noticed the space was the exact same size as his iPhone 5, and as such, had great difficultly retrieving it once it was wedged in. Kia engineers say they will address this issue in future models that roll of the assembly line.
In-car technology has also been updated in the new Soul. Cars equipped with navigation use a new system powered by Andriod, replacing the old Microsoft setup, although cars without nav can still be equipped with the optional Microsoft-powered UVO voice recognition and phone integration system. The Soul also features Pandora internet radio streaming for the first time.
Cars equipped with nav benefit from a wider, eight-inch screen that uses capacitive touch, which lets users swipe and scroll, like a smartphone or iPad. Controls are mostly intuitive and the screen is bright and easy to read.
On our test car equipped with the new nav system, the voice recognition didn't seem to like us. The first few times we tried to set directions, it didn't understand what we were saying, and either asked us to try again, or listed incorrect information on the screen. Subsequent tries were better. Even though the new system supposedly works with more natural language, one still must use canned commands for it to work. On the plus side, the touch screen lists a menu of commands to choose from so you don't have to guess what to say.
Kia seems particularly proud of its optional Infinity audio system, which adds a center speaker, subwoofer and external amplifier, as well as speaker lights that change color. Music on satellite radio and from MP3 files sounded okay, but didn't blow us away. The system sounded fine at lower volumes, but became distorted at higher volumes. It's a big improvement over the standard sound system, however. Audiophiles should consider getting this option, or go aftermarket.
Because of its boxy shape, the Kia Soul has plenty of headroom, both up front and in back. Rear legroom in the Soul measures a spacious 39.1 inches, compared with only 33.8 inches in the Fiat 500L and 32.3 inches in the Mini Cooper Countryman. As such, the Kia Soul is better suited to carrying a car-full of friends around town.
Cargo space in the Soul is superior for its class, measuring a spacious 24.2 cubic feet with the rear seats in place, and expandable to 61.3 cubes with the rear seats folded. The Fiat 500L isn't far behind with 23.1 cubic feet with all seats in place, but the Mini Cooper Countryman pales in comparison with only 16.5 cubes.
Front visibility is excellent thanks to the Soul's upright seating position and large windshield. In back, the liftgate has wide but short glass, and the large C-pillar makes for a substantial blind spot in the rear corners. We'd recommend the rearview camera for extra safety.
Tooling around on our test drive in Minneapolis, we felt at home in the comfortable cabin. The 2.0-liter engine was perfectly capable, both in the city and on country roads far outside of town. We didn't get to drive a Soul with the 1.6-liter engine, but we suspect it would be fine for solo commuting in city traffic. If you'll be regularly carrying people or stuff, the 2.0 is worth the investment, especially since, according to preliminary estimates from Kia, the bigger engine only suffers a 1 mpg difference in fuel economy.
Although ride and handling has been improved, the Soul still feels like a box. There is quite a bit of lean around the corners, which is typical for these types of cars. Steering has been retooled, but still feels a tad odd. We felt like we were fighting the wheel at times, even on long highway straights. But while we had to actively steer the car, we also felt like it wasn't the most responsive, either. Every Soul comes with an adjustable steering system that Kia calls Flex Steer. It allows the driver to choose from three modes: Comfort, Normal, and Sport. Sport seemed to make the steering feel more heavy, while Comfort made it feel more loosey-goosey. The Flex Steer system does not change other vehicle dynamics like throttle response or shift points.
Suspension is on the firm side, but is not nearly as teeth-chattering as the Mini Cooper Countryman. The Soul behaves best on smoothly paved roads. Potholes unsettle the car a bit, but its revised suspension is an improvement over the last generation. It might not be as sporty as the Mini Cooper Countryman, but it's much more comfortable. Brakes worked fine, and the 6-speed automatic transmission shifted smoothly.
Ultimately, the Kia Soul is more of a lifestyle vehicle, and we suspect most who buy it won't do so for its superior driving dynamics. It's fun, looks unique, and infuses a big dose of practicality into a funky package.
The 2014 Kia Soul is a fun, unique choice in a market filled with econo-cars. It offers plenty of space and a vastly improved interior, though prices can add up fast with packages and options.
Laura Burstein filed this NewCarTestDrive.com report after her test drive of the Kia Soul near Minneapolis.