The Kia Soul is an inexpensive runabout with youthful styling, good fuel economy and utilitarian design and features. The goal with Soul is to stand out in a sea of sameness. In spite of its shape, the Kia Soul is a car. It is not an SUV. The mechanical design of the Soul is similar to that of a small sedan. All models are front-wheel drive; no all-wheel drive is offered.
2013 Kia Soul models are distinguished from last year's models by new color and trim choices and some minor content changes. The Kia Soul debuted as a 2010 model. 2012 models brought new engines and freshened styling.
Two engines are offered. A 1.6-liter four-cylinder comes standard, rated 138 horsepower and available with a choice of 6-speed manual or 6-speed automatic. EPA-estimated fuel economy is 25/30 mpg City/Highway for either transmission, so the choice should come down to how much you enjoy stirring gears. However, cruise control and a multi-adjustable driver's seat only come on the automatics.
A 2.0-liter four-cylinder rated at 164 horsepower comes with Soul+ and Soul! models. It's available with the 6-speed manual or 6-speed automatic, but this time the manual enjoys a slight fuel economy advantage, at 24/29 mpg vs. 23/28 mpg for the automatic. That's unless you order the Eco package, which uses low-rolling-resistance tires and an extended-idle shut-off (called Idle Stop and Go, or ISG) to bump the automatic's EPA ratings back up equal to the manual's.
We think the standard 1.6-liter engine is a viable choice, offering plenty of power and the best fuel economy. The upgrade 2.0-liter engine delivers a bit more power, however, particularly important for the automatic, costs just slightly more and nearly matches the smaller engine in fuel economy.
Overall, we found the Soul felt nimble and light, fun to drive. It rides like the other economy cars in its class. And it's cute, with smooth and stylish lines, for a box, that is, and the interior is notably clean and functional.
Standard equipment includes six airbags, ABS, and electronic stability control to help keep you safe. Kia offers accessories to personalize your Soul and establish your own identity. How many car makers can offer that?
The Kia Soul looks like it's wearing a pair of wraparound sunglasses. Because the rear windows are narrower than the front windows, there appears to be a downward rearward slope to the roof, but it's an illusion achieved by the rising beltline below the windows. There's a final and small third side window, an upside-down wedge to complete the shape.
Bold chiseled wheel arches give the Soul strength. The corners are nicely rounded, erasing the hard corners of a box. The grille is small and tidy, the Soul's mouth no bigger than needed to suck in air for the engine, and the lower bumper/air opening look is called tusk in-house. The front lighting elements are contemporary and stylish, even more so on the Soul! model that includes LED running lamps and projector headlamps.
A black horizontal ding strip on the doors doesn't do much for cleanliness, but adds to the strong straight-line styling and it serves a function. The 16- and 18-inch alloy wheels are larger than often available in this size and class of car.
Big vertical taillamps climb the rear pillars and project a feeling of safety. The wraparound configuration that appeared with the 2012 models makes it easy to draw a relation between the lights and the ears of a hamster like those in Soul commercials. The liftgate and rear window are clean and smooth (and darkly cool when tinted), with an indented handle under a Kia oval logo and a stylish chrome Soul badge off to the side. All get the tusk bumper design, and the Soul! model has LED taillamps.
Everything inside the Soul is simple, clean and functional, a handsome and ergonomic layout. The cloth is solid, more than basic but never an assault on your senses. Closer to the edge is the black-and-beige houndstooth-like upholstery on the seat inserts of the Soul!
There is one trick option that's a hit with young drivers and drivers-to-be: the throbbing-to-the-beat rim of colored lights around the speakers in the door. It seems a little out of place when listening to talk radio, however. This light can be turned on and off and you can program the way it reacts to sound. It's amusing in traffic jams.
The front bucket seats are comfortable, good for long trips, and the interior vinyl and cloth trim is fine. There are bottle holders in the front door pockets plus cupholders in the console with its own deep compartment, a huge two-level glovebox, map nets on the front seatbacks, a trap-door compartment on the dash (that's molded so things don't slide around), and grab handles over every door. There are auxiliary audio, iPod, and USB port connections, and three 12-volt outlets on the Soul+ and Soul!
The steering wheel is nice, with the usual standard controls the same colors as most cell phones. The three-ring instrument panel looks clean and uses an eave so the gauges are readable in the sun. The center stack is modest with business-like knobs and buttons. It accommodate the shifter and the optional UVO/Microsoft entertainment system that includes a rear camera. Air conditioning proved very effective.
The front seats offer plenty of room, including a full hand space over the head of six-plus-footers. In the rear seat legroom is the pinch point but it'll be fine for kids or four friends of average height.
The liftgate is light and pops up easily. The 60/40 rear seats drop flat in a heartbeat. There's an excellent compartment under the trunk floor, and below that a space-saver spare tire. Figure 19 cubic feet of space behind the seat, about four under the floor, and 53 cubic feet with the back seat folded.
The Kia Soul is nimble and fun to drive. We've driven Soul! models with the 2.0-liter engine and 6-speed automatics primarily. We haven't had a chance to test drive a base model with the 1.6-liter engine, but given its ample 138 horsepower and six gears (with manual or automatic), few people should feel the need to step up to the Soul+ or Soul! for the more powerful 2.0-liter engine.
Both engines feature direct fuel injection, for high-end power with good fuel economy while cruising. The 2.0-liter engine makes 164 horsepower at 6500 rpm with a good 148 pound-feet of torque peaking at a fairly high 4800 rpm. This is more than adequate in a 2700-pound car. Indeed, the Soul can keep up with traffic easily; many V8-powered full-size SUVs are not demonstrably quicker. The Soul! does require a serious prod with your right foot to force a downshift for passing or merging, but does so quickly and upshifts in steps as appropriate.
The automatic's shifter has up/down manual control to the left of the D position, handy for long descents or constant elevation changes. We found the clutch on earlier manual-transmission models to be smooth in operation, both from a standing start and while upshifting, and with six gears and ample torque we'd expect sprightly acceleration from even the 2013 base model. We suspect some buyers will choose the automatic simply to get the equipment and option packages that don't come with the manual.
For example: Since late 2012 Kia has offered an ECO package for Soul automatics that includes a system called ISG. This stands for Idle Stop and Go, meaning the car automatically turns the engine off at stops and restarts it when you lift your foot off the brake to prepare to move again. We sampled ISG in 1.6-liter Kia Rio models and found it works as advertised. We were riding in the passenger seat the first time it functioned, and the driver didn't even notice. ISG nets a 1 mpg increase in EPA City ratings; if you spend a lot of time sitting in traffic you may realize greater gains.
Either engine has sufficient power to have traction control reign in tire spin in exuberant driving or sharp-turn starts on wet surfaces. No all-wheel drive system is offered nor is it needed. With the majority of its weight over the drive wheels and a lightweight package, a set of winter tires will get you through the neighborhood better than many heavy four-wheel drives.
The power steering is electric, and has a nice light but not vague feel. It makes the whole car feel lighter, and it responds to driver input well. Don't expect it to feel like a sports car, but then it's not intended to.
The Soul suspension is good, compliant, okay over speed bumps, and not once did we hit anything that produced any jarring or bashing impacts. It's not sophisticated and will transmit some bumps on rough roads, but you won't find anything noticeably better in this price range, nor will you upset your passengers. Brakes are all-disc on all models and we found them firm and solid in the wet or dry.
The Kia Soul offers drive-it-and-forget it simplicity with four-door upright hatchback versatility. It's easy on gas and the wallet, and its styling still has personality five years on. It will appeal to many ages for the same, and different reasons. It is easy to drive and great fun in urban settings because of its nimble size, driver position and view, and dynamic response. If it has any vices we have been unable to find them.
Sam Moses reported from Miami; with G.R. Whale reporting from South Korea; NewCarTestDrive.com associate editor John F. Katz contributed to this report.