2014 Kia Soul First Drive

#Kia, #Soul

San Diego -- On the one hand, there’s the Volkswagen Beetle and Mazda Miata. When it came time to redesign these icons, they were done right. On the other hand, the second generation Scion xB was botched. Unable to come up with a suitable rodent counterpart to match the darling hamsters in Kia Soul commercials and thoroughly trounced by the South Korean in sales, the xB soon will say sayonara. Coming from nowhere in 2009 to bust the compact crossover segment, the Soul has enjoyed annual sales increases. Kia sold 112,000 units in 2012. This is despite the fact that the car was crotchety and compromised.

Now, Kia has introduced the second-generation 2014 Soul, operating its launch from the Hard Rock Hotel in San Diego’s lively Gaslamp Quarter. In the heart of this district, Pininfarina updated an old office building and it re-opened in 2007 as the Keating Hotel. Like the Keating, the Soul’s exterior is freshened. The car incorporates slight dimensional growth though with a slightly lower height, to appear more substantial and better planted. It picks up elements from the 2012 Track’ster concept, including a more exaggerated front “tusk” -- the Soul’s original inspiration came from a TV show about wild boars. Meanwhile, the rear liftgate now wears a “backpack,” which is a body-colored panel that appears to float on the glass and is supposed to impart a high-tech look. Available LED taillamps are a bit gaudy for our tastes, and a pair of self-consciously large reflectors accentuate the rear corners. The overall effect may be controversial; some will find it an uncomely pastiche.

Likewise, inside and underneath, the Soul is updated and uprated. To tell the difference, we need only drive the top-spec Soul Exclaim over the San Diego Trolley’s tracks 250 feet from the hotel and turn onto Harbor Drive. Even with nondescript suspension components -- MacPherson struts in front and a beam axle in the rear -- the old car’s yo-yo-ing body and brass knuckles ride on optional 18-inch wheels have vanished.

From San Diego’s harbor, there follows a supremely entertaining gallop to Alpine and then through the bouldery Viejas Mountains to Otay Lakes. Not only does the Soul’s excellent comportment open our eyes wide, but also it leaves us thinking Kia Motors America had better find local factory space to alleviate the production constraints back in South Korea, where the Soul is built. The new car is so good, so thoroughly and positively transformed, that its maker should expect still greater demand.

A cautious program for the new car

“We had to approach it very, very carefully,” says Orth Hedrick, Kia executive director of product planning. When transforming the Soul, its simple suspension received sorely needed upgrades and revisions. Hedrick talks about the larger, better isolated front subframe with “big, fat, huge washers between it and the car.” New front geometry and a relocated stabilizer bar help even more.

Continuing the makeover, the old rear suspension, which Hedrick calls “horrible,” was thrown out. In the name of a low load floor, there had been some cockeyed angles, which overwhelmed the shock absorbers. Now the twin-tube shocks are upright, and bushing diameter increases from 2.8 inches to three inches. Go ahead, hit a chuckhole in mid-turn: the Soul remains composed and authoritative.

The electrically assisted power steering is another highlight, thanks to a faster processor controlling the system. (It replaces a hydraulic one.) “The response of the motor to driver inputs is much quicker than on our previous designs,” Hedrick says. “The relocated steering box is now one piece instead of two. It’s stiffer. What that basically does is improves the overall feel of the steering. It’s a lot more responsive and solid-feeling.” On-center touch and variable buildup of effort is uncanny. The optional Flex Steer feature offers the choice among Comfort, Normal, and Sport steering modes.

The other stunner is how well suppressed wind and road noise are inside the airy cabin. A polyurethane layered carpet contributes to this improvement, suppressing noise by three decibels.

On our longest straightaway between ridges, we extract a wail from our Soul’s 2.0-liter four-cylinder. Kia has enhanced the 164-hp engine with direct injection and a higher compression ratio. Manually shifting the automatic gearbox into sixth (another big improvement over the old four-speed automatic), we mention when the speedometer needle hit 100 mph. “Really?” an incredulous passenger says.

Hamsters for hipsters

The target Soul buyer is an 18- to 29-year-old male who is single, individualistic, and into music, according to Michael Sprague, Kia’s executive vice president for marketing and communications. It is possible to imagine such a driver also hitting 100 mph on an obscure straightaway and then setting the Soul’s nose for a turn. But he’s probably more interested in the 10-speaker sound system (the subwoofer stays right up atop the dashboard, where it has always been prominent). And, dude! Four moody new colors join the pulsating LED door-speaker rings’ previous three.

Our hipster will appreciate the super-sharp, Android-based navigation and infotainment display. He will enjoy the thick dashboard covering, high-gloss trim, dual-density-foam seats, 4.3-inch redundant screen between the tachometer and speedometer, and panorama roof. The multifunction steering wheel designed by Kia’s great Peter Schreyer, who has done so much to bring this brand alive and now has design duties at Hyundai as well, will also please.

Our test car, the top-of-the-line Exclaim with standard 18-inch wheels is expected to account for only 10 percent of the model mix, with the mid-level Plus ($18,995) taking 50 percent and the base Soul ($15,495) with the direct-injection 1.6-liter four accounting for the rest. When fully equipped with options like ventilated seats, the Exclaim ($21,095) nudges past $26,000.

While the Soul has vanquished the xB and will-o’-the-wisp Nissan Cube, new compact crossover competition has arrived from the Mini Countryman, Fiat 500L, and of course the Nissan Juke. Yet it’s hard to imagine these contenders disrupting the Soul’s dominance, especially given the new car’s level of improvement. Like a boutique hotel, it has premium qualities that are a cut above the other choices, but it’s value-priced.

2014 Kia Soul

Base Price: $15,495
As-Tested: $26,000
Engines: 2.0-liter DOHC 16-valve I-4, 164 hp @ 6200 rpm, 151 lb-ft @ 4000 rpm; 1.6-liter DOHC 16-valve I-4, 130 hp @ 6300 rpm, 118 lb-ft. @ 4850 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed manual or 6-speed automatic
Drive: Front-wheel
L x W x H: 163.0 x 70.9 x 63.0 in.
Legroom (F/R): 40.9/39.1 in
Headroom (F/R): 39.6/39.5 in
Cargo capacity (seats up/down): 49.5/61.3 cu ft
Curb Weight: 2714-2879 lb
EPA Mileage: TBA
DRIVE ONE! For a base commuter (smaller engine, 6-speed manual) $15200. It out maneuvered, outhandled, outhauled was more comfortable with better ergos than Nissan Versa, or Honda Fit. And it can be flat towed behind a motorhome. 600 mile trips were comfy, quiet with good mileage for a box with barn door aerodynamics (34 mpg freeway driving @ 65-70mph) Good Value for a starter car or just an economical everyday transport. Ours is white and we call it AMANA. Did I mention the 10 yr/100,000 mi warranty?
It always bothers me when industry reporters with only cursory knowledge of a product write reviews like this one. Why? Because they act like they know more than they do and they almost always provide superficial, almost company line reports. To begin, this is not the second generation of the Soul. It is the third. 2009-2011 were gen 1 and 2011 and 2012 models were gen 2. This is the gen 3 incarnation. Yes there have been improvements but for the accompanying price increases there should have been more. An increase of $3k on the Exclaim model puts the Soul dangerously close to a $30k automobile and yet the engine is still boomy, the six speed transmission still shift happy and the mileage is still marginal. Plus there is a massive disconnect between the marketing and manufacturing arm of this company. True, the strikes in Korea have not helped but do you spend millions to promote a redone model and then have no inventory or only base model inventory to offer customers that are interested? Do you redesign your website and then not have it work correctly with the browser that most people use now (hint: it's Google Chrome). Perhaps not with this and many aspects of the Soul and KIA products. KIA has a long way to go and this perhaps now too pricey Soul is not likely to get them there any time soon.
"the subwoofer stays right up atop the dashboard, where it has always been prominent"No, that's just a center channel speaker.  The subwoofer is in the cargo area.
Varun Gupta
korean motor company
Mmm, I wonder what SEMA can do for this latest design?  The front end needs help.. maybe a thinner horizontal headlight structure using projector lights and getting rid of the ugly round fog/driving lights.  Like the 2L engine, especially if a KIA Optima turbo unit can be grafted on!  The wheels and that "backpack" gotta go (SEMA again).  I hope there are other interior colors besides black!?  The dash top speakers need to be more fully integrated with the side air vents -- it looks clumsy, kind of like OMG we forgot the tweeters!  The NAV screen is too low for drivers to watch it and drive, and all thoise little touch pads & buttons!  Still... I'd get one as a second car for running around.. perfect for a Costco run!
There's no way this car has 49.5 cubes of storage behind the rear seats.  Even my Outback only has about 34 cubes.Who would want one of these at $26,000 if you can get a new RAV4 for less?  Ah, well, to each his (or her) own.
Greg Stein
How about a an overdue redesign?
Farzam Meimand
so ugly!
Brennan Shanks
Like the Volvo C30 did. I Loved how that looked.
Brennan Shanks
So much better on the interior. It can be so well loaded up with all sorts of cool features. I like the new rear, but the front is blah and the rims are still awful. I hate those huge discs.
Manuel Solo Rolo Mendoza
Y do they say "all new"? That sht looks like the other pos
Justice Edwards
I don't know about "a backpack", but I'll use a simile that I once read in an automotive rag when the late 90's Taurus SHO spoiler was bein' described: "it resembles a fat lady, wearing a thong."
Justice Edwards
Better than it was, but...that's not really sayin' a whole lot.
Michael Lombardi
I don't like the redesign and it's not going to help the depreciation value on Kia in general either.
Kyree S. Williams
1. For crash-safety purposes, it would still have to have some sort of metal cross-member. Likely, you'd end up with a portion of glass that was blacked out. 2. It would actually look extremely disproportionate without the green piece, or as if there were a giant hole in the back of the body.
Matt Perry
not a fan
Richard Macintyre
I liked that it reminded me of the floating elements in glass panels on the Espada and Khamsin. Knowing it's supposed to look like a back pack... it's less interesting
Tim Kastner
Only flaw in the design is the back end
Leo Perez
Paul Graziano
NO, still a pos
Al Lebo
Love the hamsters and the soul but better rear visability would be better than a styling trick.
Rick Reny
Wouldnt it make more sense to have the entire lift gate section made of glass for better rear visibility, instead of having that rounded rectangle in the way?
David George
& I gotta say that the Pontiac Solstice was Ugly before the 2014 Kia Soul. Just saying no hate.
Jay Klein
No and I hate those dumbass hamsters.
Tahmina Mili
I don't understand why car companies and automobile magazines don't do a side-by-side comparison between this year's and next year's models. They talk about how small details have changed but then they don't show you. Here's an example of what I'm looking for (I had to create it myself): http://www.subarusvx.com/2013vs2014KiaSoul.jpg Now you can easily see how the design has matured.
@ed124c Cargo capacity behind rear seat is 18-24 cu ft.RAV4 for less than $26K?  Only a base LE model.FWD RAV4 limited with navigation/audio package is almost $30K and doesn't have leather seats (has Softex?) like the Soul, only has a standard sunroof vs the Soul's panoramic sunroof, and has a smaller navigation screen.  A Soul Exclaim with sun/sound package is less than $24K (no leather seats).The Soul Plus with audio package is is less than $21K (no sunroof) vs RAV4 XLE with navigation/audio package at over $26K.

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