New Car Reviews

2014 Kia Soul First Drive

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
  • Powertrain
  • 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
  • Measurements
  • 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