It’s said that the best revenge is living well—and for the Kia Soul, it’s hard to imagine one better against the Japanese boxes that it sought to usurp when it first appeared in 2010.
Expectations were modest from the start, but the Soul wave would eventually swell to three times the original sales forecast, vanquishing the Scion xB, which suffered a disastrous redesign, then a brand implosion; the Nissan Cube, which was left to wither on the vine and wasn’t very good besides; and the Honda Element, a cult favorite that was perhaps killed prematurely. Along the way, the Soul became a cornerstone of Kia’s American lineup.
Now in its third generation, the 2020 Kia Soul continues its upward trajectory. Sitting on a slightly enlarged platform, and featuring a bevy of features one may not expect to find at its price point, the model continues to define what a successful rectilinear people-mover should be, even if the rest of the industry has given up on them.
Plus on Size, But Not Plus-Sized
But don’t worry, the embiggened Soul is still right-sized. It may be a smidge over two inches longer than the model it replaces, with 1.2 inches of that found between the front and rear axles, but it’s grown no taller or wider.
Strangely, interior measurements show only a modest improvement (0.2 inch) in front legroom, coupled with a puzzling 0.3-inch cut in the same metric for rear-seat riders. Cargo capacity is roughly the same, but a wider, lower hatch opening makes it easier to drop grocery bags and overnight gear behind the second row.
From the outside, the alterations are much more noticeable. Monster Grille Syndrome now plagues one of Kia’s smallest offerings, but the big bug-eater up front is effectively complemented by gun-slit headlights that squint where past Souls goggled. In profile, the car’s greenhouse still displays the same playful kink at the rear, with the model name now etched into a blacked-out panel on the D-pillar, and a beefier, almost muscular aesthetic characterizes the less slabby sides. A set of striking taillights frame the back glass, and you can order more than a few fun colors for the exterior, including blues, greens, and reds intended to add a bit of personality to the sea of appliances clogging the parking lot at, well, everywhere.
Gear in Here
The 2020 Kia Soul brings rethinks to the lineup and cabin, too. The previous goofy trim levels that included ones called + (Plus) and another called ! (Exclaim) has been binned in favor of LX, S, X-Line, GT-Line, and EX nomenclature. In the X-Line, things are cheerful enough for the vehicle’s affordable pricing: relatively soft plastics everywhere your hands or elbows might stray, an ergonomically sound (albeit sans satellite radio) 7.0-inch touchscreen infotainment system that will be familiar to fans of the brand, and actual buttons and knobs for the climate-control and radio, the better to avoid distractions. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard in each and every Soul.
The GT-Line is aimed at those seeking a sportier look, and its red exterior accents and unique badging can also be combined with a whopping 10.25-inch LCD touchscreen and passenger-facing dash-and-door speakers (which once again can be illuminated so as to pulse with the gentle rhythms of your Soul soundtrack) from Harman/Kardon. There’s also a head-up display, although it’s on a screen that pops up from the dash so you have to sort of look down anyway. A heated steering wheel and seats are fitted, too.
Kia calls its group of active safety technologies “Drive Wise,” and the usual features such as blind-spot monitoring, lane-keeping assistance, forward collision warning, and adaptive cruise control are all available, as are lane-change assist and a driver-drowsiness monitor. Although the LX is bereft of this type of fancy tech, much of it is standard from the S model on.
Go For Turbo
The roads leading from San Diego, California, to the small town of Julian offer a jumble of smooth highways, broken-asphalt secondaries, and the occasional dust storm, surprisingly diverse range of environments in which to test the new hatchback’s mettle.
In an unexpected twist, the southern part of the state would also deliver almost every meteorological season in the space of just a few hours during my time behind the wheel, with the climb into Julian from the other side of the mountains asking the Soul to deal with rain, then sleet, then a full-on blizzard, treacherous conditions that it handled with alacrity despite the handicap of all-season rubber.
The best news under the new Soul’s hood is that last year’s entry-level engine has been banished and replaced by a 2.0-liter four-cylinder that’s good for 147 horsepower and 132 lb-ft of torque. These are welcome improvements over the pokey 1.6-liter that was once standard, although the Kia faithful will note that the numbers fall short of 2019’s optional naturally aspirated 2.0-liter (a different engine, which is no longer in the picture).
It’s an altogether adequate substitution, and it’s offered with either six-speed manual or continuously variable automatic transmissions. It achieves 27 mpg combined with the stick and 30 mpg with the CVT, but it’s worth noting that compared to a few other small haulers in its class, the Soul is among the least miserly at the pump.
The automatic has been reprogrammed to address complaints about buzz and revs that are common to variable transmissions, and while the engine is on the noisier side when spurred, the virtual “steps” built into the transmission to simulate traditional gearchanges admirably quell fears of an imminent killer-bee attack.
Passing is for the patient with the 2.0, although never unsafe or exasperating. That being said, the Soul undergoes a personality shift when equipped with its turbocharged 1.6-liter four-cylinder, which continues to offer the same 201 horses and 195 lb-ft of twist as it did before. Not only is the turbo quieter at speed, but its torque delivery is confident and quick, thanks in large part to the standard seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission that serves as its partner in performance. Rounding out its benefits is barely any fuel-mileage penalty compared to the less muscular unit: 29 mpg combined. There will be a new EV model with much, much more range than before, as well.
It’s an auspicious pairing that elevates the Kia, and if you can swing the extra scratch to step up—roughly $5K over the estimated $18,000 base, although official pricing has yet to be released—we’d recommend it in a heartbeat. Just don’t expect the Soul to sports-car its way down a two-lane, for while suspension tuning is comfortable and controlled through corners, the hatch is a little too top-heavy to toss around with glee.
Better the Jack than the Master
There are no shortage of options in the small-footprint, daily-driver segment, with rivals such as the Honda Fit, Toyota CH-R, and Mazda CX-3 each delivering their own mix of space, safety, and frugality. Still, there remains only one Soul, a vehicle that continues to combine a class-above cabin with gobs of features and respectable practicality without asking you to sell you own soul to afford it.
The Mazda may be more responsive, the Fit more capacious, and the CH-R able to trade on its badge’s reputation for quality, but the Soul is the all-arounder that won’t have you lacking in any one department. It’s the last box standing, but it clearly isn’t resting on any laurels. The Soul is indeed living well.
2020 Kia Soul Specifications
|ON SALE||Spring 2019|
|BASE PRICE||$22,485/$28,495 (X-Line IVT/GT-Line 7DCT)|
|ENGINE||2.0L DOHC 16-valve inline-4, 147 hp @ 6,200 rpm, 132 lb-ft @ 4,500 rpm; 1.6L DOHV 16-valve inline-4 turbo, 201 hp @ 6,000 rpm, 195 lb-ft @ 4,500 rpm|
|TRANSMISSION||6-speed manual, continuously variable automatic, 7-speed dual-clutch automatic|
|LAYOUT||4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, FWD hatchback|
|EPA MILEAGE||25–27/31–33 mpg (city/hwy)|
|L x W x H||165.2 x 70.9 x 63.0 in|
|0–60 MPH||6.5–8.5 sec (est)|