Alexander Stoklosa • If you can picture rhythmic, life-size anthropomorphic hamsters, it is (hopefully) because of Kia's catchy marketing effort for the Soul subcompact crossover. We won't judge you if it isn't.
Perhaps the Soul is familiar because one recently whisked you from a bar after being summoned by a ride-hailing app. Or, maybe, you or someone you know owns one—Kia has sold more than a million of the toaster-shaped things since 2009.
Instantly recognizable and increasingly ubiquitous, the Kia Soul is almost iconic. Kia thinks it is iconic, hence why its 2020 redesign is as careful an evolution as, say, the latest Porsche 911's. The Kia is still affordable (prices start at $18,485 (AU$26,270)), and its seating remains tall and chair-like, as in an SUV.
The slab-sided, boxy profile and snub nose are unmistakable, and some additional funkiness is provided by taillights that now practically encircle the back window and a scowling face that resembles a Star Wars stormtrooper helmet.
EDITOR'S NOTE: You're reading a story by American title Car and Driver. We're bringing you a handful of C/D stories each month, focused on vehicles we've either not yet driven, or models not offered in Australia. Where appropriate, we'll add metric measurements for reference, but grammar and terminology will otherwise remain unchanged.
Solidly, and Similarly, Packaged
The Soul is a two-time Car and Driver 10Best Trucks and SUVs award winner as much for its intelligent price as its clever interior packaging. There remain gobs of head- and legroom front and rear, even though the new model's 1.2-inch-longer wheelbase and additional 2.2 inches of length fail to translate into much more usable space.
Rear legroom is actually down 0.3 inch (7.6mm), while front legroom is up just 0.2 inch. Still, the rear seat in particular is spacious and comfortable, with a pleasantly angled seatback.
Folding those back seats expands cargo capacity from 24 cubic feet (680L) (the same as before) to 62 cubic feet (1755L) (a little more than before). The doors also open a little wider, and the rear hatch opening is slightly bigger.
Like many similarly priced cars, the Soul uses hard plastics throughout its interior, though pricier models have more soft-touch bits. Assembly is impeccable, however, and the overall style feels more aspirational than before.
Kia maintains a level of quirkiness inside, upgrading the old model's light-up door speakers—which could pulse to the beat of music—for available LED-backlit panels mounted higher on the front doors that can put on the same show but are now visible in the daytime.
An inductive phone charger is optional and sits in a useful cubby ahead of the shift lever, above a separate bin where a pair of 12-volt outlets and USB ports live, so you can charge two devices simultaneously. A 7.0-inch color touchscreen is standard, while a new, 10.3-inch widescreen unit is available.
Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are included on both, and the system's menu structures are easy to navigate. And Kia finally has added some active-safety features to the Soul's option sheet.
Still Defiantly Un-Crossover-Like
The Soul still isn't available with all-wheel drive, but we don't view that as a reason to revoke its subcompact crossover card, even if nearly every competitor does offer the option. (We have, after all, named it our 10Best pick in that segment before.) Most customers in this class are looking for a commanding driving position, not Jeep-like abilities for clambering over rocks.
We drove the Soul in light snow, and it survived; you'll do just fine. Besides, the Kia has a decidedly un-car-like 6.7 inches (170mm) of ground clearance, up from 5.9 inches (150mm) last year. Kia's only other concession that the Soul perhaps isn't SUV-ish enough for some is a new X-Line trim. Functionally no different from the base LX, S, or EX trims, the X gets tougher-looking bumpers and plastic fender flares.
The new GT-Line trim sits opposite the X-Line and essentially replaces last year's Turbo model, wearing a more street-friendly look with a center-exit exhaust, monochromatic bodywork, and a sportier suspension tune.
Every Soul comes standard with an updated 2.0-liter inline-four engine, which replaces both last year's weak entry-level 1.6-liter and mid-level 2.0-liter engines. Its 147 horsepower and 132 lb-ft of torque (109kW, 179Nm) land pretty much between the outputs of those two previous engines, while its smoothness and refinement are far better than both.
In most Souls, the 2.0-liter will pair with a new continuously variable transmission (CVT), which supplants last year's six-speed automatic. (A six-speed manual transmission we weren't able to sample is only offered on the base model.) Like many new-age CVTs, Kia's boasts a direct feel and will even fake fixed gear ratios to prevent the engine from revving too far out of sync with the car's acceleration, as less adroit CVTs do.
Use less than half throttle and you'll barely notice it working, the transmission smoothly changing ratios as the car builds speed.
The previous-generation Soul Turbo's 201hp (150kW) turbocharged 1.6-liter four-cylinder and seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission live on as an option in the GT-Line cars.
Though quicker than the base engine, the setup suffers the same oddly timed gear changes, abrupt low-speed response, and a surging power delivery as before. There are steering wheel-mounted shift paddles for manual gear selection, but they don't add much refinement.
Straight-line speed aside, there is little difference in athleticism among the new Soul's trim levels. The GT-Line rides slightly firmer, yet every Soul we drove exhibited good body control, improved ride quality, and better isolation from wind and road noise.
The numb and strongly boosted steering is disappointing only in the range-topping turbocharged GT-Line model, which, at $28,485 (AU$40,485), is priced awfully close to a Volkswagen GTI despite being not nearly as fun to drive.
While the Soul is not exactly sporty, Kia's latest box is stylish and practical and should please, whether you need affordable wheels or end up being chauffeured in the back seat after a night out partying like an anthropomorphic hamster.
A big seller in the USA, the Soul has never really connected with buyers Down Under. With that in mind, it's "under consideration" for our market at the moment – we'd suggest the hangman is currently tightening his noose, though.
It's possible the Soul EV could be one of the two all-electric vehicles promised for our market by 2021.