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2013 Kia Soul ! Road Test

This is the best vehicle Kia makes, and for a very good reason.

What It Is
A stylish urban runabout for your posse--or your mother's Sunday garage sale run.
Best Thing
Utility, design, and refinement work together in one excellent bang-for-the-buck deal.
Worst Thing
Suspension tuning feels choppy on roads that are anything less than perfect.
Snap Judgment
Your mom should probably get one if she hasn't already.


Not long ago, it was hip to be square. Japanese automakers hopped on board with the cube car trend, launching the Scion xB and Honda Element here first and then the Nissan Cube. The Kia Soul came to America in 2009. And then, the bottom fell out of the segment.

Honda left first. Scion announced plans to exit it. Nissan's Cube sales are dwindling. And yet, the Kia Soul is still on course to sell upwards of 100,000 boxes-on-wheels this year. How the heck is that possible?

High-roof hatchbacks have done all right for themselves in the U.S. since the 1980s, but they didn't really catch on until their popularity hit critical mass with the Chrysler PT Cruiser in the early 2000s. Since then, they've been rechristened crossovers, but their mission remains the same: maximizing interior volume in a minimal space. The Kia Soul has struck a chord with customers, seemingly doing that well while delivering decent fuel economy numbers to boot. Having a bunch of hip-hopping hamsters shilling cars for you on TV doesn't hurt, either.

Getting an extensive refresh for 2012, the Soul comes back for the 2013 model year with the same funk as it's always had, but a little more spunk under the hood. With tall looks, compact dimensions, straightline angles, and a bumping stereo, it's a car that speaks to a lot of different subsets of people, from those who often carpool with their friends to thrift shoppers who don't want a large vehicle but most certainly need the space to haul all of their newly acquired goods from a day of shopping.

The question is: Does the Soul say anything worth listening to?

What We Drove

Keeping with the urban expression theme, the 2013 Kia Soul packs a lot of features any way you get it. But it doesn't include them all under the banners you may be used to hearing as a car shopper. The base model is simply called the Soul, and comes with cloth seats, 15-inch wheels with hubcaps, Bluetooth, a USB input for an MP3 player, keyless entry, and a 60/40 split-folding bench in the back, among a very extensive list of standard features. It costs $15,175, including $775 destination and handling. In the middle is the Soul + ("Soul Plus"). It options up with 16-inch alloy wheels, heated power mirrors, tweeter speakers, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shifter knob in its extensive list.

But we had neither of those. We had a top-range, absolutely loaded to the gills 2013 Kia Soul ! ("Soul Exclaim" because you don't want friends to get the impression you're yelling at them about your car in everyday conversation). In addition to the aforementioned equipment, it came with a navigation system, voice command functions, a backup camera, 18-inch alloy wheels, an Infinity high-end audio system, and a power sunroof. Much of the equipment, including the leather, navigation that replaces Kia's UVO touchscreen, and heated front seats come as part of the $2,500 premium package. While the Soul ! starts at $20,675, a cargo net ($50), rear bumper applique ($75), and auto-dimming mirror with a built-in compass ($275), along with the premium package, bumped the Soul's as-tested price up to $23,575. If that seems like a lot for a small hatchback, it is. But the Soul ! came with features rarely seen in this category of vehicle.

In addition, the Soul ! ditches the base 138-horsepower, 1.6-liter four-cylinder for an upgraded 2.0-liter mill capable of producing 164 horsepower. Paired to a six-speed automatic transmission, it's not a huge amount of power, but it provides more than enough grunt to comfortably move the Soul's added mass around.

A Few Photos of this Vehicle

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The 2013 Kia Soul comes with a long list of standard safety features like four-wheel disc brakes, front seatbelt pretensioners, two LATCH hookup spots in the rear for child seats, front and side-mounted airbags, and side-curtain airbags for both rows. All of that has added up to the 2013 Kia Soul earning a four-star overall crash safety rating and the identical 2012 model earning honors as a 2012 IIHS "Top Safety Pick."

The Commute

Kia has had some time to perfect the Soul for the U.S., and it shows. Where several Kias we've driven have had uncomfortable seats, the Soul's were plush, lounge-like, heated, and covered in leather. You sit upright without ever having to duck or roll to get into it, overlooking the road with excellent visibility. When you're in such an environment, surrounded by things like a satellite radio playing through an Infinity audio system and a fairly large, user-friendly touchscreen navigation system, you realize it's not a bad place to be.

But it's still based on what is ostensibly a $15,000 economy car. With that, it's to be expected that the Kia Soul should sound tinny, buzzy, and rattle a little. It should have door pulls that creak a little when closing the car. It should ride like rickshaw on a Third World dirt road. That would be acceptable for a car of its general size and competitive set, right? Fortunately, none of that occurs.

A Few Photos of this Vehicle

Click thumbnails for detailed view

After driving it, we were in awe of just how quiet the Kia Soul was. When needing some extra gas for getup and go, the engine would roar a little, but it'd quickly settle down again, muted by the gobs of insulation and the car's well-tuned acoustics. While the ride was choppy over less-than-perfect roads, a lot of buyers probably wouldn't care. Still, Kia needs to work on its ride quality across the board.

The interior is covered in hard plastics, but none of them felt like they're going to fall off the car at any given moment. With the Infinity audio system, Kia encircles its door-mounted speakers with color-changing rings that can be set to change with beats of music or rotate through the rainbow. While gimmicky and not particularly apt for a car to be taken seriously, we thought they were the coolest thing since Tupac was resurrected for Coachella. And who drives a funk-box like the Soul to be taken seriously anyway?

The Grocery Run

An inevitable truth: There's a reason why you see a lot of older people driving vehicles like the Kia Soul instead of large sedans. Not only are all the features they'd consider must-haves in luxury cars available in the Soul, but the little Kia is far more practical than its size would suggest. With compact dimensions, a reception hall worth of space, and a backup camera for maneuvering troublesome parking lots, the Kia Soul makes shopping seem almost too easy.

After loading two large paper grocery bags behind its rear seat, the Kia Soul had plenty of space left over. Then, I went and got three more bags from a store down the street. No problem. Then, I put my backpack behind the seat as well. With 19.3 cubic feet of carrying capacity, it made all of that look easy. And that's not even accounting for the entire 53.4-cubic-foot hold it has the seats folded.

The Weekend Fun

While small and narrow, the Kia Soul's upright packaging makes it ideal for hauling around a few friends. Rear leg room is ample, and the car is wide enough for two to fit comfortably, three in a pinch. While the front seats aren't exactly racing buckets, they have a little bit of shape to them to offer some support. By comparison, the rear-seat accommodations are like sitting on a park bench. It's livable, but you realize quickly that only a seatbelt is keeping your face from meeting the lefthand window and then the right one.

A Few Photos of this Vehicle

Click thumbnails for detailed view

On the highway, the Soul's ride continued to be jittery over rough pavement. Its brakes were firm and progressive, though, instilling confidence in emergency slow-downs. Kia's steering certainly points the car in the right direction, but it feels more like driving a video game than a real car. As much as its steering could use a little refinement, at least the steering wheel itself felt rich in-hand. Covered in stitched leather, it felt decidedly high-class in this little car.

When you sit in traffic, it's easy to start playing with the headlights. While there's an automatic setting, looking at the reflection of the Soul's bright bluish white LED running lights that come on the Soul ! make you feel like you're driving something much swankier than it is. From behind the wheel--or even outside the car looking at it--it's tough to not smile. It's tough to go more than a few minutes without rolling down the windows and letting the stereo boom. The Soul just has a way of doing that.

Summary

Kia markets the Soul to two mutually exclusive groups: young adults with lots of cohorts and empty nesters who like to hit up flea markets and want a small, nimble runabout. For some reason or another, both are attracted to the car by dancing anthropomorphic hamsters and hip-hop music. Yeah, kid's got swag. So does granny.

What those commercials perfectly illustrate is that the Kia Soul has carved a niche for itself as one of the best-defined vehicles sold in the U.S. today. It doesn't just stand out, it poplocks and poses a B-Boy stance. It's not for the meek; it's not for those who want to sit in a wash of Toyota Corollas. The Kia Soul perfectly marries utility and style in a vehicle that feels special for the sake of what it is, because it certainly doesn't drive like anything fantastic. But because of the entirety of the package, you simply don't care.

More than anything, Kia has stayed on top of keeping more of a good thing coming, refining the Soul with near-silent operation and a truckload of features often unseen in small hatchbacks. While it can be optioned as a relatively minimalistic box, the Kia Soul doesn't punish drivers who may opt for the most basic models. It still includes power windows and mirrors, as well as standard Bluetooth connectivity, satellite radio, and MP3 player hookups as standard equipment. On the other hand, the loaded-up Soul ! we had brought out the worst of our ADHD with flashing colors, a bumpin' stereo, gorgeous 18-inch snowflake wheels, and buttons on top of buttons.

The Kia Soul is a hit for all the right reasons. It's the perfect size and shape for what it is with enough style to lore in customers and enough equipment and quality to keep them in a Soul. With an all-new version arriving for the 2014 model year, we can only hope Kia will keep more of a good thing coming. And we can only hope that it will receive the amount of fine-tuning the car needs to truly put it into a class of its own.

Spec Box

Price-as-tested: $23,575
Fuel Economy
EPA City: 23
EPA Highway: 28
EPA Combined: 25
Estimated Combined Range: 318 miles
Intellichoice Cost of Ownership: Average

Notebook Quotes "For about $20K, the Kia Soul offers a good measure of utility over traditional subcompact and compact cars. Its playful styling and relatively inexpensive price are worth consideration if you're shopping the segment." -Matt Askari, Associate Editor
"Overall, not a bad car by any means, but nothing really stood out. I'd say it's worth a look. You shouldn't feel ripped off spending $20K on this Kia for once." -Trevor Dorchies, Associate Editor
"I didn't expect much, but I was pleasantly surprised that my low expectations were blown out of the water. It's not exactly pretty, and it's surprisingly thirsty on fuel, but it's a solid, peppy performer that more than just gets by." -Jason Davis, Associate Editor

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