2014 Kia Soul First Drive

Building a better box

What It Is
Kia's second-generation, segment-busting, and best-selling box car.
Best Thing
The interior's attention to detail makes it among the most inviting places to be for the money.
Worst Thing
Steering feel needs work, stiff suspension with 18-inch wheels.
Snap Judgment
Kia didn't mess with success; it just made it better in every way.


Automakers gamble in ways that make Pete Rose look like an amateur. Instead of playing fantasy football or spending a few days in Vegas, when it comes time to produce a clean-sheet car, automakers conduct a little market research, call up some consulting firms, find a design, tweak it, and spend a couple billion dollars to create a car that they hope will sell. Hope will sell.

So when Kia, a brand that had nothing but anonymous, inoffensive designs in the 1990s and 2000s, decided to break out of the doldrums of blandness and take a risk, what did it do? It put its eggs in the basket of a car with a design inspired by a rhinoceros with a backpack. Really. That's how the 2009 Kia Soul came to be. But it worked, selling more than 100,000 units annually since then.

Now, after some six years of regular improvements, the 2014 Kia Soul is the first ground-up redesign since the little funky box car debuted. Where so many of its competitors have fallen by the wayside--the Honda Element, Nissan Cube, and Scion xB to name a few--and others have supplanted them, the Soul's dominance of the box-car segment has continued to grow.

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To check it out, Kia invited us to drive the new Soul in Minneapolis, a town it says is revitalized with youth, art, life, and vitality. They say the car is quite the match. Not the typical ocean-side paradise with perfect roads we're used to seeing in the automaker scrum, it made us think that maybe Kia was truly trying to think outside the box.

Walkaround

There has been a resounding "Is it really that different?" heard throughout the auto journalist community since the 2014 Kia Soul made its long-awaited introduction at the past spring's New York Auto Show. And honestly, it's not. It borrows some cues from the 2012 Kia Track'ster concept car, but the company that found it hip to be square has changed precious few details--on the surface, at least.

The 2014 Kia Soul is about an inch longer, with most of that between the front and rear wheels. That growth has gone towards making the front passenger space more accommodating. The Kia Soul is also fractionally wider, adding two cubic feet of cargo room to the back--18.8 cubic feet overall. That'll make your flea market-browsing mom feel all the better about looking at one.

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Kia calls the box shape with a wedged side window line "iconic." We're not sure it is. We'll certainly say it's iconic for Kia--as much so as those hamsters used to market it--but when we think of iconic shapes, we think of the Porsche 911 or Volkswagen Beetle. The Kia Soul is simply distinctive, as it should be, standing out in a sea of cars that oftentimes look too much the same. You're never going to lose track of a Soul in a parking lot, unless that parking lot is full of other Souls...which will be cause for some Soul-searching. It's largely the same size as old car because Kia saw how big a flub the second-generation Scion xB was versus the smaller model that preceded it, and didn't want to make the same mistake. Conservative for a redesign as it may be, it's a safe bet and still as trendy as ever, likely to keep loyalists coming back. It may not be iconic in the traditional sense, but it'll surely get there if Kia keeps making it look sharper and more handsome with each iteration as it has with this one.

Sitting Down

If you don't think the exterior was enough of a change, you won't be disappointed with the inside of the Soul, which perhaps is the soul of the Soul. We sampled a top-level Kia Soul ! (Exclaim) with every option box checked, including a panoramic sunroof, leather seats with heating and cooling elements for both front passengers, a sizable UVO infotainment/navigation screen with Kia's first application of an Android operating system instead of Windows, and an Infinity audio system with rings around the speakers that change color.

But more than any of that, we noticed the surprisingly high-quality materials and superb fit and finish throughout, with even more basic versions that we'd later check out even feeling like they were a step above our expectations given their price points. A striking design, the 2014 Soul's interior is marginally bigger than that of the model it replaces, but so much more life has been packed into it. Take its front tweeter speakers, for instance, which are mushroom-shaped and protrude from the dashboard, mimicking the aesthetic that sound system extraordinaire Bang & Olufsen has made popular in cars like the BMW 7 Series and Audi A8.

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Lest we forget that Kia has taken it upon itself to dramatically improve its interior accommodations of late. Most notable, at least in the eyes of Kia's folks, is the new three-spoke steering wheel. Kia representatives said during our time with the Soul that since you touch the wheel more than anything else in the car, it ought to have the utmost importance placed on it. To us, at least, the attention to detail certainly goes noticed and appreciated, as it's ergonomic, high-quality, and its buttons are all easy to identify and use while in motion. It's cathartic to use in an affordable car; chicken soup for the Kia Soul.

Driving

With a far stiffer structure than the outgoing model, the 2014 Kia Soul is better able to isolate noise and vibrations caused by ruts in the road and make passengers feel as though they're not bobbing back and forth over every little bump. We noted in our Road Test of the 2013 Kia Soul some months back that its ride was its biggest pitfall, feeling lost all over the pavement with choppy, uncontrolled motions. Happily, we can report back that it's been fixed for the new model year.

With the 18-inch wheels provided on our Soul !, we did notice that the Soul rode especially stiffly compared to many other urban crossovers, but its struts were able to dial out much of the harshness associated with stiffer springs and small tire sidewalls. We were told that for the best ride/handling tradeoff the Soul's sweet spot was the midgrade Soul + (Plus) because of its tires' wider sidewall and 17-inch wheels. Alas, we didn't have time to get one on the road to see for ourselves.

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Likewise, the only engine we were able to test was the 164-horsepower, 2.0-liter four-cylinder that comes in higher-spec models. Tasked with shuttling right around 3,000 pounds, the engine and its six-speed automatic transmission certainly won't set the world alight with lithe performance. On the contrary, we found that the engine buzzed at higher rpm more than we'd like, but none of the vibrations ever reached the cabin. Overall, the engine did a commendable job, delivering 27.2 mpg on our drive route, splitting right above the Soul's 26 mpg combined fuel economy rating. While hardly awe-inspiring, the engine and transmission work better than most competitors to deliver smooth, constant power than some smaller, turbocharged engines and dual-clutch transmissions can't yet match.

If there were some criticism to be found, it would be with steering tuning. We doubt most Soul owners will ever notice, but it could use more progressive weighting when the wheel is turned, which would provide a more enjoyable experience on twisty roads. But we expect the Soul to mostly an urban commuter, and with that in mind, the steering should do just fine for just about anyone out there. And once again, it's far superior to the outgoing model's.

Summary

Before driving the 2014 model, the Kia Soul was my favorite vehicle in Kia's lineup because it didn't take itself too seriously. It was an expressive, fun, utilitarian thing that could speak to its owner's style more than any Camry ever could. After driving the 2014 Kia Soul, I have to say that it still is. Only, it's better.

Checking out a basic Kia Soul with an automatic transmission that cost around $17,500--note that the 2014 Kia Soul starts at $15,500, including destination and handling, a $300 premium from 2013--after I was done with my drive, I couldn't help but think that it would be on a very short list of vehicles I'd look at for that kind of money, complete with cloth seats with crosshatched contrasting colors. And for people who enjoy the Soul's personality but want a far grander atmosphere, the Soul + and ! deliver an unquestionably premium experience for a price that's in the ballpark of lightly optioned Mini Countryman and Fiat 500L models, retaining all the charm. Kia's done simply playing the "cheap and cheerful" game, but it's nice to know such an option still exists.

Then again, the 2014 Kia Soul doesn't need to play that game anymore. Kia's vehicles get better and better with each successive new model, and this one is no different. Given how much better the Kia Soul is now after having sold 115,000 of them last year, we don't think Kia will have much of a problem continuing to out-box the other boxes in the segment with its own brand of quality, spunk, and, yes, soul.

Basic Specs

2.0-liter inline 4-cylinder, 6-speed automatic transmission, front-wheel drive, 164-hp, $26,195, 23 mpg city/31 mpg hwy

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