Winter can be stern and humorless. Into the frozen fray trundled a visitor from California. I told the 2014 Kia Soul that it was out of place. Then a whole bunch of snow fell. The Soul’s chipper personality replied “no worries, brah.” With only all-season tires, I was worried, though. Without winter tires, any-wheel drive may be inadequate, proper equipment really does matter. The California license plate peeked out as if to say “Let’s crush some dendrites.”
Turns out the Kia Soul is more than just a whimsical set of wheels. See, whimsy is a tricky thing. It’s a subset of humor, and humor requires a deft touch. The joke is funny when it bends. Go too far, though, and it breaks. Nobody laughs when the funny breaks.
The Kia Soul has been a practical personality box since 2009, and it’s all-new for 2014. You might have to look closely to spot the changes, and that’s good. The original Soul was charming and stretched the gags just enough. In contrast, the Scion xB, this segment’s pioneer, had already lost the plot by 2009.
The example of the xB’s second-generation Thorazine shuffle hung ominously over the 2014 Kia Soul. Would Kia mess up its cheeky little hedgehog-inspired dumpling?
If styling permanence works for the Porsche 911, why can’t it work for the Kia Soul? In fact, it works quite well. It’s hard to be unhappy with so much style for so little money. The base Soul will run you $14,900. I was driving the Exclaim trim, and it turns out the price of my totally-loaded Soul was $27,000. At that price, there’s lots of alternatives, but nothing is quite like the Kia Soul.
Like MINI or the Volkswagen Beetle or even the Jeep Wrangler, the 2014 Soul hews tight to the look established by its predecessor. Park them next to each other, though, and the 2014 Soul instantly makes the original look old. The styling of the new Soul is further refined and smoothed out. Kia makes it sound like there’s a bunch of the Track’ster concept in the new car, but it’s mostly just details like the lower fascia, grille and floating body-color panel in the tailgate. The 2014 Soul looks mostly like the 2009 Soul, though it sits on its wider, longer wheelbase with more visual authority. The stoplights are the easiest tell, if you’re a car-spotter.
We are in a new age of “Lower! Longer! Wider!” but the dimensional growth is welcome in the 2014 Soul. The back gate is wider, which leads to a larger cargo area. There’s more legroom for both front and rear seats, more front headroom, a lower hip point and reduced step-in height, adding up to a Soul that’s friendlier and more useful. The 2014 Soul turned out to be surprisingly excellent in the snow, even on the all-season tires the standard 18” alloys it wears, so it’s not useless outside of Cali.
Think of the Soul as the 2000s version of the Honda Civic Wagovan or Nissan Stanza Wagon. It’s usefully boxy, economical, easy to get in and out of and easy to drive. For something on a small 101.2” wheelbase, the 24.2 cubic feet of cargo space behind the rear seat is impressively large. Fold that second row down and there’s 61.3 cubic feet of room.
Being loaded up with features that used to be luxury car stuff probably didn’t hurt my impression, either. I sat on ventilated leather. Everyone had seat heaters, front and rear. Automatic HID projector headlights burrowed through the swirl of the storm, and I was directed by the navigation system. Above my head, a giant panoramic moonroof gave me an underside view of the glacier on the roof, the Infinity audio system was plenty entertaining, though the pulsing Hamster-Nightclub interior lights were doused quickly. The top-spec infotainment system was easy to use, and the rest of the ergonomics in the Soul are good because they don’t try to be cutesy. The dash speakers that look like coasters are a little weird, though.
Even without the list of equipment that’s longer than a Dickens story, the Soul would be a pleaser. The base engine for the Soul is a 1.6 liter DOHC direct-injected four cylinder with a healthy-for-its-size 130 hp and a slightly disappointing 118 lb-ft of torque. It’s probably nice enough, like listening to the neighbor kid’s well-practiced rendition of Sing, Sing, Sing, but the Plus and Exclaim get a 2.0 liter that’s Benny Goodman backed by Gene Krupa, instead. (Hey, you carped about my Led Zeppelin reference…) That’s an exaggeration, but the 2.0 liter has 164 hp, 151 lb-ft, and a high 11.5:1 compression ratio. It’s a snappy little number, for sure.
What kinda harshes the buzz is the fact that the only way to get a six-speed manual is to go with the small engine. The six-speed automatic that’s paired with the 2.0 liter is a pretty decent consolation prize, though. It’s well matched to the engine and shifts well, though it exhibits some of the pulsating wonkiness under hard acceleration that’s an apparent trademark behavior of this Hyundai design.
The Soul is perhaps the most vivid example of Kia’s learning curve. Kias used to look great on paper, with lots of features and equipment for less money than the competition, but you could always count on them being short on integration. In less than a decade, that’s been completely reversed. The 2014 Soul drives like a car designed, assembled, and tuned by people who actually spoke to each other.
The last piece of the puzzle was suspension tuning, and Kia has figured out how to make the seemingly-dowdy combo of MacPherson struts in the front and a torsion-beam rear axle ride with compliance and yet handle with some spirit, too. Other style-boxes can’t pull that off. The xB is hopelessly uninteresting to drive, and the Nissan Cube is as soft as nursing home pudding. It’s like Kia looked at what they had, realized that the first-generation VW GTI managed to do pretty damn well with the same basic parts, and got inspired.
I’d still have preferred to try the Soul in the snow on winter tires, but on its 18” alloys and surprisingly wide 235/45 Kumho Nexens it cut through like a champ. I’m also a little surprised that there’s not an all-wheel drive version of the Soul, because I think it would sell like moonshine in a dry county. I’d have an alternative to the Subaru Forester to recommend to people, and that’s something I dearly desire. On the other hand, there’s a new Soul EV, which I can’t wait to get my hands on.
The Soul is aptly named. It’s a boxy little car with a bunch of personality. In this time of bland-but-pretty, rare is the car that both stands out for its styling and delivers some fun for everyone at a price normal people can swing. Get down with your bad self, Kia.