BBC Autos

Review

Kia Soul knows its role

HIDE CAPTION

On the original Star Trek TV show, a character might undergo dastardly possession with little more than a goatee to distinguish him from his pleasant, retiring normal self.

Maybe the 2014 Kia Soul needs a goatee.

The car wears all-new sheetmetal, but the casual observer would be hard-pressed to identify the styling changes. But on the inside, the Soul is completely different. And better.

Yes, the new car is longer, lower and wider than the outgoing model, but only fractionally so, as Kia sought to avoid derailing enthusiasm for its little car the way Scion did with its xB, which went from endearingly boxy to something more bulbous and crude. Consumers stayed away in droves.

With that and other cautionary tales in mind, designers in Kia’s southern California studios tread very lightly when tweaking the Soul’s boxy styling, just giving it slightly fresher, sportier proportions while adding current-tech updates like LED lighting.

Why build an all-new car that endeavours to hide its newness? In sum, the Soul has been a runaway success, and its 115,000 sales in the US in 2012 were its highest yet, showing that interest in Kia’s cube is only accelerating.

Interest in competitor Nissan’s actual Cube, meanwhile, never took hold. The xB was styled into irrelevance. The new Fiat 500L and Mini Countryman could compete, but they cost more.

But here’s the thing about the Soul: nobody really knows why it became such a bright spot in the Kia portfolio. The company admits it forecasted sales of only 40,000 a year, and looking at competitors’ performances, that prediction appeared rosy.

Soul simply struck a chord in a way other boxy cars didn’t. It was aided by a low price and a silly North American advertising campaign that went viral featuring animated hamsters, but on balance, the Soul was not terribly different from the competitors it trounced.

Most beguilingly, the outgoing Soul wasn’t a very good car. Mushy handling and lifeless steering made it a distinctly unengaging driver, while the cabin was plagued with hard, cheap-looking plastics.

Improvements for 2014 started at the very foundation, with a body shell packed with high-strength steel to make it 28% stiffer than that on the outgoing model. The rigid platform lets engineers tune the suspension with better accuracy, because the springs and dampers do the work, rather than the structure, which would otherwise twist and torque in response to bumps.

Where the steering was once devoid of feel or feedback, the Soul now gives its driver an unambiguous picture of what’s happening at the contact patch. It doesn’t hurt that on most models other than the base car, a heated, leather-wrapped steering wheel can be specified to convey that road feel.

All 2014 Souls enjoy a smartly revised interior with details such as a one-piece soft foam dashboard pad that Kia executives acknowledge is “very expensive”. It looks it, and the car isn’t, so buyers should appreciate this and the rest of the cabin. Where fuzzy cardboard is the norm among subcompacts, the soft fabric headliner is another unexpectedly upscale touch.

The dashboard speakers perch on the side air vents like tops of Doric columns. The regular brushed nickel bezels are not as distinctive as the optional light-up disco strobe speaker surrounds, but the Soul’s standard door speaker grilles do look better than the moulded-in grilles of a $50,000 Lexus IS350 sedan.

Under the hood, the base 130-horsepower 1.6-litre and optional 164hp 2-litre four-cylinder engines have been retuned to deliver more torque at around-town speeds rather than foolishly chasing peak horsepower numbers that make the specifications look good but leave the car with no grunt pulling away from a stop sign. That objective is amply met by the 2-litre, but the 1.6 feels overmatched by the Soul’s 2,700lb bulk and its aero-unfriendly angularity. Even revving the engine for a clutch-popping, tire-chirping launch makes the engine quickly bog down.

One area where both specs and driving feel are improved: six forward gears in the transmission, rather than the retrograde four speeds once common of this segment (only Toyota has the chutzpah to still charge money for a new car with a four-speed automatic transmission). The automatic is available with both engines, while the six-speed manual is only available with the 1.6-litre engine.

Despite the extra forward ratios, which allow the engines to spin more efficiently, fuel economy does not show great gains over the 2013 model, with the 2-litre coming in at 23mpg in city and 31mpg in highway driving. When performance-oriented compacts like the Volkswagen GTI return the same numbers, there is obviously room for improvement.

Kia expects most buyers in the US to gravitate towards what it terms a mid-range level of equipment, a car whose bottom line is $24,000. That middle way includes a leather-wrapped steering wheel, a lovely panoramic sunroof, leather seats, 350-watt Infinity sound system and a sprawling touch-screen GPS/infotainment system. 

Better still, a lightly optioned car – which can ring in as low as $17,000 – wears good fabric on its seats and brings decent six-speaker stereo that an owner could always upgrade. The base car does have steel wheels with plastic hubcaps, a setup that would not fly with a lot of customers in the target demographic. Normally this would not be a sacrifice on a compact starter car, but Kia designs some of the best-looking aluminium wheels in the business. Seriously. The flush, zero-flange wheel faces make the units appear larger than they are, and the company’s stylists devise dynamic shapes that would suit far more expensive vehicles. Credit here where credit is due.

That lacklustre fuel economy may be the Soul’s shortcoming, but it is hardly its undoing. Consider the car’s personality transplant – lack of goatee notwithstanding – a success.