The 2020 Kia Soul packs a whole lot of fun and a good amount of practicality into its charmingly boxy frame. It’s almost makes you forget the sedan completely.
Not all hamsters drive subcompact SUVs, but when they do, they drive a Kia Soul. Or that’s how Kia’s (crazy?) genius (crazy genius!) marketing campaign debuted the Soul in 2009, as the perfect vehicle for hip-hop loving hamsters. We all aspire to be fashionable, hip-hop loving hamsters, ergo, we will all want to buy a Kia Soul. At least I think that’s how marketing works…. Anyway, in the intervening decade the segment of subcompact SUVs has exploded in popularity, and the Soul has remained at the forefront of that boom.
The newly revamped, 3rd generation 2020 Kia Soul builds on what’s made it beloved among car buyers (and car buying hamsters). Style remains in abundance with 17 factory paint schemes, six seat trim options, and “reactive speaker lights” that pulse with the rhythm of the stereo. A new, stiffer ride and longer wheelbase have improved the driving experience, making the Soul nearly as fun to drive as it is to look at.
Let us pause a moment to comment on the Soul’s styling. Yes, hamsters love it, but, oddly, some humans question the boxy look. I’m not sure why. Just look at the Nissan Cube, the Mercedes-Benz G-Class, or, heck, basically every Land Rover ever made. Clearly, some folks actually like all those straight lines; plus, they translate to a lot of cargo and passenger space, which can be a big attraction in such a small segment. It would seem the Kia Soul is ahead of the curve (har, har) when it comes to fashionably boxy autos.
The specs on the Soul are a tale of two engines (and three transmissions, oh, and an EV version for CA and other limited markets). It’s all less complicated than it sounds, however, as the base engine, a 2.0-liter I-4 comes in all but the top end GT-Line Turbo. At the trim apex the 2.0 gets swapped for a 1.6-liter I-4 turbo and the standard CVT (dubbed an IVT or intelligent variable transmission, owing to its fine-tuned computer-controlled shifting) is dropped in favor of a more traditional 7-speed dual clutch automatic. The base model, which is otherwise sparsely appointed, does get the only manual available in the Soul.
The 2.0-liter puts out 147hp while the 1.6-liter turbo just tops the 200 mark at 201hp. And while the base engine provides enough get-up for most driving situations, the boost of the turbo engine adds more fun to an already fun focused car.
The IVTs seamless shifting allows the middle trims to net the best gas mileage at 27 city/ 33 hwy/ 30 combined. The manual drops a bit to a combined 27 mph and the 7-speed comes in just behind the IVT with 29 combined. Obviously the very best mileage you’ll get in a Soul would be the 201hp, 64kWh EV which gets 127/101 MpGe but is only available in the California market.
A couple of additional notes, the GT-Line Turbo also gets a sport tuned suspension to go with the upgraded engine and the Soul’s slightly expanded wheelbase helped to greatly expand its cargo capacity. Up 25% over last years model to 24 cu. ft. with the rear seats in use and 62 cu. ft. with them folded down. And lastly, we sorely want to see AWD on the Soul. For an otherwise great all-around vehicle, this seems like a glaring oversight by Kia.
The 2.0-liter which pans much of the Soul’s trim line-up is more than adequate, despite being slightly toned down from last years model by a whole 14hp. The Soul’s 147hp is still powerful than the comparable Toyota C-HR (144hp) and well above the base engine of the Ford EcoBoost (123hp). This engine lends enough oomph for stress free passing and around town fun. The CVT, ahem IVT, does a great job of smoothing out ration changes to the point that most drivers won’t notice them at all.
Jumping up to the top trim GT-Line Turbo you’ll find the 201hp 1.6-liter turbo-4 coupled with a 7-speed dual-clutch transmission complete with paddle shifters. The 7-speed sharply contrasts with the smoothness of the IVT. This transmission seems to accentuate the throttle lag typical of turbo’d engines. But, once you’re used to the slight delay in response, the 1.6 offers an enjoyable next level punch to the Soul experience.
Whichever engine/transmission combo you decide on, the Soul ranks up there with standouts like the Mazda CX-3 and Mini Copper Countryman as a genuinely fun drive. The Soul’s spry handling and tight, agile cornering make even those mundane trips around town a less of a chore. It’s nice to see that trading our sedans for subcompact SUV doesn’t necessarily mean a diminishment in driving enjoyment. And probably the best part is, the easy to like drive rounds out the package of the Soul as a “fun” crossover by marrying form with function.
There’s no doubt that the inside of a Kia Soul is a nice place to find yourself. The cabin is spacious fore and aft with lots of head and leg room thanks to the maximizing nature of its boxy design. The general quality of the materials is high, especially considering the non-premium MSRP. The layout and tech features are well thought out and intuitively positioned. But the major attraction for the Soul over its competition is its style. Even without the GT-Line Turbo’s LED interior lighting and stereo responsive lights, the Soul lives up to its name. In the sea of sameness that is the SUV, the Soul retains its distinct personality.
On the road the Soul proves charmingly inoffensive. There are no major jolts from stray potholes or undue shuddering over rumble strips. The Soul’s suspension moves such things to the background, allowing you to focus elsewhere. The ride is a little bit stiffer with the sport-tuned suspension of the GT-Line Turbo, but this balances out well with the improved handling. The upright riding position combines with the verticality of the windshield to provide excellent visibility.
We like the cushioning of the front and rear seats. They are able to pamper your backside through hours of highway driving without producing nary a cramp. In back, the rear seats get a slight recline and are, a surprise in this segment, actually comfortable for three passengers (no joke). And there’s plenty of room behind the driver for passengers even 6+ ft. tall. Overall, it’s that spaciousness that helps the Soul stand out from other subcompact SUVs.
Buckle up, there’s a lot of different options to be had on this Swiss Army knife SUV.
First, there are a number of really attractive standard options to be had on the Soul, which ends up being a great deal for the money. In fact, you can climb all the way to the top of the line and get nearly every major and minor creature comfort of the modern automobile, from infotainment to advance safety features and well below the average of $35,000 for new vehicles. So the question is, what are your must haves? And the nice part is, Kia provides plenty of options so dialing in the exact combination is made easy.
What won’t happen if you buy a Soul? Getting upsold to higher trim levels for what ought to be standard. Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and Bluetooth connectivity come standard with either the 7.0-inch or 10.5-inch touchscreen infotainment systems. Upgrading to the larger screen also gets you navigation, satellite radio, and an extra USB port.
Also standard is the automatic emergency breaking and lane departure mitigation. A step up to the X-Line adds blind spot monitoring to the mix (which we would like to become a basic industry standard alongside the federally mandated back-up camera).
The driver attention package available on the S, GT-Line, EX, and GT-Line Turbo piles on more safety including forward collision avoidance with pedestrian detection and rear cross-traffic collision assist (and avoidance assist). The GT-Line also gets “smart” (read adaptive) cruise control, and the GT-Line, EX, and GT-Line Turbo all add a wireless phone charger.
The only big complaint we had on the Soul’s long list of features was that the Harman Kardon premium stereo and audio responsive lighting (which are even brighter than last year’s model) are only available in the tip-top GT-Line Turbo. With a J.D. Power award for multi-media quality under its belt, the Soul already differentiates itself with its infotainment. Why not ensure all Soul buyers have the option to wow passengers with a unique audio-visual experience?
6-speed manual transmission, interior lighting, Bluetooth connectivity.
Roof rack mounting points, blind-spot collision warning, driver attention warning, forward collision avoidance, lane keep assist.
Wireless phone charger, D-shaped steering wheel, power sunroof, 12-volt outlet.
18-inch alloy wheels, X-Line body kit, X-Line roof rails.
Heater front seats, dual level cargo board, auto temp control, 2-tone roof treatment, LED headlights.
Heated steering wheel, interior LED lighting, smart cruise control, 7-speed dual clutch automatic, sport tuned suspension
Let’s be honest here, the interior, the tech, the driving is all good to great in the Soul, but the real reason to buy one is because it has more character than any other subcompact SUV. An IIHS top safety pick and J.D. Power award for multimedia don’t hurt either. The Soul covers a lot of practical bases for consumers, its roomy, its fuel-economy is in line within the segment, and Kia’s 10 year/100,000 warranty is one of the best in the business. All that pales compared to the fun drive and fresh, unique styling of the Soul.
And it appears Kia knows it’s got a winner on its hands: “Sales have shown that the newly designed Soul is hitting all the right marks with car shoppers,” said Michael Cole, chief operating officer and EVP, Kia Motors America.
With that said, we’d like it if Kia could find it in their hearts to give the Soul AWD, make that high-end stereo (with its responsive lighting) and that manual transmission available on more than just one trim level apiece. But these are nit-picks; the Soul has a lot going for it. So much so, you might stop missing sedans altogether.