The Kia Soul certainly didn't need a refresh. With more than 10,000 units flying out of showrooms each month and a growing list of awards and accolades under its belt, the Korean automaker's boxiest compact is a success story regardless of the angle.
Yet, after just two model years, Kia has invested significantly in its little four-door. Emerging at the 2011 New York Auto Show earlier this year was this considerably updated 2012 Soul sporting a freshened look, innovative new technology and two new powertrains.
These aren't maneuvers from an automaker scrambling to play catch-up. Rather, these are the actions of a company not satisfied with being merely competitive in this important youthful segment. Kia doesn't want to play. Kia wants to win.
Last week, we crossed the expansive Pacific Ocean to get an early drive of the vehicle that promises to leave many Scion xB, Nissan Cube and Honda Fit engineers flustered - scratching their scalps - wondering how to close the gap.
Last year, Kia offered four different Soul models: Base, +, ! and Sport (to simplify, we will call them – as Kia also does – Base, Plus, Exclaim and Sport). The Sport model, with its more firmly tuned suspension and unique cosmetic touches, has been dropped for 2012. No worries, as the remaining three models roll into showrooms this fall with a host of improvements that will have you forgetting this discontinued sibling.
The exterior of the updated 2012 model sports a completely redesigned front and rear fascia with a lot more character. The nose has been brightened with new multi-reflector headlights on the Base and Plus models, and projector beam headlights with LED running lamps on the Exclaim model. There are also larger and more prominent fog lamps on the lower front bumper of both. At the rear, the lower position lights have been pushed outward and LED taillights are fitted to the Exclaim model. Outside mirrors have been redesigned, with integrated turn signals on the Exclaim. There are new 16- and 18-inch alloy wheel designs (and new covers for the steel wheels on the base model). Lastly, the tires on the range-topping Exclaim have grown slightly in width from 225/45R18 to 235/45R18.
The interior features a new gauge cluster, a redesigned center stack and a new transmission console. The materials and upholstery have been upgraded and there are no fewer than 14 different storage areas. There are standard USB and AUX input jacks on the center console offering full iPod controllability through the standard audio head unit. Audiophiles on a budget will appreciate the standard Infinity audio system with 350 watts on the Soul Acclaim (optional on the Soul Plus). With an external amplifier, it blows through seven speakers including a subwoofer. A rainbow of colored lights accent some of the speakers, beating to the music or just creating mood illumination.
Interior and exterior improvements aside, the biggest news for the 2012 Kia Soul is purely mechanical. As was the case last year, the Soul will be again offered with two different inline four-cylinder engines and a choice between manual and automatic transmissions. However, both engines - and both transmissions - have been replaced with newer, more powerful and more fuel efficient units.
Replacing the outgoing 1.6-liter engine (rated at 122 horsepower and 115 pound-feet of torque) in the Base model is a new gasoline direct-injected (GDI) 1.6-liter rated at 138 horsepower and 123 pound-feet of torque. Last year, that engine was only offered with a five-speed manual transmission. This year, Kia is offering consumers a choice between a new six-speed manual and a new six-speed automatic transmission. Replacing the outgoing 2.0-liter "Beta" engine (rated at 142 horsepower/137 pound-feet of torque) in the Plus and Exclaim models is a new 2.0-liter "Nu" engine rated at 164 horsepower and 148 pound-feet of torque. Mirroring the gearboxes choices for the smaller powerplant, the engine is offered with two six-speed transmissions.
The horsepower is a welcome addition and makes the Soul the most powerful in its segment when compared to the Scion xB (158 horsepower), Honda Fit (117 horsepower), Nissan Cube (122 horsepower) and Scion xD (128 horsepower). Modern six-speed gearboxes are also a rarity among its peers, many of which still only offer five-speed manuals and four-speed automatics. In addition to improving acceleration and drivability, the transmissions are more efficient than their predecessors. According to Kia, and regardless of transmission choice, the 1.6-liter will deliver 27 mpg city and 35 mpg highway while the 2.0-liter is good for 26 mpg city and 34 mpg highway - both engines burn regular unleaded fuel. Later this year, the automaker will offer an Eco Package, with Idle, Stop & Go (ISG), which is Kia's nomenclature for start-stop technology, along with low-rolling-resistance tires. The package promises a three percent improvement in the EPA's city cycle.
Driving from a golf resort on the East Sea on Korea's east coast back to Seoul gave us plenty of time behind the wheel of the refreshed four-door. Our route to the country's capital started with open highways and ended in stifling city traffic (with a population of nearly 25 million, this metropolitan area is the world's second largest). While the traffic was bearable, and expected, the new glass-smooth toll highway cutting through countless mountains was a pleasant surprise. Koreans have mastered the art of the tunnel, as was evident as we zoomed through dozens of well-illuminated concrete tubes on our route westward. Unfortunately, the quickest way through a mountain is in a straight line so the only glaring omission on our test route was... um, corners.
Our six-foot, two-inch frame fit comfortably within the Soul Plus 6 A/T model (2.0-liter) with plenty of headroom to spare. The seats lack significant side bolsters and adjustable lumbar support, yet they recline, slide and are height-adjustable to fit most everyone. Outward visibly is good, and the new gauges and switchgear layout is logical. A telescoping steering wheel is also standard. Second-row passengers have plenty of legroom and good outward visibility. As is the case with the front seats, second-row seat cushions also lack hip-holding bolsters, but that design allows their 60:40 split to fold nearly flat to accommodate oversized cargo without drama. The seats fold quickly, too, by lifting a release easily accessible from the second row or the rear hatch.
The Soul is a competent mile crusher. Traveling mostly in caravan (we don't speak Korean, so it was for our own good) we kept the speedometer in the 60 mph range most of the time, and the ride was amazingly quiet thanks to Kia's focus on reducing noise, vibration and harshness (NVH). Hood insulation is now standard and there is a thicker dash insulation panel. Furthermore, the Soul is fitted with a new A-pillar noise absorbing pad, new exhaust silencers, vibration dampers, and vinyl sealing on the door trim. Soul Plus and Exclaim models also receive an added sub-frame dynamic damper to further reduce unwanted drone from the engine and tires. We have driven countless sport sedans at triple the cost that roar louder than this sub-$20,000 compact.
Acceleration is decent from a standstill, but still unimpressive on the highway when gearing and aerodynamic drag is working against it – despite the power increase. The six-speed automatic capably keeps the engine in its power band and it climbs grades without wheezing, but there isn't much on tap in the reserve bucket. Of course, the competition is every bit as lethargic, yet unable to deliver the same impressive efficiency. According to Kia, the Soul is geared to provide quickness around town while maximizing fuel economy during highway cruising. Given that approach, we feel they accomplished both of their mission objectives.
With a base curb weight of just 2,615 pounds (the heaviest Soul, the Exclaim with the automatic transmission, tips the scales at only 2,778 pounds) and a well-sorted MacPherson strut front and rear coupled torsion beam suspension, the four-door is agile but not sporty. It shoots lane-to-lane without drama, but it isn't tuned to hang with anything more competent than a Volkswagen GTI above 20 mph. The electric power steering is new for 2012 and its lack of accessory drag contributes to the improved fuel efficiency. The steering, in both feel and weight, is light but not overly boosted. Again, this is an economy car and not a track star.
The standard four-wheel disc brakes (a feature not found on most of the Soul's competitors) assure surefooted stops without drama. Anti-lock brakes and Vehicle Stability Management (VSM) are now standard - and mandated by the U.S. Government - but Hill-start Assist Control (HAC), which prevents the vehicle from rolling backwards on an incline, is a welcomed standard bonus across the model range. The spare tire has been dropped in favor of Tire Mobility Kit (TMK), a move that saves weight and lowers cost, but it still raises our eyebrows each time we come across it. On the bright side, there is now a handy storage compartment in its void.
There was a time, not too long ago, when 60 minutes in a subcompact would leave passengers with ringing ears and stiff joints. The refined Soul counters this preconception with not only a comfortable ride, but a well-appointed cabin chock full of infotainment. The goodies include the aforementioned Infiniti audio system and an UVO (powered by Microsoft) entertainment and communications center. In addition, Kia also now offers a navigation system with Sirius XM Traffic and a generous seven-inch touchscreen. It all adds up, and after spending three hours in the Soul, you will emerge no worse for wear and likely whistling your favorite tunes. We did.
Last year's Kia Soul was liked by most, but often criticized for its ride quality and cabin noise. Kia has listened. The significantly-updated 2012 model delivers the ride and NVH improvements that its predecessor was lacking plus a thoroughly revised powertrain enhancing both drivability and fuel economy. Add in the standard 10 year/100,000-mile warranty, a Top Safety Pick rating from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and enough electrical innovation to keep even the most tech-savvy consumer interested and the Soul shouldn't just be a contender in this boxy compact segment... it should be considered one of the top finalists.