Rounding Out The Market's Best Box

2014 Kia Soul

As a car critic, you can tell a lot about a new car just by looking at a map. That's because more often than not, the geography of where a vehicle is initially launched will tell you a surprising amount about how the automaker feels about its new baby. Manufacturers want their models to be shown in the best light – dynamically and socially – so they put a lot of thought into where they first let members of the media slip behind the wheel. Luxury cars nestle up closely to swank hotels in the globe's trendiest locales, high-performance cars are let loose on breathtaking mountain roads with adjacent racetracks, and so on. It all makes for a tough life, as you can imagine.

So consider it telling that when Kia first launched the Soul way back in 2009, it did so in Miami. Trendy? Check. Billiard-table level, arrow-straight smooth roads? Frequently snarled with traffic? Check and check. You see, good as it was, the original Soul wasn't a particularly thrilling driver. Competent, sure, but its simplistic suspension, modest power and upright dimensions didn't exactly afford it entertaining driving dynamics. Which is exactly why Kia launched it in an environment utterly devoid of potholes and curves (save those conjured by the area's robust plastic surgery community), instead choosing a city loaded down with pedestrians and slow-moving motorists.

So where did Kia choose to launch this new 2014 Soul? San Diego, a city built in and around a network of hundreds of canyons and mesas. Hmmm...

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You're not looking at a Nissan Juke R in hamster's clothing.

Now listen – don't get ahead of yourself. You're not looking at a Nissan Juke R in hamster's clothing – that's not this car's mission. However, Kia is claiming sizable improvements in ride, handling and overall refinement. It may not seem like it at first glance, but this isn't another mid-cycle refresh – after five years on the market, the Soul has very much earned a new platform, and for 2014, it gets one. Based on Kia's so-called K architecture (apparently nobody told the company about Chrysler's long-maligned Plymouth Reliant and Dodge Aries), the Soul doesn't share an architecture with its Forte and Rio siblings so much as it does a toolbox and learnings. In other words, parts are not common, but the method in which they go together are. The Soul's new body-in-white is now 28.7-percent stiffer thanks in part to increased use of high-strength steels.

Size is up slightly, with a wheelbase that's increased by 0.8 inches giving a bit more room in the cabin. Overall dimensions are similar, with length up by 0.8 inches and width up by 0.6 inches. Conversely, overall height is down 0.4 inches, largely because ground clearance has been cut from 6.5 inches to 5.9, giving the Soul a more planted look at the expense of some faux crossover cred. Unfortunately, weight has increased, too, but not by much given the car's increased levels of content and more substantial construction. Officials tell us the 2014 model weighs 93 pounds more in base 1.6-liter spec and just 59 pounds more in the 2.0-liter volume trim. Figure on between 2,700- and 2,900 pounds, depending on specification.

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The Soul has owned this segment thanks to its styling, low cost and those irrepressible whirling rodents.

Visually, the new Soul is a carefully considered evolution of its predecessor, but if you place the two generations side-by-side, the differences become readily apparent, including a gaping new trapezoidal lower fascia with fog lamps punctuating the lower corners (a theme repeated with the reflectors on the rear bumper). It's one of a number of design decisions influenced by Kia's Track'ster concept of 2012. Lighting is also influenced by the three-door show car, with the range-topping Exclaim(!) model receiving LED corner units and halo-effect taillamps, along with available high-intensity discharge headlamps. While the new units doubtlessly provide better illumination, we prefer the look of the older pieces, with their unique recessed turn signals and a wraparound quality that the new fixtures lack. In fact, we'll go ahead and say that the old nose looked more youthful and distinctive, while the new face looks bluffer and more pugnacious. We do like the reworked rear end, particularly its larger rear hatch and the floating body-colored panel it wears like a backpack.

It's hard to blame Kia designers for not breaking out a clean sheet. The Soul has been a massive sales hit, selling some 112,000 units here last year – its best year ever – and Kia's dealers could have sold more units if only the company's Gwangju, Korea plant wasn't running at redline. Besides, it isn't as if rivals in this class have done themselves any favors by undergoing radical transitions from generation to generation. The Scion xB went from cult hero to the dog's breakfast in one fell swoop, and Nissan pulled something similar with its Cube between that model's second and third generations (North America only received the latter). Honda didn't even bother with an encore for its happy little toaster, the Element. Since going on sale in 2009, the Soul has pretty much owned this segment thanks to its distinctive styling, low cost of entry and those irrepressible whirling rodents from the marketing department.

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The interior... is nothing short of a colossal improvement.

If the new Soul's exterior doesn't strike you as a major departure, the interior should – it's nothing short of a colossal improvement. Materials look and feel better, the recontoured dual-density seat foams are now kinder to your backside, and the cabin now has a much more mature feel. That's particularly true of heavily optioned models like our tester, which featured a number of new creature comforts including a panoramic moonroof, heated and cooled leather seats (the driver's is powered), heated steering wheel and an eight-inch touchscreen that marks the first appearance of the company's new Android-based navigation system.

The latter is a nice system with quick reactions and crisp graphics, but annoyingly, it alerts the driver of oncoming bends in the road without seeming rhyme or reason. (The severity of the corner and one's rate of speed doesn't seem to matter, and on winding roads, it seems to pick corners at random, announcing some but ignoring others.) The navigation system doesn't even need to have a route programmed to do this, it just announces an impending apex, generally too late for the driver to do anything about it anyway. Officials assure us this unexpected "feature" will be turned off by the time cars start rolling into showrooms in October.

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Both powerplants have been reworked for more low-end torque.

That snafu aside, the Soul's cabin is more fun and functional than ever before, and it isn't just a raft of new gewgaws that make it a better place to be – it's better to look at, as well. We particularly like the redesigned door panels, along with the combined air vents and speaker grilles that bookend the dashboard like turrets, and the new steering wheel feels better in the hand while offering well-sorted switchgear for cruise control and audio. The new instrument panel is well-grained and soft to the touch, and it's thicker to let in less noise from beyond the firewall – even the carpets are more sound absorbent than before. Nobody's going to confuse the refinement levels with that of a Cadenza, but the interior no longer falls into the "cheap but cheerful" category. And you can stop biting your fingernails – those gloriously ridiculous pulsating speaker light rings have survived intact.

With all the changes that have been exacted on the Soul's platform and interior, it's perhaps a bit surprising that more hasn't been done with the car's moving parts, which are largely carryover. That means the buyer's choice of 1.6-liter and 2.0-liter four-cylinder engines – units introduced during the Soul's 2012 mid-cycle update. In all fairness, these engines are still quite new, and the larger one receives direct-injection for the first time (necessitating a whole new upper, including new heads and a roller-type timing chain), and both powerplants have been reworked for more low-end torque – Kia says it's up by 9 percent on the 1.6 liter and 5 percent on the 2.0 liter. Tuning for torque has altered the output figures a bit, and not all for the better. The smaller engine sees its horsepower drop from 138 to 130, with peak torque slipping from 123 pound-feet to 118. The larger 2.0 liter seen here fares better, generating the same 164 horsepower as last year's model a bit earlier on the tachometer (6,200 rpm instead of 6,500), and torque actually improves from 148 lb-ft at 4,800 rpm to 151 lb-ft at 4,000 rpm.

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A six-speed manual and a conventional automatic with as many speeds carry over, though their gearing has been reevaluated to take advantage of the engines' remapped torque curves. Important note: The larger engine can no longer be ordered with three pedals – just one percent of new models sold last year were 2.0-liter manual transmission models, and Kia couldn't continue to justify the additional cost and build complexity. Despite the ever-present rumors, all-wheel drive remains highly unlikely, as floorpan-level alterations would need to be made (and as we pointed out in a recent news story, there's little incentive for Kia to develop new variants since it can't build enough of the standard car as it is).

A lot of time and money has been expended on the Soul's suspension.

Our advice? Unless you really want a manual, roll with the 2.0. Both powerplants are fine for around-town use (we only had the chance to drive the big'un), but the larger engine isn't much more than adequate on the mountain roads surrounding San Diego or even on meager steady inclines at freeway speeds, which coerces the automatic into hunting occasionally in an effort to extract a bit more motivation. If your drive plans include elevation changes or a heavy right foot, the smaller engine might not be up to the job. Fuel economy estimates are not yet available, but they shouldn't stray much from the 2013's figures, which means they figure to be about 24 miles per gallon in the city and 29 on the highway regardless of displacement, rather unremarkable figures in this day and age.

A lot of time and money has been expended on the Soul's suspension, even though its basic design remains the same – Macpherson struts up front, torsion beam out back, a commonly preferred setup for cost and space efficiency, but less so for outright performance. Jazzing up the compliant bits are costly twin-tube shocks (the rear dampers are now longer and completely vertical), more and larger bushings – including on the front subframe, which went without before – and a relocated front stabilizer bar and steering box to improve braking stability and directional fidelity. Coupled with the stiffer platform, all of these little alterations dial up a major improvement in ride and at least a click or two in handling, as well.

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The new chassis feels like it can happily handle another 50 to 100 HP, and we'd love to see it get it.

Kia officials noted that they intentionally chose a drive route that included portions with road surfaces of dubious quality just to show off the new generation's improvements, and we have to admit, the difference between this car and the old Soul (outgoing models were also on-hand for short loops) is really quite dramatic. The new car feels significantly more planted, and even a bit more eager to turn-in thanks to the architectural changes and a new one-piece steering gear housing. Our loaded tester included Kia's optional adjustable electric power steering system, Flex Steer, which includes Comfort, Normal and Sport modes. We preferred the latter, but in truth the differences could be more sharply defined, with a bit more weight at one end of the spectrum and a bit less on the other. As it is, the system is fine, but it's still light on feel overall, even if it has better on-center manners than it did before. However, regardless of our test car's 18-inch treads, tire roar proved much less intrusive than we've experienced in Souls past, and wind and engine noise are much better managed than before, as well. Overall, the new chassis feels like it can happily handle another 50 to 100 horsepower, and we'd love to see it get it.

Given the departure of the Element as well as the soon-to-be abandoned xB and the no-replacement-in-sight Cube, it would be easy to think that the new Soul is merging onto Easy Street. But the competitive topography is actually as foreboding as it's ever been. There's direct new competition in the form of the 2014 Fiat 500L and the Mini Countryman isn't exactly an elder statesman (even if it is costly). There's also a raft of new space-efficient small car cross-shops on the map, including subcompacts like the next-generation Honda Fit and larger models like the Mazda3. Yet even in the face of this competitive landscape, with its much richer interior and major improvements in ride and handling, we expect this new model to continue to pay big dividends for its parent. Like its predecessor, the 2014 Soul figures to offer a happily familiar shape to Kia's beancounters – that of a cash box.