Front Runner Improves On All Fronts
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.
New Car Test Drive
New engine makes compact wagon quicker yet more economical.
The 2012 Kia Soul boasts new engines and fresh styling. The Soul is an inexpensive box-shaped runabout aimed ay Gen Y but perfectly suitable for anyone young at heart. Youthful styling ranks high with these buyers, but so do fuel economy, daily practicality, useful standard features like Bluetooth, and good warranty protection.
Lest the Soul doesn't stand out enough for you Kia offers plenty of personalization, with many accessories and ways to attach your identity to your Soul. Their goal with the Soul is to stand out in a sea of sameness, though the basic shape goes some way to that end.
Kia makes no pretenses about what the Soul is: a car. It's not a compact utility, aka cute-ute, SUV, crossover or van. The mechanical basis of the Soul is similar to a small sedan, and no all-wheel or four-wheel drive is offered.
For 2012, the styling has been freshened.
The big news for the 2012 Kia Soul, however, is under the hood. Two new engines are the same size as their predecessors but deliver more horsepower: 138 hp for the 1.6-liter (up from 122) and 164 hp for the 2.0-liter (up from 142). New transmissions help improve mileage by 1-4 mpg whether automatic or manual, to 27/35 mpg for the 1.6-liter and 26/34 mpg for the 2.0-liter.
Pricing for the Soul has increased because of the new engines and transmissions and we think the upgrades worth it. The base Soul uses the 1.6-liter engine with manual transmission; an automatic adds $1,800 because other equipment is included. The 1.6 is a viable alternative, offering the power of last year's 2.0-liter, but a Soul with the 2.0-liter manual is just $600 more than the base Soul automatic, and many buyers will find the slight mpg and cost penalties well worth it.
We found the Soul felt nimble and light, fun to drive. The lines are smooth and stylish, for a box, and the interior is notably clean and functional. Standard equipment includes six airbags, ABS, and electronic stability control to help keep you safe. The Sport model has been dropped for 2012 but this leaves no hole in the lineup.
The 2012 Kia Soul comes in three models: Soul, Soul+ (pronounced Soul plus), and Soul! (Soul exclaim).
The Soul ($13,900) uses a 138-horsepower 1.6-liter engine and comes with air conditioning, power windows and door locks, 15-inch steel wheels, black trim, body-color door handles and mirrors, AM/FM/XM/CD/MP3 stereo, USB and auxiliary inputs, Bluetooth with steering-wheel controls, 6-way manual drivers seat, tilt/telescoping steering wheel, 60/40 split folding rear seat, remote keyless entry, and variable intermittent wipers. The base Soul comes with a 6-speed manual transmission, but it's available with a 6-speed automatic ($15,700).
Options include alloy wheels and an ECO package that includes idle-stop-and-go start-stop system, power mirrors, alloy wheels, luggage under-floor tray, illuminated visor mirrors with extensions, and low rolling resistance tires. Accessories include illuminated sill plates, cabin lighting, auto-dimming mirror, floor mats, cargo net and rear spoiler.
The Soul+ ($16,300) uses the 2.0-liter engine and adds 16-inch alloy wheels, stereo tweeters, leather-wrapped steering wheel, Soul logo inserts on upholstery, and metal-finish trim. The 6-speed manual is standard, but it's available with the 6-speed automatic ($17,300). Options available only on automatic versions include a moonroof and fog lights ($800), 350-watt Infinity/UVO by Microsoft entertainment system with rear camera and HD radio, and an ECO package (start-stop ISG system, special tires).
The Soul! ($19,600) is 2-liter and 6-speed automatic only, and adds 18-inch alloy wheels, body-color trim, LED running lights, projector headlights, sand and black interior with houndstooth upholstery inserts, standard UVO, and so on. The primary option is a premium package ($2,500) with navigation, XM traffic, leather seat trim, heated front seats, climate control, and push-button start/Smart Key.
Safety equipment on all models includes six airbags, active front headrests, LATCH seating system, electronic stability control, antilock brakes, and a tire pressure monitor.
The Kia Soul looks like it's wearing a pair of wraparound sunglasses. Because the rear windows are narrower than the front windows, there appears to be a downward rearward slope to the roof, but it's an illusion achieved by the rising beltline below the windows. There's a final and small third side window, an upside-down wedge to complete the shape.
Bold chiseled wheel arches give the Soul strength. The corners are nicely rounded, erasing the hard corners of a box. The grille is small and tidy, the Soul's mouth no bigger than needed to suck in air for the engine, and the new bumper look is called tusk in-house. The front lighting elements are new and remain stylish, even moreso on the Soul! model that includes LED running lamps and projector headlamps.
A black horizontal ding strip on the doors doesn't do much for cleanliness, but adds to the strong straight-line styling and it serves a function. The 16- and 18-inch alloy wheels are larger than often available in this size and class of car.
Big vertical taillamps climb the rear pillars and project a feeling of safety. With the wraparound look for 2012 it's easy to draw a relation between the lights and the ears of a hamster like those in Soul commercials. The liftgate and rear window are clean and smooth (and darkly cool when tinted), with an indented handle under a Kia oval logo and a stylish chrome Soul badge off to the side. All get the tusk bumper design, and the Soul! model has LED taillamps.
Everything inside the Soul is simple, clean and functional, a handsome and ergonomic layout. The cloth is solid, more than basic but never an assault on your senses. Closer to the edge is the black-and-beige houndstooth-like upholstery on the seat inserts of the Soul!
There is one trick option that's a hit with young drivers and drivers-to-be: the throbbing-to-the-beat rim of colored lights around the speakers in the door. It seems a little out of place when listening to talk radio, however. This light can be turned on and off and you can program the way it reacts to sound. It's amusing in traffic jams.
The front bucket seats are comfortable, good for long trips, and the interior vinyl and cloth trim is fine. There are bottle holders in the front door pockets plus cupholders in the console with its own deep compartment, a huge two-level glovebox, map nets on the front seatbacks, a trap-door compartment on the dash (that's molded so things don't slide around), and grab handles over every door. There are auxiliary audio, iPod, and USB port connections, and two 12-volt outlets.
It has a nice steering wheel, with the usual standard controls the same colors as most cell phones. The three-ring instrument panel looks clean and uses an eave so the gauges are readable in the sun. The new center stack is modest with business-like knobs and buttons, changed primarily to accommodate the revised shifter and UVO/Microsoft entertainment system that includes a rear camera. Air conditioning proved very effective.
The front seats offer plenty of room, including a full hand space over the head of six-plus-footers. In the rear seat legroom is the pinch point but it'll be fine for kids or four friends of average height.
The liftgate is light and pops up easily. The 60/40 rear seats drop flat in a heartbeat. There's an excellent compartment under the trunk floor, and below that a space-saver spare tire. Figure 19 cubic feet of space behind the seat, about four under the floor, and 53 cubic feet with the back seat folded.
The Soul is nimble and fun to drive. We drove Souls with the 2.0-liter engine and 6-speed automatics primarily. We didn't get any seat time in the base model with the 1.6-liter engine but given that it's almost as powerful as last year's 2-liter, the car is no heavier, and the transmissions now have more gears, fewer people should feel the need to step up to the + or ! for mechanical reasons.
Both engines get direct injection for 2012, adding high-end power without using any more fuel most of the time. The 2.0-liter engine makes 164 horsepower at 6500 rpm with a good 148 pound feet of torque peaking at a fairly high 4800 rpm. This is more than adequate in a 2,700-pound car and the Soul can keep up with traffic easily; many V8-powered full-size SUVs aren't demonstrably quicker. It does require a serious prod with your right foot to force a downshift for passing or merging, but does so quickly and upshifts in steps as appropriate.
The automatic's shifter has up/down manual control to the left of the D position, handy for long descents or constant elevation changes. We found nothing to suggest the six-speed manual shifter and clutch aren't at least as good as the outgoing five-speed; choosing the automatic over it would most likely be due to packaging and option limitations with the manual.
Following the 2012's debut Kia plans to offer an option on automatics of ISG. This stands for idle stop and go in which the car automatically turns the engine off at stops and restarts it when you lift your foot off the brake to prepare to move again. We sampled this in 1.6-liter Kia Rio models and found it works as advertised, the first time it functioned my driver didn't even notice. It also nets a 1 mpg increase in city EPA ratings; if you spend a lot of time sitting in traffic you may realize greater gains.
Either engine has sufficient power to have traction control reign in tire spin in exuberant driving or sharp turn starts on wet surfaces. No all-wheel drive system is offered nor is it needed. With the majority of its weight over the drive wheels and a lightweight package, a set of winter tires will get you through the neighborhood better than many heavy four-wheel drives.
The power steering is hydraulic rather than electric, and has a nice light but not vague feel. It makes the whole car feel lighter, and it responds to driver input well. Don't expect it to feel like a sports car, but then it's not intended to.
The suspension is good, compliant, okay over speed bumps, and not once did we hit anything that produced any jarring or bashing impacts. It's not sophisticated and will transmit some bumps on rough roads, but you won't find anything noticeably better for $13,000, nor will you upset your passengers. Brakes are all-disc on all models and we found them firm and solid in the wet or dry.
The Kia Soul offers drive-it-and-forget it simplicity (and warranty), four-door upright hatchback versatility, it's easy on gas and the wallet, and its styling still has personality five years on. It will appeal to many ages for the same, and different reasons. It is easy to drive and great fun in urban settings because of its nimble size, driver position and view, and responses. If it has any vices we have been unable to find them.
Reporting for NewCarTestDrive.com by Sam Moses in Miami and G.R. Whale in South Korea.
Kia Soul ($13,900); Soul+ ($16,300); Soul! ($19,600).
Gwangiu, South Korea.
Options As Tested
carpeted floor mats ($95).
Kia Soul! ($19,600).
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