2013 Kia Soul Expert Review:Autoblog
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
Fashion and practicality.
The Kia Soul is an inexpensive runabout with youthful styling, good fuel economy and utilitarian design and features. The goal with Soul is to stand out in a sea of sameness. In spite of its shape, the Kia Soul is a car. It is not an SUV. The mechanical design of the Soul is similar to that of a small sedan. All models are front-wheel drive; no all-wheel drive is offered.
2013 Kia Soul models are distinguished from last year's models by new color and trim choices and some minor content changes. The Kia Soul debuted as a 2010 model. 2012 models brought new engines and freshened styling.
Two engines are offered. A 1.6-liter four-cylinder comes standard, rated 138 horsepower and available with a choice of 6-speed manual or 6-speed automatic. EPA-estimated fuel economy is 25/30 mpg City/Highway for either transmission, so the choice should come down to how much you enjoy stirring gears. However, cruise control and a multi-adjustable driver's seat only come on the automatics.
A 2.0-liter four-cylinder rated at 164 horsepower comes with Soul+ and Soul! models. It's available with the 6-speed manual or 6-speed automatic, but this time the manual enjoys a slight fuel economy advantage, at 24/29 mpg vs. 23/28 mpg for the automatic. That's unless you order the Eco package, which uses low-rolling-resistance tires and an extended-idle shut-off (called Idle Stop and Go, or ISG) to bump the automatic's EPA ratings back up equal to the manual's.
We think the standard 1.6-liter engine is a viable choice, offering plenty of power and the best fuel economy. The upgrade 2.0-liter engine delivers a bit more power, however, particularly important for the automatic, costs just slightly more and nearly matches the smaller engine in fuel economy.
Overall, we found the Soul felt nimble and light, fun to drive. It rides like the other economy cars in its class. And it's cute, with smooth and stylish lines, for a box, that is, and the interior is notably clean and functional.
Standard equipment includes six airbags, ABS, and electronic stability control to help keep you safe. Kia offers accessories to personalize your Soul and establish your own identity. How many car makers can offer that?.
The 2013 Kia Soul comes in three models: Soul, Soul+ (pronounced Soul plus), and Soul! (Soul exclaim).
Kia Soul ($14,400) comes standard with air conditioning, power windows and door locks, black exterior trim, AM/FM/SiriusXM/CD/MP3 stereo, USB and auxiliary inputs, tilt/telescoping steering wheel with Bluetooth and audio controls, 60/40 split folding rear seat, variable intermittent wipers, 15-inch alloy wheels. Soul comes standard with the 1.6-liter engine. Opting for Soul with 6-speed automatic ($16,200) adds cruise control, rear privacy glass, power mirrors, remote keyless entry and a six-way adjustable driver's seat. Factory options for the base Soul are limited to 16-inch alloy wheels ($400), and those are available only with the automatic transmission. Port-installed accessories include illuminated sill plates ($250), cabin lighting ($450), auto-dimming mirror with compass ($275),carpeted floor mats ($115), cargo net ($50) and a rear spoiler ($325), among other items to enhance both style and convenience.
Soul+ ($16,700) uses the 2.0-liter engine and adds 16-inch alloy wheels, stereo tweeters, leather-wrapped steering wheel, cruise control, Soul logo inserts on upholstery, power heated mirrors with turn-signal indicators, privacy glass, and metal-finish interior trim. The 6-speed manual is standard, but Soul+ is also available with the 6-speed automatic ($17,700). Standard equipment is the same for the manual and automatic, but only the automatic offers an optional moonroof with fog lights ($800), and a 350-watt Infinity/UVO by Microsoft entertainment system with rear camera and HD radio ($900). Offered only on Soul+ automatic without the previous two packages is the ECO package ($500) that combines Idle-Stop-and-Go with low-rolling resistance tires to boost both city and highway fuel economy estimates by 1 mpg.
Soul! ($19,900) comes with the 2.0-liter and 6-speed automatic only, and upgrades to sand and black interior with houndstooth upholstery inserts, power folding outside mirrors, sunroof, fog lights, body-color trim, LED taillights and front running lights, automatic projector headlights, Infinity/UVO audio, 18-inch alloy wheels. The primary option is a premium package ($2,500) with navigation, rear camera, SiriusXM 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 the mandated 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 lower bumper/air opening look is called tusk in-house. The front lighting elements are contemporary and stylish, even more so 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. The wraparound configuration that appeared with the 2012 models makes it 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 three 12-volt outlets on the Soul+ and Soul!
The steering wheel is nice, 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 center stack is modest with business-like knobs and buttons. It accommodate the shifter and the optional 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 Kia Soul is nimble and fun to drive. We've driven Soul! models with the 2.0-liter engine and 6-speed automatics primarily. We haven't had a chance to test drive a base model with the 1.6-liter engine, but given its ample 138 horsepower and six gears (with manual or automatic), few people should feel the need to step up to the Soul+ or Soul! for the more powerful 2.0-liter engine.
Both engines feature direct fuel injection, for high-end power with good fuel economy while cruising. 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 2700-pound car. Indeed, the Soul can keep up with traffic easily; many V8-powered full-size SUVs are not demonstrably quicker. The Soul! 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 the clutch on earlier manual-transmission models to be smooth in operation, both from a standing start and while upshifting, and with six gears and ample torque we'd expect sprightly acceleration from even the 2013 base model. We suspect some buyers will choose the automatic simply to get the equipment and option packages that don't come with the manual.
For example: Since late 2012 Kia has offered an ECO package for Soul automatics that includes a system called ISG. This stands for Idle Stop and Go, meaning 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 ISG in 1.6-liter Kia Rio models and found it works as advertised. We were riding in the passenger seat the first time it functioned, and the driver didn't even notice. ISG nets a 1 mpg increase in EPA City 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 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 Soul 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 in this price range, 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 with 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 dynamic response. If it has any vices we have been unable to find them.
Sam Moses reported from Miami; with G.R. Whale reporting from South Korea; NewCarTestDrive.com associate editor John F. Katz contributed to this report.
Kia Soul ($14,400); Soul+ ($16,700); Soul! ($19,900).
Gwangiu, South Korea.
Options As Tested
Kia Soul! ($19,900).