The Kia Soul was always intended to be a city creature. When it was launched a decade ago, it was an answer to weird city cars like the Scion xB and Nissan Cube. It had funky styling, bright colors, and speakers with lights that pulsed to your music.
The 2020 Kia Soul may be an evolution in terms style and size from that original version, but the market has changed to frame it in a different light. The JDM boxes are gone, succeeded by a variety of sub-compact SUVs like the Honda HR-V, Jeep Renegade and Hyundai Kona. The previous Soul competed very well with them, and the new version for 2020 does even better, offering a compelling recipe of value, space and style. It still doesn't offer all-wheel drive, but then, neither does the Nissan Kicks or Toyota C-HR.
Nevertheless, all of these vehicles are supposed to be able to leave town once in a while, to perhaps get dirty (or carry things that might, like a mountain bike or kayak). That’s part of the appeal of the segment, to enable an Instagram-friendly lifestyle. That’s why the 2020 Kia Soul X-Line was hatched. To find out how it does at satisfying its mission, I set out on a road trip from Portland into Central Oregon toward the towns of Redmond and Bend. It’s a trek made daily by countless Subaru Crosstreks, a vehicle Kia almost certainly hopes to poach some customers from. I even brought a current Crosstrek owner along for the ride.
Outside, the Subaru playbook was consulted and the requisite black plastic body cladding applied to the fascias, rocker and doors. The grille has a more rugged mesh insert accented by foglights and tasteful alloy-look trim, which is also used on the rocker panels, mirror caps and roof rails that are only available from the factory on the X-Line. The halogen headlights are in the same place as they are on lower Soul trim levels, but the alloy-look trim draws more attention to them – they look a bit like big, old-school driving lights. In total, it does indeed make the Soul look like a little SUV – and an attractive one at that, especially when painted Undercover Green. Sadly, our test car was Gravity Gray.
The interior, by contrast, isn’t any more special than the base trim. There's handsome, textured silver plastic trim on the doors and it comes with "Black Woven Cloth" that's actually quite nice for a car that costs $21,000. There are no Jeep-like rugged details or decals. That's certainly not a problem, but perhaps offering a more earth-tone interior color option would step things up a bit. Does brown plastic cost more than black? Somehow I doubt it.
Equipment is pretty generous with standard 18-inch wheels, automatic headlights, blind-spot warning, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, a 7-inch touchscreen, a USB port, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and a six-speaker sound system that's pretty underwhelming (although, to be fair, the base Crosstrek's is worse).
There's also only one version of the X-Line available, so if you want more equipment, you have to ditch the rugged stuff and go for the urban-intended EX or sporty GT. You can't get creature comforts like heated seats, power driver seat adjustment, dual-zone automatic climate control, multiple USB ports, wireless smartphone charging, Kia's snazzy 10.25 touchscreen, or proximity entry and push-button start. There's also no way to add the forward collision or driver inattention warning systems standard on the S, EX and GT-Line trim levels.
During the three-hour drive out to Redmond, the Soul impressed with its highway performance. This is an upright, inexpensive car and yet the cabin wasn't booming with road or wind noise. Conversations were easily had and the meh stereo had no problem being heard. On the winding portions of Highway 26 around Mt. Hood, Soul proved to be responsive, with adept handling enabled by ably tuned suspension and steering. Actually, it's awfully similar to the Hyundai Kona, which shouldn't be surprising given their common platform.
The X-Line is stuck with the base Soul engine: a 2.0-liter inline-four good for 147 horsepower and 132 pound-feet of torque. It's perfectly capable for a segment filled with weaklings, but I wouldn't complain if Kia offered the 1.6-liter turbo engine on something other than the range-topping GT-Line.
New to the Soul is Kia's "Intelligent Variable Transmission," which is their way of saying "a CVT with simulated gear ratios." There's some tell-tale CVT slurring between ratios, and I prefer the Kona's six-speed auto, but this is a far more agreeable transmission than what's in the droning Crosstrek or the pre-2019 Honda HR-V. It does a better job of disguising its CVT-ness, but still manages to achieve excellent fuel economy. Its 27 mpg city, 33 mpg highway and 30 mpg combined, represents a 3-mpg-combined improvement over the outgoing Soul that had a six-speed automatic.
It also nips the 29-mpg-combined Subaru Crosstrek, but then that one has all-wheel drive. One of the major reasons my friend bought his Crosstrek in the first place was its all-wheel-drive system. You still can't get that on the 2020 Soul, even on the supposedly more rugged X-Line. The Crosstrek's added ground clearance was also attractive as he frequently ventures off the beaten path for camping and hiking. Unfortunately, that would be strike two for the Soul X-Line since it has the same 6.7 inches of ground clearance of other models. The Crosstrek has the Subaru-usual 8.7 inches.
Finally, we were going to bring bicycles on our journey to central Oregon, but unfortunately, the Soul's upright tailgate will not accommodate my Yakima Fullback 2 bike rack. It easily fits on the Crosstrek. We would've had to have a roof-mounted rack, which you could certainly get if you owned an X-Line given its standard roof rails. Still, they definitely aren't as functional as the big, beefy ones on the Crosstrek or other sub-compact SUVs. It would be harder to mount a roof box or tie down something like a kayak.
Basically, the 2020 Soul X-Line is a poseur. Its look is distinctive compared to other Souls as well to other subcompact SUVs. It provides plenty of equipment and space for the money, and gets above-average fuel economy, while being a perfectly pleasant and occasionally fun companion on a road trip. But despite the aesthetic trappings of a real soft-roader, it lacks any true extra capability over a regular Soul. Anyone who does real outdoorsy stuff, such as my Crosstrek-owning friend, shouldn’t bother. However, as an outdoorsy poseur myself, I could probably be convinced to go with the more stylish Soul.