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2020 Kia Soul Test Drive Review
The Kia Soul's compact, boxy styling combines the utility of a small SUV with the efficiency and driving refinement of a compact car.
Buying a car blends pragmatic and emotional factors. You know you need a car to do certain things, but you also have preferences about how your car looks and perhaps how its brand's image is generally perceived. You used to have to make sacrifices if you wanted something affordable and economical. Look at small, affordable cars of the past; it's a depressing set of subpar cars.
Automakers have ensured that, with a few exceptions, there are no more truly bad cars, and that extends to the economy-car segment. But even in this competent segment of vehicles, one car stands out from the rest with refined driving dynamics, a lower starting price than most of its competitors, and form and function delivered in equal quantities.
Meet the 2020 Kia Soul. You've probably seen the hamster ads, and you’ve definitely seen this boxy little hatchback on the road. Its particular combination of boxy design and compact size makes it something of a rarity. On the one hand, it competes with small hatchbacks like the Honda Fit and Volkswagen Golf. And on the other hand, you could legitimately cross-shop it against subcompact SUVs like the Subaru Crosstrek and Jeep Renegade.
To top it all off, its latest redesign makes the Soul look more futuristic than anything you’ll find from Tesla; it's truly one of a kind. Take a closer look at the 2020 Kia Soul, because few cars do form and function any better.
Look and Feel
Boxy and bold styling cues have been the Soul’s calling card since its introduction in 2009. The second-generation Soul arrived for the 2013 model year with an evolution of the first-generation's styling. The 2020 Soul goes for a more futuristic rendition of styling cues familiar to the Soul. Traces of the previous headlight designs are present but in a more minimal execution.
Along the side, the blacked-out A-pillar continues from the 2020 Soul's predecessor, and the rear side windows have added angles, thanks to a plastic panel that creates a character line. This line runs from the rear side windows to the back of the vehicle, and while we’ve seen this design element employed in a growing number of new vehicles, the Soul is the first do it right.
Previous versions of the Soul had a useful, well-designed interior. It combined inherent utility with bold elements, such as the clusters that made up the front dash vents and speakers. The 2020 Soul is no different, as the side and front vents in the dash have tweeter speakers built into their assembly.
Trims for the Soul are LX, S, X-Line, EX, GT-Line, and GT-Line Turbo. The LX trim is pretty basic with 16-inch steel wheels with plastic covers, power-adjustable outside mirrors, manual front-seat adjustments, one USB input, Bluetooth connectivity, power windows… and not much else. On the plus side, the base LX comes with a great 7-inch touchscreen infotainment system with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
Moving up to the S trim replaces the steel wheels with 16-inch alloy wheels and adds body-color outside mirrors, a center-console armrest storage bin, premium cloth seats, and remote keyless entry. It also adds a host of driver-assistance features such as blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-path detection, lane-change assist, and forward-collision warning and avoidance.
We drove the X-Line trim, which has 18-inch wheels, fog lights, and specific body cladding to give it a more adventurous look. It also comes with a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob as well as driver-assistance features like blind-spot warning and rear cross-path detection.
The EX trim is very well equipped, adding features like 17-inch alloy wheels, heated side mirrors, an 8-way power driver’s seat, heated front seats, dual-zone automatic climate control, push-button start, additional USB ports, and the larger 10.25-inch infotainment screen.
The GT-Line adds 18-inch alloy wheels and unique front and rear fascias and side sills, while the GT-Line Turbo adds content like LED front fog lights, turn signals integrated into the side mirrors, and a chrome-tipped center exhaust pipe. Inside, the GT-Line Turbo gets an upgraded instrument panel screen, satin chrome interior door handles, a 10-way power driver’s seat with lumbar adjustment, a heated steering wheel, and a Harman Kardon premium sound system. It also adds pedestrian detection to the forward-collision avoidance system.
The higher-end trims like EX, GT-Line, and GT-Line Turbo are great, but CarGurus recommends the S trim. It’s basically the second step up the model lineup, and it mostly matches our X-Line trim without the aesthetic upgrades, saving you a few thousand dollars.
A 2-liter, 4-cylinder engine that makes 147 horsepower and 132 pound-feet of torque powers most trims of the Soul. Power gets sent to the front wheels through a continuously variable transmission (CVT). Although the output figures for that engine appear low on paper, the CVT manages its power surprisingly well, ensuring decent acceleration. The Soul includes a Sport button and a manual mode, which will simulate the gear changes of a more traditional transmission.
If you don’t want a CVT and prefer to change your own gears, the base LX trim comes standard with a 6-speed manual transmission, and the CVT is optional.
The GT-Line comes with the 2-liter engine and CVT, but the range-topping GT-Line Turbo features a 1.6-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder engine, making 201 hp and 195 lb-ft of torque. Power goes to the front wheels through a 7-speed dual-clutch transmission.
You'll find the same engine in the Hyundai Veloster Turbo, which we drove earlier this year (Hyundai has a stake in Kia). We drove that car with the manual transmission, but we were still able to get a sense of the turbo engine's power delivery and how it may transfer to the Soul. Frankly, I wasn’t yearning for more power with the base 2-liter engine. It showcased solid acceleration off the line, and it pulled well in both low-speed and high-speed situations. It also felt refined and remained relatively quiet under acceleration, which gives the Soul an upscale feel.
The Soul's ride quality separates it from most crossovers. It might have the cargo space of a small SUV, but it’s a compact hatchback by nature, and thus has a car's ride height. So despite its upright layout, it handles corners pretty well. The suspension effectively balances softness over bumps and firmness through turns.
The 2-liter engine and automatic transmission return fuel economy of 27 mpg city, 33 highway, and 30 combined. In our week of combined city and highway driving, we observed fuel economy of 29.3 mpg.
The base LX with a manual transmission returns 25 mpg city, 31 highway, 27 combined. If you want the added power of the Turbo, you won't take much of a hit on fuel economy, as it returns 27, 32, 29.
Form and Function
By its very nature, the Soul's upright, boxy design makes it a unique, head-turning vehicle. But that boxy layout also pays dividends in cargo space. With the rear seats upright, the Soul offers 24.2 cubic feet of cargo space. Fold those seats and the Soul has 62.1 cubic feet. That’s more than the Volkswagen Golf, and it’s more than compact SUVs like the Mazda CX-5 and Jeep Cherokee. And its squared-off hatch shape works well for loading large items.
The Soul's five-passenger cabin also benefits from its boxy layout. The Soul has great front and rear legroom and tons of headroom. You'll sit more upright than you might in a Honda Civic, but if you can deal with that, you’ll be rewarded with plenty of usable cabin space.
All four doors have helpful compartments and cupholders, while the front doors have deep pockets for larger items. A large tray for keys and your wallet sits below the climate controls in the center stack, and a little tray hidden in that space is perfectly shaped for your phone. The compartment between the front seats is also deep, and you'll find usable space and innovative storage solutions at every corner.
All trims of the Soul come with Kia’s UVO infotainment system, but the screen size varies by trim, with the LX, S, X-Line, and GT-Line getting a 7-inch screen, and EX and GT Turbo trims getting the larger 10.25-inch screen.
The standard touchscreen offers easy menu navigation, bright fonts and colors, and the benefit of hard buttons and dials that work seamlessly with the screen. In the Soul, Kia has bucked the recent trend of "floating" screens tacked on top of the dash in favor of an in-dash placement—one of the few conventional things about the Soul.
The system comes with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, adding to its usefulness. This means you'll get access to your own music and maps app for navigation without having to commit to any high-priced options.
The larger 10.25-inch screen is quite the upgrade, taking up nearly all of the center stack area. The screen is so massive in the Soul's compact interior that it pushes the conventional controls down below it. The colors and graphics are incredibly bright and vivid, and if your budget accommodates an EX or GT Turbo trim, this is a fantastic upgrade.
Standard safety features on the Kia Soul include front- and side-impact airbags, a reversing camera, traction control, hill-start assist, and a tire pressure monitoring system.
Moving up to the S trim adds driver-assistance features like forward-collision warning and avoidance, lane-keep assist, lane-change assist, blind-spot warning, and rear cross-path detection.
You'll actually lose the forward-collision warning when you move up to the X-Line trim, but it returns with the EX. The range-topping GT-Line Turbo gets adaptive cruise control, a head-up display, and pedestrian detection for the forward-collision warning and avoidance system.
The 2020 Kia Soul has a base MSRP of $17,490, while the CarGurus-recommended S trim starts at $20,290. The X-Line test model we drove starts at $21,490 and stickered for $22,615. The Soul EX starts at $22,690, the GT-Line costs $20,290, and the range-topping GT-Line Turbo makes a big jump, starting at $27,490.
The EX can be fitted with the EX Designer package for an additional $1,500. That adds 18-inch alloy wheels, a 2-tone roof-and-body paint scheme, and LED head-, tail-, and fog lights.
The non-turbo GT-Line can be optioned up with the GT-Line Sunroof Package ($1,900). As the name suggests, it adds a power sunroof, but it also adds push-button start, a cargo cover, and wireless charging.
I often talk to folks that are in the market for a new car or SUV. Some just want affirmation of the vehicle they already have in mind, but others are really coming at it with an open mind. I ask those individuals what they need from a vehicle, and a great deal of the time, those needs could be satisfied by a hatchback, saving them money over a small SUV.
The Soul delivers all the utility of a small SUV, and even though it doesn’t offer all-wheel drive, neither do some self-described “subcompact crossovers” like the Toyota CH-R and Nissan Kicks. The Soul provides a capable platform without up-selling you on something that it is not.
When it comes to value for money, it would be nice if Kia followed Toyota’s lead and made the Soul's driver-assistance features standard equipment. Toyota makes Toyota Safety Sense standard on its vehicles, including the economical Corolla.
But the Soul excels in other areas. This head-turning box of futuristic style delivers the driving dynamics and efficiency of a compact car with the cargo space and driving position of a small SUV. This best-of-both-worlds approach makes the 2020 Kia Soul a truly useful hatchback in a world filled with a growing number of pretenders.
From open-wheel racecars to specialty off-road vehicles, George Kennedy has driven it all. A career automotive journalist, George has been a contributor, editor, and/or producer at some of the most respected publications and outlets, including Consumer Reports, the Boston Globe, Boston Magazine, Autoblog.com, Hemmings Classic Wheels, BoldRide.com, the Providence Journal, and WheelsTV.
What's your take on the 2020 Kia Soul?
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