First Drive: 2020 Kia Soul
Same Quirky Persona, New Turbo Power
Anyone remember Honda’s boxy Element? Based on the CR-V compact crossover but striving to look like a downsized truck-based SUV, it ran from 2003 to 2011.
The Scion xB? Looking like the proverbial box it came in, this microvan from Toyota’s youth-targeted (and now dead) Scion brand was one of the first subcompact CUVs—before that segment even existed. Launched for 2004, it grew larger and less boxy (and therefore less cool) for 2008, then was dropped after 2015.
The Nissan Cube? Weirdest of the three, with its asymmetrical rear window and tailgate design, it debuted in Japan in 1998, emigrated to the U.S. in 2009, and was deported in 2014. Then came Kia’s Soul. Arriving fashionably late to the U.S. mini-breadvan party, this brilliantly named, pleasingly styled, well-executed, and cleverly marketed Forte sedan–based entry outsold and outlasted those others and for 2020 enters its third generation as one of the upwardly mobile Korean maker’s top sellers.
“The Soul has been a massive success since its introduction to the U.S. market, blowing its (now defunct) rivals out of the water and establishing itself as an automotive icon with its fun-loving character and eccentric style,” says Orth Hedrick, Kia Car Planning and Telematics executive director. The all-new 2020 version retains its quirky shape on a new, stiffer platform with optional turbocharged power, upgrades its cabin and piles on a plethora of standard and available features, including a 10.25-inch infotainment screen, a head-up display that floats over the hood, available premium sound, and customizable mood lighting.
Despite its small exterior size, the 2020 Soul’s boxy shape (on a 1.2-inch-longer wheelbase) offers surprising cargo and passenger space and easier accessibility to it. Front legroom is up a bit, rear legroom slightly down (though still more than adequate for our longish limbs), head and shoulder room are good, and cargo capacity is up 5 cubic feet to 23.8 behind the 60/40 split-folding rear seat, with more than 60 cubes with it folded down. The front door openings are larger, the rear tailgate opens wider and lower, and a two-level cargo board accommodates taller items in its lower setting.
Its new big-mouth grille is flanked by larger head, signal, and daytime running lamps in three different configurations, depending on the model. Its C-pillars are designed to resemble airplane wings with embedded “Soul” graphics, and its boomerang-shaped wraparound taillights give a distinctive rear look. Inside, available soft-sound mood lighting in a rainbow of customizable colors radiates from its door panels in a 3-D pattern in sync with its audio-system music.
“Since the Kia Soul first arrived on the scene in 2009, it has established a very real and remarkable connection with music,” Kia says. “This continues to be a core attribute of the Soul's persona.” And now it “tailors interior ambiance to a variety of selectable moods.” Among them: Hey! Yo!, Party Time, Romance, and Midnight City. Also available are 640-watt, 10-speaker Harman Kardon audio, dual auto climate control, and wireless phone charging. That available (standard on EX and turbo-powered GT-Line) 10.25-inch HD color touchscreen has a split-screen function, a rearview monitor and parking guidance, plus Android Auto and Apple CarPlay and multi-connection Bluetooth that can pair two devices at the same time.
The 2020 Soul is available in LX, X-Line, S, EX, and GT-Line trim levels, and the standard 147hp 2.0L “Nu” four-cylinder comes with either a six-speed manual or Kia’s in-house “intelligent” continuously variable transmission (IVT). We’re generally not fans of CVTs, which let engine speed (and noise) run ahead of vehicle speed under hard acceleration, but this one at least helps the non-turbo four provide reasonable zip with good efficiency.
The available direct-injected, twin-scroll 1.6L turbocharged four pumps a heftier 201 ponies through a (sometimes clunky) seven-speed, dual-clutch gearbox. The new suspensions improve ride and handling while reducing NVH, but—unlike many small CUVs—all-wheel drive is not available. The base 2.0L Soul with the IVT achieves 27 city/33 highway/30 combined mpg in EPA testing; the turbocharged GT/DCT offers 27/32/29 mpg. But until the long-range EV arrives, the EX (with “Eco” badging) rules at 29/35/31 mpg.
The GT-Line wears sportier front, rear, and lower side appearance with red accents, P235/45 R18 tires on 18-inch alloy wheels, gloss-black side mirrors, integrated front foglights, and a leather-wrapped (D-shaped) steering wheel and gearshift knob. The GT-Line also offers the turbo engine with sport suspension, larger brakes, and a chrome-tipped center exhaust. The X-Line sports rugged-look body cladding, chunky overfenders, foglamps, “off-road–inspired” accents, unique 18-inch alloy wheels, and optional two-tone paint. A Designer Collection package for the EX includes the P235/45 R18 tires on black-spoke alloys, LED head- and foglamps, and a two-tone roof treatment. Prices range from $18,485 with destination for the base Soul LX to $28,485 for a Soul GT-Line Turbo.
We sampled a loaded GT-Line Turbo and a lesser-equipped X-line Soul on freeways, urban streets, and twisty two-lanes east of San Diego and found much to like about both. Curvy-road handling was good (not great), ride (on mostly smooth surfaces) was comfy, the brakes were strong and linear, the steering was crisp, and the cabin was surprisingly quiet at freeway speeds. Performance of both engines (with two aboard and no cargo) was respectable, but the 1.6L turbo (of course) was much better for passing on two lanes, especially at 4,000-foot altitudes.
We found the seats comfortable, the infotainment interface and knob/button HVAC controls intuitively easy to use, and the interior design and materials pleasingly nice at the Soul’s modest price. Strangely, however, there were two 12V outlets in the console but just one USB port, even in the GT.
The quirky Soul enhances its appeal in its third generation and should remain a strong seller for Kia. And that coming EV version should compete well against other small, big-battery EVs, including Chevrolet’s Bolt and sister automaker Hyundai’s excellent Kona EV.
2020 Kia SoulVehicle type: Compact CUV
Base price: $17,490
Price as tested: $27,490
Engines: 2.0L I-4; 1.6L DFI Turbocharged I-4
Transmission: CVT; 7-speed Dual-Clutch (DCT)
Horsepower: 147 @ 6,200 rpm; 201 @ 6,000 rpm
Torque: 132 lb-ft @ 4,500 rpm; 195 lb-ft @ 1,500-4,500 rpm
Curb weight: 2,802-3,036 pounds
Towing capacity: NA
EPA mileage ratings: 2.0L I-4: 27/33/30 mpg; 2.0L EX I-4: 29/35/31: 1.6L Turbo I-4: 27/32/29