Originally powered by hamster enthusiasm in one of the more clever marketing schemes ever unleashed, the third-generation Kia Soul rocks on with a rakish new face, several new power options, including a full EV model, plus a sporty GT model that redefines this subcompact car’s place in the overall market.
Debuting in 2008, the Soul has captured a loyal fan base that has propelled this little five-door to the top of the sales charts for Kia, outselling the Optima, the compact Forte and now, even the large Sorento crossover.
Fans of the auto industry will remember similar cube-ish designs from Nissan, Toyota and Honda that are no longer available, leaving the Soul as the lone player in a niche segment between compact cars and compact crossovers.
The Soul lacks AWD, so it isn’t shopped against many crossovers, yet its impressive interior room exceeds many of those vehicles and certainly the interior space dominates any compact car rival. A slightly raised floor increases ease of access and exit, plus the expansive cargo hold is amazing. If you are a driver still confronted with the weekly trash run to your local town recycling mall, the Soul’s deep cargo bin easily swallows the standard 32-gallon trash can, and a whole lot more, under a lightweight liftgate with a low entry point. This simple task could not be accomplished with several of our high-end luxury crossovers this summer.
Passengers will embrace the layout inside. Rear-seat occupants have chair-like seating with ample head and leg room, just like up front. Subtle yet essential pieces like numerous bins and slots in the console, the number of power ports and jacks, plus the surfaces you interact with, are each better than any known compact car rival’s presentation.
The controls and switchgear in the Kia is an ergonomically correct collection of proper knobs, dials and buttons that are intuitive to operate. In new GT-line trim, the expansive 10.25-inch info-tainment screen provides impressive clarity on the navigation panel, or a combination of other functions simultaneously displayed. Material choices and presentation also feel more premium, not cheap, like some other compact cars, as the hard plastic surfaces that your body interacts with or impacts are at a minimum.
Our Inferno Red GT-line looks the part with the new slotted LED-lamps across the face, dual-exhaust tips at the center rear, plus special wheels and body accents. A dual-clutch seven-speed automatic is standard — a transmission used by VW and Audi, a lot. Incredibly, the Soul GT even has some driving verve and general feel that is similar, dare we say it, to the Golf GTI. The swiftness that it responds to steering input, the cornering feel and the acceleration from the 1.6-liter 201-hp turbo engine will invoke comparisons to the VW. Since many German engineers formerly with VW and BMW now work for Kia/Hyundai, it is nice to see that the chassis dynamics and driving fun of German designs have trickled down into affordable vehicles like the Soul.
And that was a word that showed up over and over during the Soul’s seven-day visit — fun. Fun to drive, fun to experience, fun to commute with. Base Souls start at just over $16,000, a bargain in the small car class. Our GT-line listed for $28,710 and carried a generous dose of features: wireless phone charging, push-button access and ignition, power sunroof, Harmon Kardon Audio, heated seats and steering wheel, Smart Cruise, rear blind spot detection, cross-traffic alert system, forward collision avoidance, Android and Apple compatibility, plus a heads-up display.
EPA estimates are 27/32/29 mpg, while we saw 34 mpg. The jump from the standard 2.0-liter engine to the 1.6-liter turbo is rewarding, giving the Soul GT a distinctive driving personality. Soul fans will soon have another kick-in-the-pants option; the fully electric Soul, $36,000, using the Kia Nero hardware debuts late this year.
The Soul GT is the third small car featured in this space over the last several weeks, drawing immediate comparisons to the previous Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic. The Corolla and the Civic have decades of positive history; they are the stalwarts in the small car segment.
But pressed to pick one of these three to buy to use for 10 years, like these cars often are employed, I would pick the Soul GT. It is vastly more versatile than the two sedans, the interior was more polished and user-friendly than certainly the Civic’s, while the driving character of the Soul was just more rewarding. The Corolla and the Civic are nice like your favorite toaster; dependable, reliable and as emotion-generating as, well, a toaster. The Soul has personality.
The Soul also has a far better warranty, 10 years/100,000 miles, better content than either car, plus a better price. It is a better value. The Corolla and Civic are great cars; the Kia Soul is a better alternative.