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Review: 2014 Kia Soul +

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It's often difficult to redesign a radically styled car. When unique looks were a large part of its appeal, designers seek to balance conflicting needs: to retain the familiar appearance that got the car attention without sacrificing the originality that was key to its success.

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What often occurs is a cautious restyling that breaks little new ground stylistically, and the redesigned 2014 Kia Soul is no exception. Kia had an unexpected smash hit on its hands when the first-generation Soul launched in 2010 – the tall subcompact five-door was going to be a funky niche product, but it resonated with buyers who loved the high seating position and roomy interior at a low price, and became one of the brand's best-sellers.

The 2014 model is a major departure from the old car mechanically, but the looks are familiar. The new Soul is a little lower and wider, it has a longer wheelbase, and it shares no body panels with its predecessor. Kia has smoothed out the headlights, livened up the rear with a black stripe running horizontally between the bottoms of the taillights, and enlarged the bumpers. But the styling cues remain: the snub-nosed front end, the boxy cabin, the high-mounted vertical taillights framing a square rear windshield.

So Kia either isn't counting on radical styling to sell the new Soul, or it hopes that the outgoing car's styling remained radical enough to continue into a second generation. And for the right buyer, the 2014 Soul remains worthy on both counts.

First of all, the Soul continues to distinguish itself from other cars on the road, even if a few hundred thousand first-generation models are already running around. The tested car still attracts attention, both for its shape and its “Solar Yellow” paint.

Secondly, it retains the basic practicality that made the first-generation more than a flash in the pan – the Soul still offers subcompact pricing with interior space and a commanding forward view that its competitors don't offer. The Soul starts at a reasonable $14,900 and a comfortably equipped mid-level model (with an automatic transmission and the more popular engine) is $18,200. That's a good deal for this much space, and the market's best balance of affordable, useful, and conversation-starting.

While that's not a screaming bargain for a subcompact car – Kia has the more mainstream Rio to meet that need – it lets the Soul match or undercut the price of the average compact sedan, while offering a great deal more utility.

What's more, the Soul's redesign improved greatly on the car's comfort and luxury levels. Gone are the hard, flat seats – the new ones feature excellent support and padding in the front and the rear. Gone is the cheap cabin trim, replaced by an outstanding rich feel that's among the nicest below $25,000. Even the front seatbelt buckles are lined with felt so they won't knock audibly against the center console.

And reduced – if not eliminated – is the stiff, noisy ride; things have improved, though they are not perfected. Kia has also added new cabin technology and new luxury options to the Soul, including a generously sized and blissfully user-friendly in-dash touchscreen, a panoramic sunroof, LED interior lighting, and heated and cooled front seats.

Some notable flaws remain. The Soul's gas mileage improved slightly in the 2014 redesign, but it remains poor for a car this size, with EPA ratings of 23 miles per gallon in the city, 31 mpg on the highway, and 26 mpg overall. Today's economy cars typically beat that by at least 5 mpg. Acceleration is far from zippy, too, from the 164-horsepower 2.0-liter engine found on most Souls. (Base cars have a 1.6-liter with nearly identical EPA ratings.) Encouragingly, the tested car averaged 30.3 miles per gallon in mixed driving, though that unscientific test doesn't show conclusively that the Soul in general will beat its EPA estimates.

Additionally, although the car boasts excellent cargo capacity specifications, it's not shaped perfectly to make great use of that space. A high cargo floor makes it inconvenient to load heavy items, and there isn't much floor space behind the rear seat. The rear seat folds to expand capacity, but it doesn't lie totally flat, and there's just enough of a lip between the cargo floor and the folded seatback that you can't simply slide your belongings all the way back.

Granted, cargo versatility is always a balance. Make the cargo floor too low, and it's more difficult to have a rear seat that's comfortable and folds anything close to flat – as the big, high cushion will be high off the floor. But whatever their trick, enough other cars have pulled it off better than Kia that it's fair to demand more. Kia does offer storage cubbies under the cargo floor, but they're made of flimsy Styrofoam.

Also, some people will be disappointed that the Soul isn't as interesting to drive as to look at. As noted before, it's quieter and more comfortable than before, but it's neither peppy nor terribly agile. As on many other Hyundais and Kias, you can select different modes for steering – normal, sport and comfort – but the modes change only the weight of the steering without addressing its slow responses and lack of feedback. For other buyers, though, ordinary driving dynamics – favoring comfort instead of sportiness – could be a plus.

The interior is also mostly more pleasant than eye-popping. The tested car does include yellow stitching on the leather, tower-like styling elements around the upper dash speakers, and mood-lit lower speakers. Note, too, that models without the larger infotainment screen have more gray plastic on the dashboard instead of the piano black trim on pricier cars.

A last issue, Kia missed an opportunity to offer the Soul with all-wheel-drive, which would have let it better compete in the exploding new class of subcompact crossover SUVs – a class Kia inadvertently helped pioneer, despite offering the Soul only with front-wheel-drive. The Soul has the high seating position and roomy cargo capacity to make it a worthy choice against the Nissan Juke, Subaru XV Crosstrek and the upcoming Honda HR-V and Jeep Renegade. But if you want all-weather capability, Kia can only direct you to its bulkier, pricier Sportage.

Pricing

As noted, the base Soul – priced from $14,900 with a manual transmission and $16,700 with an automatic – will account for very few sales, as it has a small 1.6-liter engine that doesn't even deliver a fuel economy advantage. Standard features include power windows, locks and mirrors; cruise control; 16-inch alloy wheels (with the automatic); a six-speaker audio system with Bluetooth connectivity and satellite radio capability; and a full complement of safety features.

The Soul + (say Plus) adds the 2.0-liter engine and is sold only with a six-speed automatic transmission and 17-inch alloy wheels. A $500 package adds a small touchscreen for audio controls and a rearview camera. For $1,400 more you can get a huge 8-inch screen with more features including navigation, plus an upgraded Infinity audio system and automatic climate control. For $3,000 more, the “Primo Package,” adds power-adjustable leather seats – heated and cooled in the front, heated in the rear – a heated steering wheel, fog lights, a proximity key, LED interior lights, and a panoramic sunroof.

The tested car is a 2014 Soul + with the Primo Package (and the optional $115 floor mats), at $24,010. However, Kia oddly only offers this car to customers in white or green, unlike the yellow that adorns the tested car.

You can also step up to a Soul ! (“Exclaim”) that has 18-inch wheels and more of the Soul + optional equipment as standard, starting from $20,300. Unique features include a cooled glovebox, a fancier gauge cluster, body-colored bumper trim (replacing some gray), and power-folding exterior mirrors. Unlike the Soul +, you can get a sunroof without leather seats and all the other features, but check all the boxes and it's more than $2,000 more than the tested Soul + with nearly identical equipment.

The 2014 Soul is in high demand, so don't expect to haggle too much off the sticker price. Pricing site Truecar.com doesn't project savings of much more than $1,000.

At less than $20,000 for a Soul + with the small touch-screen, the Soul is pricier than most cars that are the same size on the outside – but a bargain for its passenger and cargo space, and with a higher level of interior sophistication than most like-priced vehicles. Its gas mileage is a clear weak point against its value, but overall it is a strong contender for someone who doesn't want a small car that looks or feels petite and doesn't demand a lot of zip.

For a lot of space in a less-fancy (and eye-catching) package, consider the more affordable and fuel-efficient Nissan Versa Note or Honda Fit, which are more conventional subcompact five-door hatchbacks. For unique looks and more performance, look to the turbocharged Nissan Juke, which is less versatile and requires premium fuel. And for more space, in particular behind the rear seat, the Kia Sportage and its Hyundai Tucson twin are strong values in the compact crossover class.

See also:
More photos of the 2014 Kia Soul +
Review: 2012 Kia Soul +
Comparison review: 10 subcompact hatchbacks
Comparison review: Nine compact crossover SUVs
Review: 2014 Kia Forte EX

Vehicle tested: 2014 Kia Soul
Vehicle base price (MSRP): $14,900
Version tested: +
Version base price (MSRP): $18,200
Vehicle price as tested (MSRP): $24,010
Estimated transaction price as tested: $23,027
Test vehicle provided by: Kia Motors America

Key specifications:
Length: 163.0 inches
Width: 70.9 inches
Height: 63.0 inches
Wheelbase: 101.2 inches
Weight: 2,879 pounds
Cargo volume behind rear seat: 24.2 cubic feet
Cargo volume with rear seat folded: 61.3 cubic feet
Turning circle: 34.8 feet
Engine (as tested): 2.0-liter I4 with 164 horsepower
Transmission (as tested): 6-speed automatic
EPA city mileage: 23 miles per gallon
EPA highway mileage: 31 miles per gallon
EPA combined mileage: 26 miles per gallon
Observed mileage during test: 30.3 miles per gallon
Assembly location: Korea
For more information: Kia website

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