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KIA Soul: building a better ‘Hampstermobile’

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2014 KIA Soul Exclaim

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The saying goes ‘build a better mousetrap and the world will come to your door’ couldn’t be truer in the case of the redesign of the 2104 Soul. Although it takes a trained eye to spot the nuisances, the 2014 Soul is a complete different vehicle from its first-generation that debut for the 2010 model year, especially in terms of quality of finish materials and driving charisma.

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The hamster reference was acknowledging an inspired advertising campaign that no doubt raised the visibility of the Soul. It was almost as ingenious, if not as the one KIA used for the Sorrento, featuring a full-sized smiling sock monkey, along with group of his close toy buddies.

My first time to experience the Soul was at its initial press preview for the 2010 model year. Two years later I found myself at a KIA dealership with my son shopping for his first real car to replace his high school ride. Not a lot of new had transpired between three model years, although by this time the Soul was a certified sales success.

Even with the Soul’s entry level pricepoint just north of $12,000 my son opted for a pre-owned Chevrolet HHR, mainly for its more retro nostalgic characteristics, not to mention it offered the needed cargo space for his personal needs. However, after a week with the 2014 Soul in our driveway, he expressed interest in a return visit to our local KIA dealership.

The Soul, classified as a compact crossover, is now the sales leader of its segment, which was simultaneously created in 2003 by the Honda Element and Scion xB. Both icons were initially popular sellers, although over the decade interest waned for both, causing the discontinuation of the Element in 2011, with rumors that it’s only a matter of time before the xB follows suit. Nissan jumped in the fray in 2009 with its Cube, but so far this controversial-styled mini MPV has failed to establish a sufficient fan base, so rumors of its demise has also been bandied about.

But we’re not talking about a segment with limited appeal. The Soul has been a popular seller since day one, which might explain in part the misfortune of the other models. In fact the Soul is so popular it happens to be KIA’s number one seller, follow by the Optima and Sorrento.

Inspired by the Track'ster Concept, the redesigned Soul retains its signature floating roof and wrap-around greenhouse design while riding on a stiffer, longer, and wider platform that makes it roomier in passenger and cargo volume. Key seating and cargo dimensions have increased over the current Soul. In addition the seat hip point and the step-in height have been lowered improving ingress/egress.

Similar to the Track'ster Concept, the Soul incorporates a circular design theme inside and out. Outside this includes circular fog light and backup light pods. Inside, it includes a triple-circle recessed gauge cluster, circular door panels and steering wheel controls, and prominently displayed round speakers. In fact the audio system, which is a significant part of the Soul’s character traits, includes more speakers than a contingent of Toastmasters – 8 in all: which includes tweeters on top of each side air vent, regular speakers in each of the four door panels, plus the obvious sub-woofer in the cargo hatch. But did I mention the large center speaker imbedded above the center stack air vents?

The Soul continues in three distinctive trim levels: Base, Plus (or +) and Exclaim (or !). The entry-level Base starts at a very attractive $14,300 price point, but it can quickly rise to the mid to higher $20k range with the optional trim levels and equipment packages.

The Base trim includes an impressive list of standard equipment such as power windows, power door locks, heated power side mirrors, telescoping steering wheel, Bluetooth connectivity, and a 6-speaker audio system with a USB port, auxiliary audio input jacks, and 3 free months of satellite radio service. Options include cruise control, remote keyless entry, and 16-inch aluminum wheels.

The 2014 Kia Soul Plus comes equipped with cruise control and remote keyless entry, as well as 17-inch aluminum wheels, automatic headlights, side mirror turn signal indicators, and a reversing camera. Inside includes a floor console storage box and a rear-seat center armrest. Kia's UVO eServices technology is also standard, while options include fog lights, 10-way power driver seat, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob.

The 2014 Kia Soul Exclaim, which is the model featured for this review, is truly a stunner. It’s set apart from the Base and Plus models with exclusive features like standard 18-inch aluminum wheels, projector-beam headlights, fog lights, front LED positioning lights, rear LED halo taillights, and unique front trim that Kia refers to as "tusks." Inside, the Soul Exclaim is equipped with piano-black console trim, a cooled glove box, 10-way power driver seat, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, and an auto-dimming rearview mirror. Automatic climate control, push-button starting, and a Supervision Thin Film Transistor (TFT) Liquid Crystal Display (LCD) gauge cluster are also standard for this version. The Exclaim includes a keyless push start ignition button that is displayed prominently on the center console, a feature also found on the Track'ster Concept.

The Base trim comes standard with a new direct-injection, 1.6-liter engine that generates 130 horsepower at 6,300 rpm and 118 lb.-ft. of torque at 4,850 rpm. It is mated to a standard six-speed manual or, optionally, to a six-speed automatic.

Standard on the Plus and Exclaim, optionally available on the Base, is a carried over 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine, which has been updated with a direct fuel injection system. It’s rated at 164 horsepower at 6,200 rpm and 151 lb.-ft. of torque at 4,000 rpm. The Plus model may be equipped with either transmission while the Exclaim is available exclusively with the six-speed automatic.

Both powerplants have been tuned to provide more low-end torque (nine percent more torque at 1,500 rpm on the 2.0-liter; five percent more on 1.6-liter) for an improved acceleration and response.

What might be the Soul’s only blaring shortcoming is it fuel economy. KIA initially submitted figures of 27/35 mpg and 30 mpg combined (26/34/29 for the 2.0-liter engine) to the EPA, which allows automakers to self-certify fuel economy. But on a confirmation check of several vehicles, the EPA found the Soul's actual tested fuel economy to be 25 mpg city, 30 highway with the 1.6-liter engine, or 23/28 (25 combined) with the 2.0-liter engine and automatic transmission or 24/29 mpg with the manual transmission. 2013 Kia Soul Eco models, which earned 29/36-mpg and 27/35-mpg ratings have been downgraded to 26/31 (23 combined) and 24/29, respectively. During my week with the Soul Exclaim I averaged between 25-26 mpg of city/freeway driving. I would expect about a 10-mpg improvement for this type of vehicle.

Driving dynamics are significantly improved, which KIA contributes to a 28.7% increase in torsional rigidity, new suspension, and new electric steering. Ride harshness has been reduced and impact boom for the MacPherson strut front suspension, while the torsion bar rear suspension design offers greater travel for a more comfortable ride quality. A new one-piece steering unit improves the Soul's on-center feel and response, and new Flex Steer technology provides driver-selected Comfort, Normal, and Sport driving modes.

Our Soul Exclaim tester came in a very appealing Inferno Red with black leather appointments. Base MSRP was $20,300, with options limited to a $2,800 Sun & Sound package and package called ’The Whole Shabang’, which listed for $2,500. That, along with a designation charge of $795, brought the total window sticker to $26,195.

Besides the impressive Infinity Audio System, the Sun and Sound Package that included auto climate control and a panoramic glass sunroof with power sunshade. ’The Whole Shabang Package’ consists of heated seating this and heated that, such as vented front seats, rear outboard seats and leather wrapped steering wheel. The package also includes HID low-beam headlamps, keyless push button start, engine immobilizer, and Supervision Meter Cluster with 4.3-inch Color LCD.

The day I took possession of the Soul Exclaim included a trip over to Dallas to the Angelika Theater, which is located at the thriving Mockingbird Station. The purpose was to see the award winning Indie film “This is Where We Live”, which was co-written, directed and starred Marc Manchaca. The feature length film was shot on location in and around Llano, Texas, mostly with hand held camera(s) on a shoestring budget, within 22 days, proving it doesn’t take big budgets to make a good heart-felt movie.

Trying to get over the initial shock of a $26k price tag was somewhat daunting until I realized that if the Soul had entry-level BMW or Mercedes heritage I would be touting its virtues as an incredible value – the Soul Exclaim is honestly that good!

Constructed criticisms are limited to striving to improve on fuel economy. And though the Soul is smallish with little to no issue regarding visibility from the C-pillar, blind spot detection would be a nice safety feature - it’s only a matter of time before this happens across the board. My one last request would be a turbo option. While the Eclaim’s 2.0-liter more than adequately gets the job done, an extra boost in oomph would make the Soul closer in spirit to the Track'ster Concept. And that wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing to broaden the appeal of the Soul.

The Soul is offered with Kia’s superb 10-year, 100,000 factory warranty, which includes 5-year, 60,000-mile bumper-to-bumper coverage.

Stay tuned to a future article on the 2015 KIA Soul EV

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