In the 2000s, the Honda Element, Kia Soul, Nissan Cube and Scion xB debuted as tall, boxy hatchbacks that offered utility and funky design in equal measure. However, their quirkiness wasn't fully embraced by the public, and each eventually fell as traditionally styled subcompact crossovers began to find more of an audience.
All, that is, except the Soul.
Redesigned this year and now in its third generation, the 2020 Kia Soul has outlasted its rivals and become a wonderful little car in its own right. Though fully reworked, the 2020 Soul is all about incremental changes. Kia restyled the exterior to be sharper and more aggressive, but it's still instantly recognizable as a Soul. The fun-to-drive character remains intact as well, and an increase in cargo capacity makes it more practical. I attended the launch event in San Diego, California, to test the new Soul in the urban environments for which it was made.
My first order of business before heading to the mountains northeast of downtown San Diego was selecting between two available trims: the midtier X-Line or the top-spec GT-Line Turbo. All Souls come standard with a new 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine producing 147 horsepower and 132 pound-feet of torque. It's paired to a new continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) on most trims; a six-speed manual is available on the base LX. As the first leg of our drive route was sure to feature a couple of hours' worth of fun roads, I opted for the GT-Line Turbo.
The GT-Line sits in the middle of the Soul lineup. It comes with a few sport-themed upgrades, including a larger front fascia and different exterior accent colors. It also offers an upgraded powertrain unique to this trim level: a turbocharged 1.6-liter four-cylinder (201 hp, 195 lb-ft) connected to a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission. This GT-Line Turbo version also comes with a sport-tuned suspension and larger brakes.
But as I quickly discovered, the GT-Line Turbo is not the best for dealing with congested metro traffic. The transmission delivers typical dual-clutch clunkiness at low speeds. Hit the accelerator from a stop, and there's a notable hesitation before you start moving forward. It jumps into high gears pretty quickly, which is good for fuel economy but isn't great for on-demand power delivery. To that end, it takes a heavy foot to force a downshift if you want an extra boost.
Later in the drive, I switched to a Soul X-Line. The CVT is much smoother and feels very much like a traditional automatic. Throttle response is more natural, but you do give up the enviable thrust provided by the turbocharger. At full throttle, the transmission simulates gearshifts, which eliminates the drony engine sound exhibited by many other CVT-equipped cars. This powertrain combination works well in the Soul, and we think most buyers will be happy with it. It's also more fuel-efficient than last year's Soul with the 2.0-liter engine, getting an EPA-estimated 30 mpg in combined driving, compared to last year's 27 mpg.
It's worth noting that, unlike many subcompact crossovers, the Soul is available in front-wheel drive only. An all-wheel-drive powertrain is not available, which might make the Soul a non-starter for prospective buyers who live in areas that experience heavy snow or icy conditions.
The Soul is surprisingly fun to drive around long, sweeping curves. The GT-Line's available sport-tuned suspension reduces body roll and keeps the Soul cornering flatter through corners, but even the standard Soul is stable. While it's primarily meant for commuting, the Soul handles a set of corners better than most in its class.
The Soul rides more stiffly than other small crossovers, and driving over harsh bumps and dips results in noticeable shocks transmitted into the cabin. However, the upside is that Soul feels more in control. Rivals are often too softly tuned, resulting in a ride that can feel floaty and disconnected at higher speeds. The GT-Line, when optioned with its upgraded engine and suspension, has an even firmer ride, but driving enthusiasts won't likely mind.
There's not much engine or road noise from either trim, but the Soul's boxy shape inherently creates a lot of wind noise. While you can still talk to passengers without raising your voice, you will be able to hear the wind at highway speeds, even with the sound system turned up.
Though the overall cabin design isn't drastically different than last year, a number of tweaks help differentiate it from its predecessor. A 7-inch touchscreen is now standard, and a new 10.3-inch screen is available on higher trims. Even the smaller of the two is easy to navigate, with an intuitive layout and attractive display. Some functions are buried in the settings menus, but nothing that you'd want to change on a day-to-day basis.
Controls on the steering wheel are conventionally laid out, but Kia crammed in nine buttons on each side of the wheel, so they are tough for first-timers to use without glancing at the wheel. This is the one minor blemish on an otherwise pleasing interior layout. Buttons for the Soul's advanced safety features are grouped on the dashboard, to the left of the driver. A new silver piece of trim surrounding the handle gives the door more visual interest, and even contains illuminated elements on more expensive models. And fans of the Soul's unique lighted speaker surrounds (which sync to the music) will be pleased to know that they make a comeback, but only on the very top trim.
As expected of a boxy hatchback, the Soul is highly practical. There's more than enough headroom and legroom for tall passengers seated in front or in the rear, though some adults might find the heavily bolstered front seats a little narrow. The cargo area ranges between 18.7 and 24.2 cubic feet, depending where the configurable load floor is positioned. The 60/40-split rear seats don't quite fold flat, but maximum cargo storage of 62.1 cubic feet is one of the best in class. Drivers with kids will appreciate that the seat belt for the middle seat is integrated with the seatback, so it folds down with the seat. Other vehicles have a more cumbersome seat-belt setup that is mounted in the headliner.
The 2020 Kia Soul starts at $18,485 (destination included) for a base LX model with the manual transmission — selecting the CVT bumps the price to $19,985. The X-Line I tested on our drive starts at $22,845, while the GT-Line Turbo begins at $28,485. Entry-level Souls are less expensive than many rival crossover SUVs, and even the most luxurious of the 2.0-liter trims, the EX, is priced well below the competition. Most subcompact crossovers don't offer an upgraded engine, but the Soul does, although it is more expensive than rivals' top-trim models.
Overall, the Soul represents a tremendous value for its reasonable pricing scheme and generous features list. However, its lack of an all-wheel-drive powertrain might limit its appeal to buyers in snowy climes. Look for the first 2020 Souls to arrive at Kia dealerships near the end of March.